Touring the Trinity Atomic Bomb Site, White Sands Missile Range


Just two days a year, New Mexico visitors are allowed to visit the site of an historic event that changed our world.  On July 16, 1945, at 5:29 a.m., the US Military uncorked the nuclear bottle, allowing the genie to escape.  In the middle of the White Sands Missile Range, at nearly the dead center of New Mexico, it detonated “The Gadget”, a 13 pound plutonium bomb.  The explosion turned the sand into glass, shattered windows 120 miles away, and rattled the ground 250 miles away. Less than a month later, the U.S. dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, and World War II came to an end.

The Trinity bombing site, where that first test explosion occurred, is normally off limits to civilians.  However, the military does allow visitors two days a year–the first Saturday of April and October.  As luck would have it, I just happened to be nearby on April 1, 2006.

To visit the Trinity Site on days when it is open to the public: From Socorro, head south on I-25 to US Rte. 380.  Take US 380 east for 12 miles to the turnoff for the Stallion Gate.  The gate is 5 miles from the highway, and you’ll pass through a checkpoint here.  The Trinity Site is 17 miles further–just follow the car in front of you (all other routes will be blocked and likely guarded by the military).  The road is paved the entire way, and there’s a very large parking area just outside the Trinity Site (pay close attention to where you parked–it’s easy to get lost here).

If you’re not there when the Trinity Site is open, you’ll find an historic marker at the side of US 380, near the Stallion Gate turnoff.  Don’t bother driving to the gate–you won’t get in, and there’s nothing to see there.

The parking lot is about 1/4 mile from the blast site.  Both the inner “ground zero” area and the outer perimeter are surrounded by fences, with a corridor allowing visitors to walk in.

“Isn’t the Trinity Site dangerously radioactive?”  Radioactive, yes, dangerously, no.  Despite the ominous warning signs that surround the Trinity Site, radiation levels are quite low.  According to the information provided as you enter the missile range, during one hour at Trinity, you will be exposed to 1/2 millirem of radiation.  That’s about 10 times more than the naturally-occurring radiation anywhere else in New Mexico.  However, a typical chest x-ray exposes you to 6 millirems of radiation, and the typical American receives 200 millirems of radiation per year from radon gas.  In other words, don’t worry about it.

Before you start down the path to “ground zero”, there are several things to see and do outsidethe fence.  For one, take note of the mileage sign.  Signing up to ride with a caravan from El Paso or Alamogordo could make the trip much shorter, since the caravans travel across the White Sands missile range, instead of making a long loop around it.

You can also walk through the steel canister known as “Jumbo”.  The casing was originally designed to–in case of failure–contain the explosion of the five tons of conventional explosives (which would compress the plutonium and cause the nuclear reaction).  However, by the time the test day arrived, it was determined that Jumbo wasn’t needed.  The canister was placed on a steel tower 800 yards from “ground zero”.  What you see above is all that survived the blast.

Near “Jumbo” you’ll also find a few souvenir stands and restrooms.

Before hiking out to the blast site, get your bearings.

Notice the sign that says “Ranch Bus”?  The McDonald Ranch House is near the Trinity Site, but far enough away that you’ll need to catch a ride.  Shuttles operate throughout the day.

The McDonald Ranch House is where J. Robert Oppenheimer and his team assembled the explosive, which they referred to as “the gadget”. 

Once you reach “ground zero”, there’s surprisingly little to see.  At the exact center of the blast, you’ll find an obelisk made of black lava rock, and a plaque noting the significance of the location.

Nearby, you’ll notice what remains of the legs of the tower, that held the bomb. (The bomb was detonated atop a 20-meter tower, since a mid-air detonation was expected to be more effective, than one on the ground.)  The intense heat of the nuclear explosion vaporized the tower, leaving nothing but a few stubs protruding from the ground.

The blast formed a crater nearly ten feet deep, and 1,082 feet wide.  Soon after the test, the crater was filled in.

On the fence surrounding “ground zero”, you’ll find pictures taken before, during, and after the blast.

Also inside the “ground zero” perimeter, this Fat Man bomb casing.  A “Fat Man” bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945.  Inside was the same mechanism used in the Trinity Site explosion.

Perhaps the most confusing attraction at ground zero is this large metal shed, which protects part of the original crater floor.  Apparently, at one time, visitors could look through the doors at the bottom of the crater.  Now, there’s a sign explaining that the crater used to be visible here.  It doesn’t explain why the doors are now kept closed.  In other words, there’s nothing to see here anymore.

Along the narrow corridor from the parking lot to “ground zero”, the military makes it very clear that you are supposed to “keep out”.

When the Trinity blast occurred, it not only created a large crater, but also turned the New Mexico sand into glass.  This green glass, called “Trinitite”, was mostly buried when they filled in the crater.  However, you can still spot some fragments, if you look closely at the ground.  I suggest walking off the path, to the far corners of the fenced-in area.  That’s where I found the Trinitite you see above.

It is illegal to remove Trinitite from the Trinity Site.  I was tempted to take some, and even picked up a few pieces.  Then, I imagined an encounter with military police, armed with geiger counters.  No thank you.

Between the Trinity Site and the Stallion Gate, you’re not supposed to stop for anything.  There is one exception, though: this bunker, used to house instrumentation during the blast. The bunker is 800 yards from “ground zero”.  Several people had stopped here, and there were military police standing watch over the area, so I decided it was an allowable stop.

This is a good example of the roads inside the White Sands Missile Range: paved, 2 lanes, a few road signs, but nothing fancy..  I didn’t take any more pictures, since photos outside of “ground zero” are forbidden.

You can find much more about the Trinity Site in several places on the Internet.  I relied on Wikipedia for many of the facts on this page.

Note: This trip was first published in 2006.

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