This interesting National Monument protects three separate Spanish missions that date to the 1600s, though its main visitor center in Mountainair, New Mexico is not next to any of them. Their location near salt flats led to the name Salinas and contributed to the pueblos’ abandonment when a major drought struck in the 1670s.
Gran Quivira, Quarai, Abó, film at main visitor center
Gran Quivira has the remains of two churches (the second unfinished at the time of abandonment) and the most significantly excavated pueblo ruins (with kivas) of the three sites.
Each of the three pueblos has a paved walkway that leads
through its ruins that leaves from the parking lot and past its contact station
staffed by a National Park Service employee.
The church at Quarai is the most complete of the three sites and its red walls photograph well at sunset.
These expansive ruins built in the desert between AD850-1150 represent the best collection of Ancestral Puebloan architecture in the southwest U.S. Over 400 miles of historic roads led to this ceremonial center. Its multiple great houses were first protected in 1907 and can take days to explore fully.
Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, petroglyphs, supernova
Walking through the short doorways inside D-shaped Pueblo Bonito, you can admire the intricacy of the walls that have stood over 1,000 years. So much effort was put into building monumental structures in this challenging locale, then it was mysteriously abandoned, making this remarkable park is an awesome place to ponder human civilization, past and future.
A free backcountry permit is required to hike all trails in
the park. Our favorite passes Kin Kletso
and Casa Chiquita 3 miles one-way to a unique pictograph that may depict a
supernova that occurred in AD1054.
While mostly made of mud bricks, the wood used in the
structures had to be carried over 50 miles from the nearest forests to reach
this spot. An estimated 200,000 trees
were moved over 300 years of construction without the use of pack animals or
During the National Park Service (NPS) centennial in 2016, a
new, ambitious park was established linking three far-flung sites in the states
of Washington, New Mexico, and Tennessee.
The purpose is to tell the story of the “Manhattan Project,” the
military code name during World War II for the secret undertaking to create the
world’s first atomic weapon.
Bradbury Science Museum (NM), American Museum of Science and
Energy (TN), Hanford Reach National Monument (WA)
In 1942, hundreds of eastern Tennessee families were
displaced in order to construct Oak Ridge National Laboratory where experimental
nuclear reactors produced plutonium and enriched uranium. More than 75,000 people hurriedly built and
operated this brand new industrial complex, which continues to be used as a
Department of Energy research facility to this day. Due to security and safety concerns, visitors
can only enter on a 3-hour bus tour that leaves from the American Museum of
Science and Energy. The tour is well
worth your time, as it is currently the only way to see Y-12, X-10, and K-25
and learn more about what those code names really mean.
The Hanford Reach is one of the last free-flowing sections
of the Columbia River in eastern Washington and is an important site for salmon
spawning. The area is ecologically
pristine, mostly untouched by development since it became the Hanford Nuclear
Reservation in 1943. It is home to the
world’s first full-scale nuclear reactor that produced the plutonium used by
Los Alamos National Laboratories for its scientific breakthroughs in 1945. Since 2000, Hanford Reach National Monument
has been managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and much of the area is
off limits. Other than boating on the
river, the best place to get a feel for the area is to walk around the Ringold
The free Bradbury Science Museum in Los Alamos, New Mexico offers
tourists a closer look at the original and ongoing research conducted at Los
Alamos National Laboratories (LANL), including a scale model of the “Fat Man”
plutonium bomb built here in 1945.
Nearby, the Los Alamos Historical Museum is located in a cabin on
historic Bathtub Row, so named because when the government took over the Ranch School
in 1943 these were the only dwellings equipped with that luxury.
Open year round, but summer is best at the high elevations
of Los Alamos, New Mexico.
You might know gypsum as the white powder inside drywall panels. Gypsum readily dissolves in water, but here it forms sand dunes because no river drains the Tularosa Basin. The white color of the dunes does make for extra intense albedo, so be sure to bring sunglasses and carry plenty of water. Most of the wildlife here is nocturnal, but during the day you may spot a lizard species evolved to camouflage in the sand.
Dunes composed of gypsum make a great destination for snow sledding year round, especially after a rainfall. It is fun to see children wearing T-shirts and shorts sliding down the sparkling white slopes.
Follow markers on the five-mile round trip Alkali Flat Trail that goes up and down dunes with views of the San Andres Mountains.
The white dunes take on the colors of the sunset if you decide to backpack or take the ranger-guided Sunset Stroll.
Spring and fall, since it can be very hot in the summer.
Mostly paved and the packed dirt road is drivable by all vehicles.
Only backcountry camping is allowed in 10 designated sites for $3 per person, but that is dependent upon whether the military is conducting missile tests overnight so call ahead or check the schedule online. Oliver Lee Memorial State Park offers a full service campground south of Alamogordo.
Explore More – What happens to the deep root system of a soaptree yucca when the dune it is growing on blows away?
One of 13 national monuments in New Mexico, this archaeological site is located in a beautiful forested canyon at 6,000 feet elevation outside Los Alamos. Ancestral Puebloans inhabited Frijoles Canyon from AD 1150 to 1550, building villages and carving rooms out of the soft volcanic tuff, much like in Cappadocia, Turkey.
Ruins, cavates, Alcove House, Upper Falls, Painted Cave
Climb 140 feet up ladders and steep steps to Alcove House cliff dwelling for superlative views of the canyon.
After exploring the ruins, be sure to hike 1.5 miles to Upper Falls downstream from the visitor center.
The National Park Service has installed some awesome, authentic-looking ladders to access the cavates.
Summer when a shuttle is required from Los Alamos, New Mexico due to limited parking