Hit 3 National Park Sites In One Trip At This Southwestern US Town

There's a reason why New Mexico is affectionately nicknamed "The Land of Enchantment." The sprawling Southwestern state is home to towering mountains, majestic deserts, and fascinating cultural attractions that lure millions of travelers annually. Major cities within the state, like Albuquerque and Santa Fe, have emerged as world-class tourist destinations, but New Mexico also has unique hidden gems that are well worth a trip.

On a series of beautiful mesas called the Pajarito Plateau, nestled within the mountains of Northern New Mexico, you'll find the vibrant community of Los Alamos. Initially founded in 1943, Los Alamos has continued to grow and remains an ideal place to experience outdoor recreation, history, and cutting-edge science and technology.

Los Alamos is within a 30-minute drive to three gorgeous National Parks and National Park Sites, including Bandelier National Monument, Valles Caldera National Preserve, and the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. With so much to explore, it's the perfect destination for every type of traveler. Within one trip, you'll be able to experience New Mexico's rugged landscape, museums, ancient ruins, and so much more.

Arriving in Los Alamos

Located in Northern New Mexico, Los Alamos can be easily reached by car from two of the state's larger cities. It's about 99 miles from Albuquerque, and you can drive there in as little as 1 hour and 40 minutes. The popular tourist destination of Santa Fe is also close by and can be reached in about 40 minutes.

Los Alamos could be easily visited as a day trip from either of these destinations. Still, for the ultimate experience, consider escaping the hustle and bustle of the larger cities and setting up a home base in Los Alamos for a few days. With a population of about 12,500 people according to the most recent census, Los Alamos has managed to retain a friendly small-town vibe. Residents and visitors love the combination of community, natural beauty, history, and culture.

Los Alamos has a fascinating history shrouded in secrecy. The United States government initially developed the area by constructing a state-of-the-art facility to build and test nuclear weapons during WWII. Science and technology still play an essential role as the town is home to the Los Alamos National Laboratory. In addition to locals and tourists, thousands of commuters head to the laboratory daily to work on space exploration, renewable energy, supercomputers, nuclear fusion, and national security.

Get up close and personal with geological marvels

Similar to Yellowstone National Park, the gorgeous landscape of Valles Caldera National Preserve was formed after a supervolcano erupted nearly 1.25 million years ago. While the terrain has existed for a long time, the preserve itself is one of the younger national park sites within the United States, having only been established in 2000. Before becoming a preserve, the area was inhabited by indigenous people for thousands of years who valued the place for its obsidian deposits, hunting opportunities, and other resources.

Nature lovers and geology fanatics can now experience 88,900 acres of picturesque meadows, woodlands, volcanic mounds, and wildlife. Hiking, horseback riding, and mountain biking are all popular ways to explore the park. When night falls, visitors will be treated to one of the most incredible night skies in the world. In 2021, Valles Caldera National Preserve was named an International Dark Sky Park, and various night sky viewing events are scheduled throughout the year.

Experience WWII history

History buffs and nature enthusiasts will find common ground while visiting Los Alamos and exploring the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. This site is located just minutes from Los Alamos city center, and you can walk there from most places around the city to explore historic buildings and learn about the secret operations that took place.

The Manhattan Project National Historical Park was established in 2015 and pays homage to the once top-secret work of scientists who worked together to create the first atomic bomb. Government officials chose the site to build the secret laboratory because its isolated location was ideal for a remote community where scientists and their families could live and work. During peak operations, the top-secret town reached a population of 6,000. Eventually, the first atomic bomb was constructed on-site.

Fans of WWII history and the movie "Oppenheimer" will particularly appreciate a visit to the unique site as it was home to Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer himself and other great minds on his team like Norris Bradbury, Richard Feynman, and Hans Bethe, who eventually built the first atomic bomb right in Los Alamos. Due to its massive significance in developing nuclear weapons, Los Alamos has been tagged as an American World War II Heritage City.

Explore prehistoric cave dwellings

While the Manhattan Project offers a glimpse into more recent history and scientific revolution, Bandelier National Monument allows visitors to walk in the footsteps of some of the first Indigenous people who inhabited New Mexico. Within the over 33,000-acre preserve, you can take in the canyon's beauty, mesas, and rugged cliffs. Bandelier National Monument can be reached in about a 20-minute drive from downtown Los Alamos.

The area was once inhabited by the Ancestral Pueblo people, who utilized the unique geography to create incredible cave-like dwellings carved into the rocky cliffs. The Indigenous community thrived there from around A.D. 1150 to A.D. 1550 before droughts made living there difficult, and they moved on to greener pastures along the Rio Grande.

Today, visitors can explore some fascinating cave dwellings accessible via wooden ladders. The majority of the residences can be found near Frijoles Canyon. To reach the epic Alcove House, once home to nearly 25 Ancestral Pueblo people, take the Main Loop Trail. Then, climb the four wooden ladders and stone stairs about 140 feet until you reach the incredible cave house. In addition to the dwellings, petroglyphs can be found throughout the park.

More things to do

With so much to do around Los Alamos, you'll likely be exhausted by the time you return to town each evening, but make sure to carve out some time to explore Los Alamos itself. The small town has a shockingly vibrant artistic and cultural scene with the possibility to catch live performances, art shows, and exciting lectures.

Lively fairs and festivals are held throughout the year, so check the local event calendar to see if your trip coincides with a fun community gathering like the annual Kite Festival. Great restaurants, plenty of museums, farmers markets, and unique local shops and businesses make Los Alamos an ideal destination for every type of traveler.

Along with the national park sites, Los Alamos has plenty of other wild lands to explore. The town is a dream come true for outdoor enthusiasts, with plenty of recreation opportunities year-round. You'll be near more than 200 miles of hiking and biking paths. Feeling sporty? Test your skills at the Los Alamos County Golf Course. If you're visiting during the cooler months, enjoy winter sports like skiing and snowboarding on Pajarito Mountain.

When seeking lodging in town, there are a few small inns and hotels, including the picturesque Pueblo Canyon Inn and Gardens, and chain hotels like Hampton Inn & Suites. Camping and R.V. Parks are another great option, but booking your accommodations well in advance is a good idea.