April 4-5, 2003: Trinity Site, New Mexico

One of many trip reports by Alan Silverstein.
Last update: March 14, 2008

From:  Alan Silverstein <ajs@frii.com>
Date:  6 Apr 2003 16:44:57 -0600
Subject:  [The Rockhounds List] Trinity Site
To:  RockhoundsList@yahoogroups.com

Following the recent discussion here about trinitite, coincidentally I visited the Trinity Site southeast of Socorro, New Mexico for the first time yesterday (April 5). This is where the world's first atomic bomb was detonated July 16, 1945. Being about 20 miles inside White Sands Missile Range, the site was only open to the public twice a year, on the first Saturdays in April and October. Here's a report...

We'd talked about making this trip for at least ten years, and finally it all came together and we did it. Four of us flew down from northern Colorado the afternoon before (about 3:45 total in a C182 with headwinds), and we spent the night in Socorro. We rented a vehicle and headed out of town at about 7:40 am Saturday.

I didn't know what to expect, other than the site might be pretty remote and barren. Well there was a surprising amount of traffic on highway 380 heading east for the turnoff, and a lot more to the test site than I knew existed. About four miles south of the turnoff, we waited at least 30 minutes in a long line creeping through the Stallion Gate into White Sands. (The gate opened at 8am... I have no idea how early the first cars got into line.)

At the gate, we had to show picture IDs and vehicle registration, then we were waved through for the rest of the drive to the site. (No cost to enter, and we were given free history/guide booklets, one per person.) It was a beautiful, cool day in the desert, although breezy and sometimes dusty. While the site was in fact way out in the high desert, we passed a lot of side roads and various missile range installations. We could see a large, lighter-colored area four miles east as we approached, still on asphalt. The huge gravel parking lot was rapidly filling.

There were a fair number of military MPs and uniformed police all over. One of them told me that a typical tour day would draw 1800-2000 people, but this time there were at least 4500. So it was anything but lonely. The atmosphere was interesting, not exactly festive, more reflective, and very well organized. In addition to people at information booths and tents, there were grills running to sell lunch food, and a couple of souvenir tents that included Trinity Site T-shirts. Some people walked their dogs on leashes into Ground Zero.

First, while it was uncrowded, we caught the free bus a couple of miles south to the McDonald ranch house where the bomb's core was assembled on July 13. It was an interesting walk-through there of the restored but empty ranch house and some ruined outbuildings, including I-beam roof rafters bent by the blast, that my GPS said had been 2.03 miles distant. (The USGS GNIS location for "Trinity Site" turned out to be within 30', typical noise level, of the bronze marker.) There were a lot of educational exhibits on the walls in the ranch house. Apparently after the blast blew out all the windows at the building it was abandoned for nearly 40 years before being restored.

We caught the bus back to the parking lot. We walked north in a steady stream of people a quarter mile along a gravel road through a wide fenced corridor into the large fenced-off oval around Ground Zero. Hundreds of people milled around in there, mostly near the black, 15-20' tall lava-cinder obelisk to the east side bearing the bronze plaque from 1965 (I think) marking the center of the blast.

There were other exhibits including a low metal-roofed shed on the west with a roof door open showing a preserved portion of the original crater... Not a bowl of glass, just gray sand with some scattered pieces of greenish trinitite laid out. The trinitite was a murky, irregular, translucent greenish glass crazed with cracks and with brown sand grains attached.

In 1952 (I think), the army paid someone to scrape up most of the trinitite and haul it away in barrels. The shallow crater, originally 3-8' deep, was mostly filled in, leaving less of a depression around the obelisk. Samples of trinitite a few inches across were on display at a tent, along with a radiation counter clicking away, and various other "hot" items such as some ceramic plates. Another counter on the ground near the obelisk clicked at 2-3x the rate I've heard when playing with them elsewhere -- and that was on the lowest sensitivity setting.

The ground inside the fenced oval was a mixture of short grass and bare sand with a lot of random gravel. It was hard to tell if it was brought in, or more likely surfaced after the area was graded. Mixed with the gravel were numerous small bits of trinitite, none larger than 1 cm, some as small as sand grains. Many areas had none at all, and in other places there were numerous chips, perhaps dozens within ten feet. Looking around, I saw many people examining the ground and picking up and tossing back bits of rock. One couple near the obelisk acted puzzled at not seeing any trinitite, so I walked them maybe 30' away and pointed it out to them.

So, trinitite still exists on the site, in small quantities, scattered all around the area, even on the roadway back to the parking lot. I was surprised that after about 50 years of semi-annual visitation there was any left at all (despite it being illegal to collect it). I suspect some of it will continue to surface for many years as it "floats" up through the sand that was graded into the depression... And much of it is, sadly, ground to bits under visitors' feet.

We found that about two hours total was plenty of time to study both the ranch house and Ground Zero. As we drove back out, there was still a line of cars waiting to get in.