Los Alamos, NM
When I first moved to New Mexico in the late ‘90s, few places piqued my interest more than Los Alamos, the quaint town carved into the eastern slope of the Jemez Mountains. So much history! So much mystery!
My early forays had a narrow focus: to chase powder at Pajarito, the modest-but-fun ski hill five miles west of—and 2,000 feet above—town. But as I discovered all the area had to offer, that powder addiction turned into broader exploration and adventure.
It would be easy to spend days immersed entirely in the history of the Manhattan Project, the infamous, then-classified enterprise to develop the atomic bomb. In fact, Los Alamos might not exist today were it not for the elite scientists who assembled there during World War II, using fake names and false addresses while working long hours in the secret lab. Point of fact: the ski area was originally built to provide the scientists with discrete winter recreation close to home.
Much of Los Alamos’s rich story is on display at the excellent Bradbury Science Museum. But for a deeper dive, visitors can visit the nearby Manhattan Project National Historic Park, ride along with Atomic Tours for narrated local highlights, and make a trip to the Oppenheimer House—the original residence of J. Robert Oppenheimer himself.
Los Alamos isn’t just about the country’s most famous science experiment, however. Long a sleepy hamlet nestled against the hills, these days the town of Los Alamos is a bustling, diverse community with a growing list of amenities and attractions. Winterfest traditionally kicks off the holiday season in early December. In January you can catch the Backcountry Film Festival, featuring some of the year’s best short adventure films. In March, while the days lengthen and warm and before the snow has vanished, Pajarito hosts its lively Skiesta, a kind of Mardi Gras on the slopes.
The region’s cultural and natural history are also worth exploring. The Los Alamos History Museum provides a guided 1.5-mile walking tour of the area that takes you back more than 1,000 years. Better yet, head to nearby Bandelier National Monument to see ancient ruins and cliff dwellings left behind by the Anasazi, who inhabited the Pajarito Plateau for some 400 years. Most recently the land has been occupied by the Jicarilla Apache and Pueblo tribes.
Not far away, along the Jemez Scenic Byway (worth a drive in itself), is the Valles Calderas National Preserve, a vast volcanic basin teeming with wildlife that is popular with cross-country skiers and snowshoers in the winter. If you’ve traveled this far, it’s just a short drive over to Jemez Hot Springs, a cozy resort with naturally fed pools in a rugged mountain setting.
Each season seems to bring more dining and entertainment to town—or at least more people to the existing ones. Among the more popular gathering places is Bathtub Row Brewing, on Central Park Square (and just a block from the Los Alamos History Museum). I’m particularly fond of their flagship beer, the Hoppenheimer IPA. The brewery doesn’t serve food, but locals like to grab tacos from El Rigoberto’s, right next door, to accompany their drafts. Another great local brewery is Boese Brothers, offering quality subs and sandos, along with regular live music.
Los Alamos has a few dining spots worth a visit. For top-notch coffee and fresh pastries, try the French-style patisserie Fleur de Lys on Trinity Drive. You’ll find impressively good sushi at both Origami and Cafe Sushi. There’s a nice, quaint vibe at Viola’s, a family-run cafe with authentic New Mexican offerings. And Blue Window, a moderately upscale bistro, offers entrees ranging from enchiladas to scallops, and a well-curated wine list. Another popular spot in neighboring White Rock, just a few minutes down the road from Los Alamos, is Pig+Fig, a casual cafe with great salads and baked goods. Prefer the true Los Alamos local’s experience? Drop into the Smith’s grocery store, where you’ll find a busy bar and tasty wood-fired pizza.
Lodging in Los Alamos is basic—think Holiday Inn and Best Western—but comfy and affordable. For a splurge, head about 30 miles east to the Four Seasons Rancho Encantado, a deluxe resort tucked into the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo mountains. Visiting Los Alamos entails a slight detour from the primary winter travel corridor between Albuquerque and Taos, but it’s a worthy diversion. Time it right and the Pajarito powder can be excellent and the crowds non-existent. Stay a while and you’ll come away enriched by the town’s compelling history, one of the greatest stories of the 20th century.
Article by: Nick Heil