The Insider’s Guide to Los Alamos, New Mexico
My parents have always been adventurous. They have generously shared their love of the outdoors with their children and grandchildren. Growing up in Los Alamos, I got do many outdoor activities such as hiking, skiing, camping, and rafting. Besides my parents love for the outdoors, it also helped that so many of these activities were close by. Los Alamos is small community set up against the Jemez (pronounced Hey-mess) Mountains in Northern New Mexico. The availability of outdoor activities including rafting, hiking, skiing and camping and Los Alamos history can make it a unique place to visit. There are several ancient pueblo ruins in the surrounding area. The town itself also has a unique history. The town site was built in the 1940’s by the US government and is known for the town that helped develop the Atomic bomb.
When we went to visit my parents for their 50th wedding anniversary, I enjoyed showing Sydney many of the places I loved as a kid. I thought I might also share some of my favorite things to do in Los Alamos with you. So here is the real insider’s guide to Los Alamos:
Bandelier National Park
Unfortunately to my great disappointment, the Bandelier National Park’s visitor center was closed. This was due to the Las Conchas Fire this last summer and recent flash floods. Bandelier’s visitor center is set in the bottom of Frijoles (pronounced free-ho-lays) Canyon. Behind the visitor center is a trail that wanders along the canyon bottom. Along the trail are the ancient ruins of the ancestral Pueblo People. One can see petroglyphs (pictures carved in the rock), pictographs (paintings on rocks), caves hollowed in the volcanic tuff on the cliff side and several kivas (round buildings used for ceremonial purposes). Many of the caves along the cliff wall can be explored by visitors and are accessed by wooden ladders. Several of caves still contain mud plaster, darkened roofs from the fires, and holes were wooden beams supported houses in front of the caves. Continuing down the trail is the highlight for most people – Ceremonial cave. Ceremonial cave is set high in the cliffs accessed by 140 feet of wooden ladders. Though the ladders are attached to the side of the cliff, they still wobble around when one climbs up. Ceremonial cave is definitely not for those who are fearful of heights. If you are interested in seeing wild life there is plenty of this too, ranging from squirrels to deer to bats. There is a bat cave along the main trail just above a nice pictograph of a plume snake. If you are there at dusk you can see the bats starting to come out in search of bugs.
Some of my favorite memories of Bandelier are:
- The promise of soft serve ice cream from my dad after hiking from the bottom of Frijoles canyon
- Family picnics and playing in the stream with my sisters that runs along the trail (boy that stream was surprisingly cold numbing my feet)
- Going to the evening programs. My mom did several of those evening program talks.
- Helping my mom with her field studies in Bandelier after the La Mesa Fire.
Ceremonial cave was always impressive to me; the only problem was going back down. There is just something about going down wooden ladders. For some reason, I can’t turn myself around on the ladder going down. I end up facing forward scooting my bottom along the ladder rungs. Facing forward probably makes everything look much scarier.
Tsankawi (pronounced San-ka-wee)
Tsankawi is another ancient pueblo site. Though Tsankwi has not been excavated, it is still as interesting as the ruins in Frijoles Canyon. Tsankawi has multiple caves that can be explored and wooden ladders to climb. Though more impressive are the shards of pottery that litter the ground and the number of petroglyphs. Many of the shards of pottery still have painted designs. While visiting my parents, we hiked at Tsankawi 3 times. Each time we went at different times of the day. The change in lighting revealed new petroglyphs. Despite walking this trail 3 times, I am sure that we still missed some of the petroglyphs. The petroglyphs include plumed snakes, the sun and one of the best flute players I have ever seen. Sydney and I had a blast climbing through caves exploring, while Jason took pictures of the petroglyphs. Unfortunately some of the best caves have been blocked off by the park service due to increased visitors. As a child, I spent hours exploring the caves and climbing using the toe holds along the cliff wall instead of the ladders. My parents were always patient allowing us to spend as much time as we liked. One of my favorite memories of Tsankawi, besides climbing in the caves, is the trail. The trail is so worn into the volcanic tuff that at some points it is difficult to step out of the path. At one point along the trail, the sides of the path are above your head and you have to turn sideways to fit. Some advice to those who take this hike, wearing shorts can be hazardous as the volcanic tuff is like sandpaper on your skin.
Pajarito Mountain (Los Alamos Ski Hill)
On our last visit, my parents took us up to Pajarito Mountain, locally known as the Los Alamos Ski hill. This is where both of my parents, sisters, and I learned to ski. On this trip, we just enjoyed a nice lunch at the ski lodge. I had frito pie which was delicious. The ski lodge even offered hamburgers with green chili of course. During the summer, the ski hill now has a couple of chair lifts running. You can bring your mountain bike and ride down. I enjoyed watching people zoom down the hill on their bikes. After lunch, we then drove over to Camp May to look at some of the wild flowers. We also saw several cute ground squirrels peeking out from the rocks. If you are feeling adventurous you can hike to the top of Camp May which is over 10,000 foot elevation. At the top is an impressive view of the San de Cristo Mountains and Sante Fe and in the other direction, the Valle Caldera. At one time, Valle Caldera was a super volcano. When it exploded it sent ash around the world. On the drive down the ski hill, we pulled off to take pictures. There are some great views of the town of Los Alamos. However, since my childhood the scenery has greatly changed due to the two recent forest fires around Los Alamos. Very little forest remains around the town site.
White Rock Canyon
Growing up in Los Alamos, it was great to have a canyon right down the block from our house. I spent many hours playing on the canyon rim and camping overnight at the bottom of the canyon. There is a short, but strenuous hike to the bottom of the canyon. Only 1 mile, but it is all uphill on the way back. At the bottom is a nice stream with a good swimming hole and the Rio Grande. Unfortunately though, on this visit, I couldn’t convince my family to take the hike with me. Their reluctances: something about the elevation and walking 1 mile up hill on the way out. Perhaps next time we visit. We did enjoy walking over to the rim and to the seasonal waterfall. At the seasonal waterfall, Sydney found several tad pools in the pools of the water. My brother-law and niece went in search of a geocache and were able to find it. Don’t worry Scott – where it is I will never tell. We also admired the tire art at the bottom of the canyon. Those tires have been at the bottom of White Rock Canyon since I can remember. Some adventurous soul hikes down every so often and rearranges those tires into words and pictures. It is now currently in the shape of a pot leaf.
If you are interested in the history of Los Alamos and the development of the atomic bomb, the Bradbury Museum is the place to visit. The cost is free, but donations are accepted. It tells the history of a secret town, where anyone living in the town had the address of PO Box 1663 Sante Fe NM, all letters going in and out were censored and all birth certificates listed the place of birth as this PO Box. It has some great hands on exhibits for kids, a replica of the first atomic bomb, and several interesting movies. Sydney and I stepped in briefly to the museum, while we waited for Jason to get his haircut. Sydney had fun trying to solve the puzzles. Having grown up in Los Alamos, I have been to the Bradbury Museum multiple times. But, I never grow tired of going there
Though security around Los Alamos has changed significantly since the 1940’s, (you no longer have to go through a guard station before entering town and my birth certificate reflects place of birth as Los Alamos) I think my husband was still impressed. The first time I brought Jason to Los Alamos, we drove up Pajarito road (pronounced pah-ha-ree-toe) to show him where my mom and dad worked. Along the road there was a guard tower with machine gun mounts. Until Jason pointed it out and expressed how unusual this was, I never really thought about. Due to 9/11, the National Lab has made some changes to security. Pajarito road has been closed for people who do not have the proper security clearance and there now several extra security check points that only open during times of concerns around security.
Where to Stay
So if you love the outdoors, find the history of Los Alamos interesting, I would encourage you to visit. There are several hotels and bed and breakfasts in Los Alamos that you can stay at. This last visit, due to limited space at my parents’ house, we stayed in a nice bed and breakfast – Casa Del Ray in White Rock. The breakfast is excellent. The owner maintains a beautiful garden with several bird feeders. While eating breakfast each morning we enjoyed watching hummingbirds feed. The owner is very nice and interesting to talk to. She too has travelled around the world and is willing to share her adventures.