This Small Town in New Mexico Is Hiding 3 National Parks and Sites — Plus Ancient Ruins and a Volcanic Caldera

Planning a trip to Los Alamos, New Mexico, might just be the perfect way to celebrate National Park Week.

Autumn colors at Valles Caldera in New Mexico.

Daniel A. Leifheit/Getty Images

Los Alamos, New Mexico, was first put on the map during World War II because the atomic bomb was developed and created there. But at first glance, it’s hard to imagine this community, which is built on four mesas — Barranca Mesa, North Mesa, Los Alamos Mesa, and South Mesa — was once a bomb testing ground.

These days, Los Alamos draws travelers interested in exploring some of the state’s best (and surprisingly undiscovered) national parks and sites. Within a 30-minute drive from downtown Los Alamos — and in some cases, a five-minute walk — there are three national parks and sites: Bandelier National Monument; Valles Caldera National Preserve; and the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Plus, access to all three parks is free on Saturday, April 22 to celebrate National Park Week, which runs from April 22 to April 30 this year.

“Our three national parks are within a five-minute walk to a 30-minute drive from downtown Los Alamos,” said Kelly Stewart, a spokesperson from Los Alamos County’s Economic Development Division, in a press release shared with Travel + Leisure on March 21. “Each park represents a different era, culture, and place in time and all include outdoor recreation opportunities, from fishing in a sleeping super volcano to exploring Ancient Puebloan cavates to touring the downtown historic district. When you return to town, there are award-winning eateries, breweries, and attractions to explore.”

One of the prehistoric site of earth dwelling ruins where it has been preserved in Bandelier National Monument

Cheri Alguire/Getty Images

The closest site to downtown Los Alamos is Manhattan Project National Historical Park, a park that pays homage to the work done by scientists and Nobel Prize winners to imagine and build the atomic bomb. Visitors can pop into the Los Alamos History Museum or visit the award-winning Bradbury Science Museum, which has replicas of the Little Boy and Fat Man atomic bombs. Film buffs will want to make the journey to the site before "Oppenheimer," a film by Christopher Nolan featuring Cillian Murphy, Robert Downey Jr., and Matt Damon, among others, releases in July 2023.

Those looking for nature and solitude will want to head west to the Valles Caldera National Preserve, a 89,000-acre preserve that protects one of the world’s seven super volcanoes. The Valles Caldera has trails for hikers, bikers, and horseback riders as well as plenty of fishing and camping. If you’re lucky, you might spot an elk or a golden eagle, while almost everyone who stays in the preserve after dark is treated to dark, starry skies

Directly south of Los Alamos is the Bandelier National Monument, an ancient Puebloan historical site with cliff dwellings and petroglyphs. Perhaps most notably, visitors can climb ladders and physically step inside the homes of ancient Puebloans while enjoying the expansive views afforded from the cliff perch. Bandelier National Monument also has an expansive trail network.

Entrance fees to all three parks are waived on Saturday, April 22 to kick off National Park Week, and there is never a fee to visit the Manhattan Project National Historical Park. Los Alamos is just over a 30-minute drive from Santa Fe and an hour-and-a-half from Albuquerque.

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