The Nuclear Age was ushered in with the world's first atomic detonation at Trinity Site on July 16, 1945. Trinity Site is located on the northern end of Whites Sands Missile Range in central New Mexico. Trinity Site, now only mildly radioactive, is open to the public for one day, twice a year.
Trinity Site was selected as the site of the world's first atomic fission explosion because of two factors:
The device, or "gadget", was assembled a few miles from Trinity Site in the late spring and early summer of 1945 in a ranch house "acquired" from the McDonald family by the U.S. Government. On July 16, 1945 the world's first nuclear explosion occurred in the New Mexico desert on what is now White Sands Missile Range. The test or "event" was code named "Trinity" and the spot where the explosion occurred came to be known as the "Trinity Site".
Trinity Site and the McDonald Ranch are open to the public twice a year:
A caravan assembles at the Otero County Fairgrounds and is escorted by WSMR vehicles to Trinity Site. The caravan leaves at 8:00am. Be sure to have your vehicle fully fueled as the drive from Alamogordo to Trinity is some 80 miles, making the round trip around 160 miles.
Folks from the northern part of the state get to Trinity Site by driving themselves through the WSMR Stallion Gate.
From I-25 near Socorro, take the San Antonio exit to east U.S. 380. From San Antonio take U.S. 380 east about 12 miles. You will see the exit signs for WSMR on the south side of the highway (you can't miss it, there isn't anything else out there). Continue south on the WSMR exit a few miles to the Stallion Gate. Inform the guard at the gate that you are there for the Trinity tour. The guard will give you instructions on how to get to Trinity.
From Stallion Gate you will continue south-southeast approximately 13 miles. You will need to turn east (left) when you get to the PHETS site (Permanent High Explosive Testing Site). You cannot miss PHETS, it has a group of trailers and a domed building and is the only group of buildings you will encounter. The turn should be well marked and a guard will be stationed in the middle of the road to make sure you make the turn. From PHETS you continue straight east towards the Sierra Oscura mountain range. Pay close attention to the south side of the road as you drive towards the Oscura: you will see wooden posts and remains of old cable. These are leftovers from the Trinity Test. The posts carried instrumentation cables from ground zero to recording devices. You will also see an old instrumentation bunker: it is an earth mound with a wooden doorway on one side. These days the only inhabitants of the bunker are field mice and perhaps a rattlesnake or two. You will end up at a tall chain link and barbed wire fence. You will turn to the right and will see parking a short distance ahead.
You will be entering the military base of WSMR. To visit, you will need to pass the Stallion Gate guard station. You may be asked for the following:
After parking, you weave your way through an area of vendor and informational booths. After getting through the booths you will arrive at edge of a fenced area. Trinity Site is surrounded by a tall, circularly, chain-link and barbed-wire fence. You will enter through a large gate and follow a fenced roadway to ground zero. The walk is not too far, and booths will be set up along the way with information on radioactivity, historical information and the like. This helps break up the walk which is less than half a mile. After this short walk you enter an inner fenced area surrounding ground zero.
The Trinity Test involved detonating a fission device on top of a tall steel tower. Most of the tower was vaporized by the explosion, but visitors can still see the stumps of the tower legs in the ground at Trinity Site. At the center where the tower once stood is an small stone obelisk marking the site. Around the perimeter of the inner fence there will be historical photographs and information hung on cardboard plaques.
As you walk around, keep your eyes open for blue-green pebbles underfoot: this rock is known as Trinitite . Trinitite was formed when the heat pulse from the explosion fused the desert sand into glass. Trinitite is found nowhere else on earth. You are not allowed to take trinitite from the site, and even if you could you wouldn't want to: it is still "mildly radioactive". There is a small glassed box a short distance from ground zero inside the inner fenced area. This box encloses a small area of earth that was preserved in it's post-test condition. In this box you will see a good amount of Trinitite. The rest of the area you have been walking on has been plowed over and under in an attempt to clean up radioactivity.
Don't miss out on the McDonald Ranch tour as part of your Trinity Visit.
The McDonald Ranch is just a few miles from Trinity. Buses shuttle you
from the Trinity parking area to the ranch. You are not allowed to
drive there directly. The ranch house on the McDonald Ranch was where
technicians performed final assembly of the "gadget" prior to the trinity
event. Visitors are allowed to walk around inside the Ranch house where
photographs cronicle the final assembly of the world's first atomic bomb.
Guides are on hand to answer your questions and tell the story of the
McDonald Ranch, the Manhattan Project and the Trinity test. It is a
chance to get a glimpse
into the lives of a New Mexico ranch family prior to World War II and
prior to the takeover of their land by the U.S. government during the
formation of what was to become White
Sands Missile Range.
The shuttle buses and the McDonald Ranch get crowded later in the day. Because of this, you may wish to visit McDonald Ranch first and then take the Trinity Site walking tour.
You can either pack a lunch, or purchase snack food at the booths at
Trinity Site. However, I recommend a stop to the Owl Bar in San Antonio, which
is NOT to be confused with the overly-trendy Owl Cafe in Albuquerque.
The Owl serves up a green chile cheeseburger that some claim is the best
in the state. The Owl has a unique character that must be seen to be appreciated.
Don't miss the antique bar which once served as the soda counter at the old Hilton
Pharmacy in Socorro and, yes, it is the Hilton you think it is - well,
his parents anyhow. You may wish to visit the Hilton Pharmacy in Socorro, or
the Hilton house where Conrad Hilton lived as a boy. What a lot of folks
don't know is that the gas station next door to the Owl has fantastic homemade
fudge for sale. After a good chile cheeseburger nothing is finer than a
fudge desert! Nearby Socorro has several very good restaurants. My favorites
include Don Juans in the old two story building "downtown" with the Bull
Durham and Owl Cigar signs. El Sombrero near the north interchange in Socorro
is also good, but be prepared for slow service.
From San Antonio you can take a 8 mile detour to the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. The Bosque is a major migratory stop-over for snow and canadian geese, sandhill cranes and a few rare whooping cranes.
Los Alamos National Labs has a superb history of the early days of the laboratory and nuclear research. I would highly recommend reading Trinity - Completion of the Wartime Mission by Bob Seidel, a science historian employed by Los Alamos National Laboratory. This is part of a series of articles that cronicle the 50 year history of Los Alamos National Laboratory. You will find the entire series of articles here.
PRI, Public Radio International, broadcast a half-hour 50th Anniversary
program about the Trinity Test the weekend of July 15, 1995. The program was
titled "Atomic Dawn: 50 Years in the Shadow of the Bomb." The program
included interviews with Edward Teller, Charles Critchfield and Roger Meade
of Los Alamos. Also archival voices of Enrico Fermi and Robert Oppenheimer.
The producer and host of "Atomic Dawn" is Louis Varricchio,
VARRICCH@INET.champlain.edu. Audio cassette copies of this outstanding
radio documentary are available for $12 each (shipping & handling included)
Louis Varricchio c/o Labyrith Productions
Middlebury, VT 05753
Gregory Walker has a WWW site about bout his visit on the 50th Anniversaty of the Trinity Site that includes photographs and videos.
There is a CD-ROM and Laserdisk titled The Day After Trinity from the Voyager Company . I have not had a chance to review this material. If anyone has purchased this title and reviewed it, I would sure like to hear from you.
Please send comments or questions to VIVA!