The most secret U.S. national park – and how to visit

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World War II-era babies born in Los Alamos, New Mexico had “P.O. Box 1663, Santa Fe” listed as their place of birth on their certificates. The secluded mesa-top city was a Manhattan Project installation.

The project was racing to build the world’s first atomic bomb and refine the materials necessary to fuel it. It was so top secret that these babies’ birthplaces were obscured and assigned to the post office box that received the city’s mail.

In 2015, the U.S. government established the Manhattan Project National Historical Park to protect sites in Los Alamos, as well as the other two project locales in Hanford, Washington and Oak Ridge, Tennessee. While technically publicly owned as part of the national parks system, all the protected buildings lie within working Department of Energy facilities, where nuclear research, among many other things, is ongoing.

In some cases, reaching them requires jumping through security hoops, and in others, they’re off limits to the public. Secrecy surrounds the sites even today. This historical park may also be the most difficult to visit since completing a tour requires hopscotching the country.

Hanford, Washington

The Department of Defense divvied up tasks between Manhattan Project sites, with Hanford Engineer Works refining enough plutonium to power a nuclear weapon.

The site, on a stretch of the Columbia River three hours east of Seattle, shared similarities with the other sites: it was remote and sparsely populated. At each site, the government claimed eminent domain and depopulated the towns to make room for its facilities. Few buildings remain from prior to the Manhattan Project’s arrival at each location.

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