Etched in stone at the entrance to the city, and displayed on bright blue
banners all over town, is the motto, "Los Alamos: Where Discoveries
Los Alamos is not only famous for its role as a leader in scientific
discoveries, there is also a lot for visitors to discover in the
area. Jim and I like learning about its history, from
cataclysmic geological forces that formed the mountains a million years
ago to ancestral Native Americans who lived here 900 years ago to the
scientists at the National Laboratory who have been pioneers in
technological innovation since the early 1940s.
We're having fun exploring the city, the mountains, and the surrounding
area via foot and truck. I'll have several entries that showcase some of
the cultural, historical, and recreational activities that visitors and
residents can enjoy such as Bandelier National Monument and other
ancestral Pueblo sites, the Jemez Mountain
National Scenic Byway,
the Valles Caldera National Preserve,
the Rio Grande overlook at White Rock, and
various parts of the extensive trail system through town and the
View of Bayo Canyon and the distant Sangre de
from the N. Bayo Bench Trail in Los Alamos.
We also enjoy browsing in bookstores, museums, and art galleries. There
are plenty of those to keep you busy in the Los Alamos area, too. For
other types of shopping opportunities you'll have to do your own
research. We aren't big on shopping as a way to kill time, especially on
Los Alamos has had other monikers. Because of its history as the site of the
development of the first nuclear bombs during World War II, it is also called
the Atomic City and the Secret City. Although we couldn't take a tour through the technical areas
of the huge (38 square miles!) Los Alamos National
adjacent to town, I'll mention some of its history and show photos
from the Bradbury Science
Museum, the public arm of LANL.
LET'S TAKE A WALK
One of the best ways to discover Los Alamos is to start with the official
walking tour, which covers local history "from the stone age to
the atomic age in 12 blocks," then explore some more on your own. I'll just hit
some of the high points on the walking tour here. You can get lots of street
and trail maps and other brochures from the very helpful folks at the visitors'
A little fast-forward through history is in order before we start our
Ancestral Pueblo peoples first inhabited the Pajarito Plateau around Los
Alamos in approximately 1100 CE (Common Era, formerly known as AD). After they
left the area for more fertile ground along the Rio Grande River in the 1500s,
it was subsequently settled by Spaniards, then other Hispanic and Anglo homesteaders, merchants,
loggers, miners, farmers, and ranchers.
There! Nine hundred years of history in two sentences: that's gotta
be the most succinct I've ever been in my life!
Display at the Los Alamos Historical
(I'll talk more about the ancient and modern Pueblo people in another couple
of entries. I have lots of interesting pictures of old dwellings. In fact, I'll
go even farther back and also tell you about the explosion that formed the
Jemez Mountains, nearby mesas, and a giant caldera a million
years ago. All of that will definitely take more than two sentences!)
In 1917, one of the most successful ranches was purchased by an entrepreneur
named Ashley Pond and turned into an exclusive school for "privileged eastern
boys." The curriculum was rigorous both academically and physically. The
Alamos Ranch School buildings and property were operated for 26 years until the
federal government decided it was the perfect place for its top-secret
Manhattan Project in 1943-1947. During World War II the Army Corps of Engineers
took over the entire
mesa and sealed it for their maximum security project to end the war:
the development of the atomic bomb.
"Some recent work by E. Fermi and L.
Szilard leads me to expect that the element uranium may be
turned into a new and important source of energy in the
- Albert Einstein, 1939
That was the end of the Ranch School and all privately-owned property on the
Pajarito Plateau until the buildings were removed and the post-war laboratory
was moved to the mesas south of town.
The Los Alamos Historical Museum and Book Shop now occupies the
cottage that was originally built for guests at the Ranch School
in 1918, then used as auxiliary guest quarters during the
Manhattan Project. It is the oldest continually-inhabited
building in town.
Considering the modest log-and-stone exterior, I was pleasantly
surprised at how much information is beautifully presented
inside. It literally covers millions of years of geologic,
cultural, and political history. This little museum is free and it's a real gem, not to
Nearby Fuller Lodge (below) was built ten years later to hold the Ranch
School's dining room, kitchen, guest rooms, and nurses'
quarters. According to the walking tour map, the original
structure was built with 771 massive pine logs. Most are placed
vertically, not horizontally:
After the Manhattan Project, wings were added to the building so
it could become a hotel. Now it is a community building used for
social gatherings, meetings, an arts center for local and
regional artists, an archive and research library for the
historical museum, and offices for the local arts council.
Several city parks surround Fuller Lodge, the historical museum,
an ancient pueblo site, an old homesteading cabin, and historic
Bathtub Row. All are busy around lunchtime on warm spring
Memorial Rose Garden near Fuller Lodge
This reminds me of the foot bridge on the AT across the James
River in Virginia, named after a fella named Foot. I mused that
it was the Foot Foot Bridge.
Ashley Pond (guess who that's named after??) is right across
Central Avenue from Fuller Lodge. Now a popular park for
residents and visitors, the pond was used for recreation by the
boys at the Ranch School in the '20s and '30s. Students got a
kick out of naming the pond "Ashley Pond" after their founder.
Blocks of ice
were cut from the pond in the winter and stored in the Ice
House, which no longer stands. Now there is a monument to the
Manhattan Project on the Ice House site.
During WWII the Project's laboratories surrounded the pond;
nuclear components of the Trinity device were assembled there.
Those buildings are gone now and have been replaced by public
offices and private businesses.
You'd never guess the history of the place just by looking at
this serene setting now.
The pond is surrounded by inviting walkways, grassy hills, and
varied sculptures that belong to the county's art collection. It
appears to be a popular gathering place for people of all ages.
One of the nearby sculptures, "Touch the Sky" by Jane DeDecker, commemorates the
devastating Cerro Grande wildfire that destroyed about 400 Los
Alamos homes and 48,000 acres of trees in the mountains west of
town in 2000. The Jemez Mountain Trail Runs pass through part of
the burn area, which is gradually recovering.
Two views of DeDecker's "Touch the Sky"
I was a bit surprised to find an old Native American dwelling
site (below) in the middle of town. It was built about 1225 CE by
ancestors of modern-day Pueblo groups that later moved to the
Rio Grande Valley. The rooms were built with blocks of "tuff,"
the volcanic material common in this area. You'll see lots more
"tuff" dwellings in the entries on Bandelier NM and the Tsankawi
The Ranch School appropriated some of the stones from the
ancient dwellings for their fire house, below, which would be seriously
frowned upon today!
Next to the firehouse is the Romero Cabin (below), an old house built in 1913 on a a
nearby mesa. It was one of many homesteads acquired by the government in 1942.
The building was moved to this in-town location next to the historical museum
in 1984. The original owner, Bences Gonzales, worked for the Ranch School, then
the Army, and then the National Laboratory.
"Bathtub Row" is the name of a street and several houses along
its one-block length. It is on the west side of the pueblo site.
Originally faculty housing for the Ranch School, the houses
became home to J. Robert Oppenheimer, Director of the Manhattan
Project, and other top project leaders during WWII. Since the
homes were more plush than other military houses -- and had the
only bathtubs in town at the time -- the street was dubbed
This was the house Oppenheimer occupied:
Although the houses are fairly small they are nicely landscaped
and historically significant. All are in private hands now and
not open to the public.
The walking tour includes other buildings and former sites with
historical significance. I'll let you discover those!
THE BRADBURY SCIENCE MUSEUM & BOOKSTORE
The city of Los Alamos pretty much exists because of the
Laboratory, which covers a lot more ground than the
city itself. Almost twelve thousand people work in the Lab's
2,100 + individual facilities. Employees and contractors drive
to work not only from nearby Los Alamos and White Rock, but also
from as far away as Santa Fe (35 miles) and Albuquerque (90
miles!!). We know
several ultra runners who either currently work at LANL or who
have retired from there. They cover a wide range of professions
that mirror the multiple branches of scientific and technological
work at the facility.
The Lab began with a wartime mission to protect the free world.
That is still its primary mission: national security. As
such, most of it is off-limits to visitors. In addition to
defense, a wide range of programs are designed to solve problems
in the fields of energy, environment, health, space exploration,
and infrastructure. The Lab prides itself on being one of the
premier scientific institutions in the world, playing a role in
many discoveries and advancements in the fields of material
science, biotechnology, physics, chemistry, super computing,
modeling of complex systems, and others.
Inside the history gallery at the Bradbury
Because the technical areas of the Lab are not open for public
Bradbury Science Museum was
built to showcase the institution's history, national security
mission, and numerous scientific and technological research
projects. Even though Jim and I both visited the museum several
years ago, I didn't remember much of it and wanted to go back
this week for a refresher course.
The museum has dozens of high-tech interactive exhibits and
stationary displays to educate and entertain folks of all ages.
There are three main galleries focusing on defense, research,
and the history of the atomic age, a stage for live
demonstrations by the science education staff, an auditorium
that shows a film about the Manhattan Project and Los Alamos
during WWII, and a theatre that shows a film about the Lab's
current mission to maintain our country's aging weapons without
One of the displays in the research gallery
An interesting public forum space is reserved for the display of
"alternative perspectives" by groups who don't agree with the
role the Laboratory has played since 1943. I didn't take any
photos of that area but did take a picture of some anti-nuke
bumper stickers in a similar area at the historical museum. One
I've never seen before struck my sense of "gallows humor" and I
had to laugh:
"One nuclear bomb can ruin your whole day."
The Bradbury Museum, named for Norris Bradbury, the Lab's
director from 1945 to 1970, has its own interesting history. It
was first housed in the Ice House near Ashley Pond, opening to
visitors in 1954. It was later moved to another building with
additional space. When that also became too small to handle the
number of visitors it drew, the current building was opened in 1993.
Over 100,000 people now visit the museum each year. It is free
and open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New
OTHER ACTIVITIES IN LOS ALAMOS
We've really enjoyed our
visit to Los Alamos, a small,
high-altitude (7,500 feet) mountain town with about 18,000
residents. Another 6,000 people live in nearby White Rock. Los
Alamos has the feel of both an artists' colony and a college
town. It has one of the highest levels of educational attainment
of any community in this country because of its proximity to the
Lab. There are a lot of bright people employed there, and some
make their home in Los Alamos. It's not a cheap place to live,
however, so many of the employees choose to live in more
affordable communities farther away and commute.
Pretty spring-flowering shrub along Bathtub
Row; many lilacs were also in bloom.
With the detailed maps we got at the visitors' center it was
easy to find our way around the three mesas on which the town is
built. Although we visited briefly in 2003 on a daytrip from
Santa Fe, we didn't remember much about the town so we had to
learn our way around. We drove on quite a few of the downtown
and neighborhood streets during the ten days we visited. We
enjoyed the visual treat of the many attractive homes and yards,
spring flowers and trees, public works of art, historic
buildings, interesting shops, neighborhood parks, golf courses,
and scenic views of mountains and canyons.
View of the Jemez Mountains from Ashley
Recreational opportunities abound here in every season. Since
we're basically snow-phobes, however, a late spring visit suited
us just fine for our trail running and walking adventures. So
far the weather has been just gorgeous -- pleasantly warm, sunny, dry.
We've discovered it can get quite windy and chilly on the mesas,
especially at night, while down in a protected canyon only 200
feet lower it can feel ten or fifteen degrees hotter where the
air is still.
I've done one weight workout at the local YMCA, which welcomes
visitors in the "Away Program." I'm still doing lots of physical
therapy in the camper for my injured rotator cuffs. Jim's
tapering for his race and I haven't had time to get out on our
mountain bike yet but all of the paved trails and some of the
dirt ones are easy enough for us to ride if we ever come back
and have more time for cycling. Skilled cyclists would love the
more gnarly options around here.
Jim and I don't eat out much, either at home or when we're
traveling. It's always fun to try some local fare, however. We
were a bit disappointed in a lunch at DeColores Restaurant,
adjacent to our campsite, but we really enjoyed the fruit
smoothies and fruit bagels at Ruby K's Cafe and wish we'd had
lunch there instead. Their selection of sandwiches and soups
looks delicious; too bad we didn't discover it until too late. Ruby K's is a sponsor of the Jemez race, providing lots of bagels.
Colorful flowers and banners near Ruby K's
Our only other dining experience in Los Alamos held a nice
surprise: live belly dancing by two accomplished young
We chose the Pyramid Cafe on Saturday night, the day of our
arrival. We just saw it in passing; it is located in the
same block as the visitors' center. The restaurant
features delicious Greek and Mediterranean cuisine. After some
tough decision-making, we both chose Greek dishes that were
large enough that we took home leftovers. I enjoyed my Souvlaki, marinated and grilled kebobs with chicken
breast meat and chunks of vegetables served over basmati rice.
Jim also liked his Moussaka, a baked, layered dish with sautéed
eggplant, beef, cheese, tomato sauce, and herbs. Our dinners
both came with pita bread wedges and a large Greek salad with
feta cheese -- and lots of entertainment! The women are part of
a group of three called Saltanah Dancers. They also perform at the Pyramid Restaurant in
Santa Fe, weddings, parties, festivals, and other events. They
were good and we tipped them well.
CAN YOU HEAR ME NOW?
After seeing/hearing how much loud traffic passes our camper
each morning and afternoon on weekdays, we checked out the only other approved camping areas near
Los Alamos at Bandelier National Monument and above the
Pajarito Ski Area. Despite the racket, we decided we were already in the best place
for us: the county-run RV parking area where we
landed on Saturday. TV and cell reception (think internet) are
great up high on the mesa, the price is right, and the location
is convenient. We can deal with all the traffic noise (think
earplugs) until we
are able to move to the race finish area on Friday.
aren't in the camper much anyway -- there's too much to do here!
Mountains to climb . . . the Jemez as seen
from Kwage Mesa
As much as we enjoy driving and walking around town, we are even
more interested in exploring the extensive network of trails in
and around Los Alamos (especially some of the Jemez Mountain
Trail Run course) and visiting several historical and scenic
sites in surrounding counties. I'll talk about those forays in
the next entries.
"Runtrails & Company" - Sue Norwood, Jim O'Neil, and Cody
the Ultra Lab
© 2009 Sue Norwood and Jim O'Neil