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Courtesy of Los Alamos Commerce & Development Corporation

First-Timer’s Guide: Los Alamos, New Mexico

This bizarro New Mexico town offers its visitors a macabre bit of American history, family-friendly skiing, and top-notch breakfast burritos.

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Perched more than 7,000 feet above sea level on a remote mesa in the American Southwest sits Los Alamos. The New Mexican town is home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), which was one of three pivotal research locations for the Manhattan Project—the top-secret World War II undertaking that would produce the world’s first atomic bomb. But this historic hamlet is more than the birthplace of nuclear weapons. The peculiar locale, which sits just 35 miles northwest of Santa Fe, is also the gateway to three national park sites: Bandelier National Monument, Valles Caldera National Preserve, and the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Here’s a rundown of some must-see spots during a trip to Los Alamos.

The Odometer: 353 miles (about a six-hour drive) from Denver, one-way

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Explore the Outdoors

Offering more than 150 miles of hiking and biking trails, Los Alamos is a hidden gem for outdoor lovers. At the top of your to-do list is the area’s most popular national park site: Bandelier National Monument. A milieu of mesa and canyons preserving the history and homes of the Ancestral Puebloans dating back more than 11,000 years. The 33,677-acre park also offers a cultural snapshot at the elevated Alcove House, which sits 140 feet above the Frijoles Canyon floor. Follow the Main Loop Trail (1.2 miles) to get to the wooden ladders and steps that lead to the cave.

Next, visit Valles Caldera National Preserve, which sits just an hour outside of Los Alamos. The preserve is a recent addition to the National Park System, and is named after the 13-mile-wide volcanic crater encloses. The terrain features mountainous meadows and plentiful wildlife; spend a day hiking, fishing or horseback riding in Valles Caldera to get the full experience. Don’t have enough time to venture an hour’s drive from town? Head to Ashley Pond Park in Los Alamos Historic District to feed geese, enjoy the water, and—in the summer—free Friday-night concerts.

Bandelier National Monument
Bandelier National Monument. Photo courtesy of Geo Clark / Flickr via Creative Commons

For Kids/Families

A great place to begin exploring Los Alamos, the Nature Center offers incredible views of the Jemez Mountains and tons of family-friendly activities (bonus: admission is free). Kids will enjoy viewing the demonstration gardens, getting grimy in the mud kitchen or nature play area, and meeting critters like Titus the tiger salamander, and Gilly the canyon tree frog. Be sure to check out the wildlife observation room and state-of-the-art planetarium.

Pajarito Mountain
Photo courtesy of Pajarito Mountain

Scope Out Some (Cheap) Skiing

Located just five miles west of downtown, the family-friendly Pajarito Mountain Ski Area (opening day is December 16) remains a best-kept secret in Los Alamos. Depending on the season, guests can ski, board, hike, or bike the area’s 300 acres of cleared terrain, some reaching elevations above 10,000 feet. During ski season, full-day adult lift tickets cost just $49—a third of what you’ll pay at many Colorado resorts.

Eat & Drink

Start your morning off with Chili Works, a tiny carry-out spot that dishes out the best breakfast burritos in town (with your choice of green or red chile, of course). After a full day of adventure, quench your thirst at The Bathtub Row Brewery Co-Op, named for the only nine buildings in Los Alamos in early World War II that housed full bathrooms with bathtubs. This brewery and taproom is where locals gather to sample locally brewed beer, as well as New Mexican wine and hard cider. For dinnertime, head to Blue Window Bistro, a brightly colored café offering fresh, local ingredients in popular dishes like gyros, double-cut pork chops, and Southwestern chicken. Serving the community for 30 years, the bistro is considered a Los Alamos institution.

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Bathtub Row Brewery
Bathtub Row Brewery Co-Op. Photo courtesy of howderfamily.com / Flickr via Creative Commons

Around Town

Established in November 2015, the Manhattan Project National Historical Park comprises several properties not yet accessible to the public. (This site is one of three locations that make up the Manhattan Project National Historical Park; the other two are located in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington.) In the meantime, however, visitors can tour its downtown properties on a self-guided walking tour, passing by homes inhabited by some of the world-famous scientists who worked on the Project. The tour route will also take you to the Los Alamos History Museum, housed in a 1918 infirmary that later served as guest quarters during the Manhattan Project. The $5 admission fee gets visitors into the Cold War exhibit located in the historic Bathtub Row home previously owned by Manhattan Project scientist and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Hans Bethe. And don’t forget to stop by Main Gate Park, the original LANL security gate that’s now the town’s entrance, for an only-in-Los-Alamos photo-op.

Main Gate Park
Main Gate Park in Los Alamos. Photo courtesy of Larry Lamsa / Flickr via Creative Commons

Shopping

Set in the heart of downtown, Fuller Lodge was once the main building of a private ranch school before the U.S. Army purchased the land as part of the Manhattan Project. This historic building now houses the Fuller Lodge Art Center, hosting several community art classes and events. It also includes the Gallery Gift Shop, where visitors can select from more than 100 local artists’ handmade masterpieces. If souvenirs are more your style, head to locally owned and operated department store CB Fox for fun Los Alamos T-shirts and local wares.

If You Do One Thing

The LANL remains the centerpiece of this lively town, so it’s only fitting to visit the LANL-run Bradbury Science Museum. Entry is free to this revered institution, where visitors can learn about the Lab’s history and current research projects throughout the museum’s 40 interactive exhibits. A kiosk gift shop also sells LANL souvenirs, where proceeds benefit STEM educational outreach in northern New Mexico.

Bradbury Science Museum
Bradbury Science Museum. Photo courtesy of PBS NewsHour / Flickr via Creative Commons

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