Massive Sedan Crater, 320ft deep in desertNational Nuclear Security Administration
As World War Two segued into the Cold War, the sparsely populated U.S. West became key in the scramble to develop, test and deploy ever more powerful nuclear weapons. The region was a vital part of America’s rivalry with the Soviet Union. But there was an unexpected side effect — a tourism industry was also born.
During the heyday of above-ground testing at the former Nevada Test Site in the 1950s and early 1960s, hoteliers in Las Vegas 65 miles away cashed in by offering "Atomic Cocktails" and a "Miss Atomic Blast" beauty pageant. Parties to view the curling mushroom clouds were also a popular draw.
That fascination is still there. Tours to the site where 1,021 nuclear detonations were carried out between 1951 and 1992 are currently booked up through December. No cameras, binoculars or tape recorders are allowed, and background checks are required for all visitors to the area, since renamed the Nevada National Security Site.
The highlight is "doom town" — houses, bomb shelters and even a steel and concrete bank vault — built to see how they stood up to a nuclear onslaught. The homes were painted, furnished and populated with eerily lifelike mannequins dressed in the latest fashions donated by a Las Vegas department store.
Visitors also get to see the Sedan Crater, a 1,280-foot wide and 320-foot deep depression formed by a 104-kiloton blast to test the feasibility of using nuclear bombs for peaceful activities such as mining and construction – an idea almost unthinkable now.
The Southwest atomic trail also includes the Titan Missile Museum, a silo hidden deep beneath the desert south of Tucson, Arizona, which houses a decommissioned inter-continental ballistic missile (ICBM) that was on the front line of the Cold War from 1963 to 1987. The ten-story tall Titan II was topped with a nine-megaton thermonuclear warhead – hundreds of times more powerful than the Trinity device. Capable of launching in 58 seconds, it could reach its target more than 6,300 miles away in about 30 minutes.
That level of destruction disturbs some who visit. "It's kind of humbling," said John, an 18-year-old student from Minnesota, who sat in a chair at the command center and initiated a simulated launch sequence. "Someone can turn a key and in a split second destroy an entire city, miles and miles away."