Unlike so many other sights in New Mexico, which are cloaked in centuries of history, Los Alamos is an emblem of the modern age. During World War II, what had been only an elite, rugged boys’ school was requisitioned by the army to become the top-secret base for development of the nuclear bomb, home for a time to J. Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Feynman, Neils Bohr, and other science luminaries.
The Manhattan Project and its aftermath, the Cold War arms race, led to the establishment of Los Alamos National Labs (LANL). The makeshift military base soon grew into “The Nuke City,” a town of nearly 20,000 people (if you count the “suburb” of White Rock, just down the hill on Highway 4).
The highway up the mountainside is wider than it used to be, but the winding ascent to “Lost Almost”—as the first scientists dubbed their officially nonexistent camp—still carries an air of the clandestine.
The town itself has a jarring newness about it, only emphasized by the dramatic, timeless landscape spreading out in all directions from the mesa edge on which it’s perched. The vertical mountainside that forms the backdrop for the town is still recovering from the Cerro Grande forest fire that tore through in 2000, when the entire population had to be evacuated, but it’s still a beautiful starting point for hikes—after you’ve gone to the museums and cruised Bikini Atoll Road, Trinity Boulevard, and Oppenheimer Drive.