Nuclear Tourism: A Journey Through Oppenheimer's New Mexico Nightmare

In the history of dark tourism, New Mexico’s Trinity Test Site is unparalleled. The US Army opens the site to visitors - but only twice a year (see below for full details). 

The Atomic Age began at Ground Zero in the vast emptiness south of Los Alamos, New Mexico, where an ominous bomb known as ‘Gadget’ once sat atop a 100-foot-tall steel tower at the Manhattan Project’s Trinity Test Site. 

The detonation of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s first nuclear weapon was codenamed Trinity, a reference to two of John Donne’s profound poems: Holy Sonnets and Hymn to God, My God, In My Sickness. Yet, there is no poetic resonance, no solace in the haunting echoes of destruction. A visit to the site is a journey into a paradox - one where the boundless potential for scientific achievement is entwined with somber reflection on the consequences of wielding such power. 

The Trinity Site, White Sands Missile Range, is opened to the public twice a year

Oppenheimer’s Day of the Dead

At 05:29:45 am (Mountain War Time) on July 16, 1945, Gadget's nuclear embrace engulfed the world. It released 18.6 kilotons of power, instantly vaporizing the tower. A multi-colored cloud surged 38,000 feet obscuring the tower's remnants. In its place, a crater bore witness to the birth of trinitite - a glass-like substance. Seconds after the explosion, the blast sent searing heat across the desert, knocking observers to the ground.

A forest ranger 150 miles west of Ground Zero - on the plains of the Alamogordo Bombing Range known as the Jornada del Muerto (Day of the Dead) - reported a flash of fire, an explosion, and black smoke.

The cockpit of a Navy pilot flying at 10,000 feet near Albuquerque lit up like the sun rising in the south. When he radioed in asking for an explanation, Albuquerque Air Traffic Control simply said, “Don’t fly south.”

“No one who saw it could forget it. A foul and awesome display” - Kenneth Bainbridge, a Trinity Test eyewitness.


“It was seen to last forever. You would wish it would stop; altogether it lasted about two seconds. Finally, it was over, diminishing, and we looked toward the place where the bomb had been; there was an enormous ball of fire which grew and grew and it rolled as it grew; it went up into the air, in yellow flashes and into scarlet and green,” Trinity Test eyewitness Isidor I. Rabi said.  “A new thing had just been born; a new control; a new understanding of man, which man had acquired over nature.”

Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolen's Movie
Christopher Nolan describes his film, Oppenheimer, as 'both dream and nightmare'

Visiting the Trinity Site

The Trinity Site located on White Sands Missile Range is open to the public on two dates each year: the first Saturday in April and the third Saturday in October.The open house is free. No reservations are required but visitors after the first 5,000 may not gain access. The simplest way to get to Trinity Site is to enter White Sands Missile Range through its Stallion Range Center gate between 8 am and 2 pm then drive unescorted for 17 miles to the Trinity site. Visitors can then take a quarter-mile walk to Ground Zero. The site closes at 3:30 pm sharp.

Nuclear Tourism: A Journey Through Oppenheimer's New Mexico Nightmare

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In the history of dark tourism, New Mexico’s Trinity Test Site is unparalleled. The US Army opens the site to visitors - but only twice a year (see below for full details). 

The Atomic Age began at Ground Zero in the vast emptiness south of Los Alamos, New Mexico, where an ominous bomb known as ‘Gadget’ once sat atop a 100-foot-tall steel tower at the Manhattan Project’s Trinity Test Site. 

The detonation of J. Robert Oppenheimer’s first nuclear weapon was codenamed Trinity, a reference to two of John Donne’s profound poems: Holy Sonnets and Hymn to God, My God, In My Sickness. Yet, there is no poetic resonance, no solace in the haunting echoes of destruction. A visit to the site is a journey into a paradox - one where the boundless potential for scientific achievement is entwined with somber reflection on the consequences of wielding such power. 

The Trinity Site, White Sands Missile Range, is opened to the public twice a year

Oppenheimer’s Day of the Dead

At 05:29:45 am (Mountain War Time) on July 16, 1945, Gadget's nuclear embrace engulfed the world. It released 18.6 kilotons of power, instantly vaporizing the tower. A multi-colored cloud surged 38,000 feet obscuring the tower's remnants. In its place, a crater bore witness to the birth of trinitite - a glass-like substance. Seconds after the explosion, the blast sent searing heat across the desert, knocking observers to the ground.

A forest ranger 150 miles west of Ground Zero - on the plains of the Alamogordo Bombing Range known as the Jornada del Muerto (Day of the Dead) - reported a flash of fire, an explosion, and black smoke.

The cockpit of a Navy pilot flying at 10,000 feet near Albuquerque lit up like the sun rising in the south. When he radioed in asking for an explanation, Albuquerque Air Traffic Control simply said, “Don’t fly south.”

“No one who saw it could forget it. A foul and awesome display” - Kenneth Bainbridge, a Trinity Test eyewitness.


“It was seen to last forever. You would wish it would stop; altogether it lasted about two seconds. Finally, it was over, diminishing, and we looked toward the place where the bomb had been; there was an enormous ball of fire which grew and grew and it rolled as it grew; it went up into the air, in yellow flashes and into scarlet and green,” Trinity Test eyewitness Isidor I. Rabi said.  “A new thing had just been born; a new control; a new understanding of man, which man had acquired over nature.”

Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolen's Movie
Christopher Nolan describes his film, Oppenheimer, as 'both dream and nightmare'

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The Trinity Test Site

Thousands have made the trip to New Mexico since 1953 when most of the radioactivity finally subsided. Today the hallowed ground is open to the public on the first Saturday in April and the third Saturday in October of each year. While the equipment and instruments are no longer at the site, there is a black, lava rock obelisk marking the location of Ground Zero.

McDonald House - where the Gadget’s plutonium core was assembled - still stands.

The ranch was taken over by the US Army as part of the  Alamogordo Bombing and Gunnery Range to train WWII bomber crews. Its northeast room (the master bedroom) was designated as the assembly room for the world’s first nuclear weapon, a plutonium bomb similar to ‘Little Boy’ which exploded over Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. Three days later, a third bomb codenamed ‘Fat Man’ devastated Nagasaki.

Almost 30 years later, the National Park Service restored McDonald House to appear as it did on July 12, 1945. It too is open to the public on specified dates, twice annually. 

An obelisk marks the Trinity Test site at Ground Zero


Oppenheimer: 'Most were silent'

Visitors are allowed to explore the grounds with approval from the US Army. Such is the fascination following the release of Christopher Nolan’s 2023 movie Oppenheimer, visitors were told to expect a two-hour wait to gain entry on October 21, 2023, and that they should aim to be among the first 5,000 visitors before the gates closed.

Oppenheimer stood at the heart of Trinity's sinister genesis, an enigmatic figure whose intellect and leadership shaped the Manhattan Project. Oppenheimer, often referred to as the ‘father of the atomic bomb,’ brought together a cadre of brilliant minds in the secluded confines of Los Alamos.

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent,” Oppenheimer said in 1965. “I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ I suppose we all felt that one way or another.”

Within these forbidden grounds, the echoes of the past still reverberate, beckoning contemplation on the dual nature of human achievement.

Visiting the Trinity Site

The Trinity Site located on White Sands Missile Range is open to the public on two dates each year: the first Saturday in April and the third Saturday in October.The open house is free. No reservations are required but visitors after the first 5,000 may not gain access. The simplest way to get to Trinity Site is to enter White Sands Missile Range through its Stallion Range Center gate between 8 am and 2 pm then drive unescorted for 17 miles to the Trinity site. Visitors can then take a quarter-mile walk to Ground Zero. The site closes at 3:30 pm sharp.

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