Throughout the pandemic, we'll keep publishing news to help you navigate the state of travel today (like whether travel insurance covers the coronavirus), as well as stories about places for you to put on your bucket list once it's safe to start going more far-flung.
Earlier this week, the tiny town of Los Alamos, New Mexico, won Liveability’s “Best Small Town” contest for its diversity, education, population growth, health, and civic engagement. Although we agree that the Atomic City scores well in these areas, it’s the area’s outdoor scene that really blows us away (no pun intended). In fact, Los Alamos scored a whopping 84 on Outside’s Best Towns index (see below for judging criteria), on par, per capita, with places such as Missoula and Anchorage.
Here’s what you need to know about America’s most secret town.
Thirty-five miles northwest of Santa Fe, Los Alamos straddles a series of canyons that feed into the Rio Grande Valley below. The Sangre de Cristo Mountains loom on the eastern horizon, and the rugged Jemez range towers immediately to the west. This landscape is particularly gorgeous at the beginning or end of the day, when the sun is rising or setting above one range and reflecting off the other.
It was on this high desert plateau that the atomic bomb was developed during World War II. The crowning achievement of Robert Oppenheimer, the bomb solidified the town’s place in history, and—as the Manhattan Project morphed into the famous Los Alamos National Laboratory—ensured that Los Alamos would remain shrouded in mystery. Today, it remains a town of secret nuclear experiments and over-the-top security, where plutonium is (falsely) rumored to seep into the drinking water and the local science museum boasts full-scale replicas of Fat Man and Little Boy.
Eleven thousand of the world’s best scientists living together in the mountains makes for a very intelligent and diverse (not to mention socially awkward) community. But this culture and brilliance are exactly what set Los Alamos apart from anywhere else in New Mexico—and the world. Well, that and the fact that its location offers unparalleled opportunities for outdoor enthusiasts. You don’t have to be a scientist to appreciate the 37 percent grade of Pajarito Mountain or the volcanic-rock singletrack that is oh-so-good for mountain biking.
Here are six Atomic City events to check out:
Jemez Mountain Trail Runs
Held every Memorial Day weekend, the Jemez races—a half marathon, 50K, and 50-miler, now in their ninth year—are considered among the toughest in the country. Technical trails, substantial elevation changes, steep climbs, torturous descents, scree fields, stream crossings, and more—all at altitude—make for a tough but scenic race. Anton Krupicka, who won the 2014 50-miler, called the stretch between miles 45 and 50 “spectacular. A carpety trail traversed along the gently descending ridge for miles and miles at a grade perfectly suited for running downhill fast. Seriously, it is one of the more quality descents I’ve experienced in the sport.”
Runners can enjoy well-stocked aid stations along the way but should carry their own water—the only cups in this race are handmade pots from nearby Jemez Pueblo that runners can claim at the end. “The finish was a perfect example of the intimate, community feel to this event, which was a big reason I wanted to run it,” Krupicka wrote. “Selfless volunteers, tables and tables of very good Southwestern food, and general mirth defined the atmosphere.”
Out of town on Memorial Day? Save the date for Pajarito Trail Fest, held on the ski hill in October. Run 15 mile or 10K under golden aspen and, more often than not, snow.
Refuel: The deli at the Los Alamos Cooperative Market is full of fresh, local, organic options that range from breakfast burritos to green chile enchiladas. Be sure to check out the baked goods, which include tasty treats for vegan and gluten-free customers.
Co-op baked goods and coffee are also available at Fusion Multisport, the only bike and running shop in town.
If going downhill fast is your idea of a good time, the inaugural three-day Los Alamos Rock 'n Roll EnduroFest in early August is not to be missed. Start at the top of 10,440-foot Pajarito Mountain and zip down 7.5 miles and 3,900 vertical feet of free-ride and XC trails until you hit smooth singletrack. Then, catch the shuttle and do it all again, or just hang out on the ski hill and enjoy live music and local beer from Marble, Santa Fe Brewing, and La Cumbre Brewery.
Sponsored in part by the Los Alamos Tuffriders (the local IMBA chapter), the weekend also features clinics, guided rides, barbecue, and a kids’ race.
Road bikes more your thing? Don’t miss the Tour of Los Alamos, the oldest bicycle race in the Southwest.
Refuel: On the ski hill, order a burger from the Pajarito Mountain Cafe and sit on the lodge deck to watch cyclists scream down the slopes. Back in town, stop by Pajarito Brewpub and Grill for a bison burger and one (or more) of the 30 beers on tap.
Los Alamos Triathlon
Like a lot of things in the Secret City, the mid-August Los Alamos Triathon is just a little off: It starts with the bike. But no one seems to mind—now in its 40th year, the race is the oldest continuously run triathlon in the country. Riders start at 7,400 feet at the Walkup Aquatic Center and charge hard to “the back gate,” as locals call the end of lab property on the west side of town. Once back in the transition area, the swim is 400 meters in the highest-altitude Olympic-sized pool in the country, and the run is a mostly flat out-and-back 5K with stunning views of the Jemez on the out.
Sound too watered down for you? Opt instead for the Atomic Man Duathlon, hosted by local multisport club the Triatomics, with two course options named Fat Man and Little Boy. (To geek out even more on World War II history, afterward visit the Bradbury Science Museum, which offers more than 40 interactive exhibits about the Manhattan Project and the lab’s role in national security.)
Refuel: Ruby K’s Bagel Cafe is just a half-mile walk from the race finish and offers plenty of homemade bagels, soups, and salads. Get the full Los Alamos experience: Order the “Up & Atom,” eggs and sausage topped with salsa and melted cheddar on a green chile bagel.
If shredding powder instead of singletrack is more your style, keep Pajarito in mind during ski season. The snow has not been great lately, but on a good year the mountain has about 300 acres of skiable terrain, including tree, bump, and Nordic skiing. At the top of the mountain, take a rest in the giant blue chair. You’ll have a clear view of the Sangres to the east and the lab below—but that doesn’t mean you'll know what’s going on down there.
Los Alamos by the Numbers
(judging criteria for Outside’s Best Towns index)
- Population: 18,191
- Income: $124,335
- House price: $296,597
- Unemployment: 3.9%
- Acres of greenspace within city limits: 84
- Number of farmer’s markets and how many hours each are open: 1; 5.5 hours/week
- Miles of trails in the city limits (paved an unpaved): 63
- Number of breweries, yoga studios, and bike shops: 11
- Miles of bike lanes within the city: 12.3
Support Outside Online
Our mission to inspire readers to get outside has never been more critical. In recent years, Outside Online has reported on groundbreaking research linking time in nature to improved mental and physical health, and we’ve kept you informed about the unprecedented threats to America’s public lands. Our rigorous coverage helps spark important debates about wellness and travel and adventure, and it provides readers an accessible gateway to new outdoor passions. Time outside is essential—and we can help you make the most of it. Making a financial contribution to Outside Online only takes a few minutes and will ensure we can continue supplying the trailblazing, informative journalism that readers like you depend on. We hope you’ll support us. Thank you.