During the dawn of the nuclear age and the rise of the Cold War, it seemed as if every scientific or military facility in the United States was classified as “Top Secret.” Over time, many of the locations were decommissioned and opened to the public for tours. Some facilities no longer needed by the government now stand as a testament to a bygone era while others have adapted to the ever-changing needs of the post-9/11 world. Here are 10 once top-secret facilities in the United States now open to tourists.
10. Whiteman Air Force Base
Located two miles from Knob Noster, Missouri, Whiteman Air Force Base serves as the Global Strike Command Base for B-2 Stealth bombers. Built in the 1950s, this location once served as one of the country’s Minuteman Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) locations but now launches B-2 bomber missions to any spot on the globe. The base provides guided tours to the general public one Friday per month from May through August. The so-called “Spirit Tours” are limited to a maximum of 40 guests. Tour availability is subject to change based on the current national security threat level.
9. Hanford Site
This site is home to nine former nuclear reactors and their processing facilities that cover 586 square miles of desert in southeastern Washington State. Built in 1943, the reactors were used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons and the site is known for creating the plutonium for the “Fat Man” bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki, Japan. Most of the reactors were decommissioned between 1964 and 1971 but the N-Reactor continued to produce plutonium and serve as a civilian power reactor until it was deactivated in 1987. The B-Reactor was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2008. The site offers five-hour public tours that focus on the test facility and the historic B-Reactor. Not surprisingly, the cleanup of radioactive materials at the site continues to this day.
8. Vandenberg Air Force Base
This U.S. Air Force Base located near Lompoc on the Southern California coast is best known as the West Coast launch and landing site for NASA’s space shuttle missions. But it has also served as a space and ballistic missile test facility since it was established in 1957. The base restarted public tours in 2003 and the free tours are offered on the second Wednesday of each month. Reservations are required and made through the base’s public affairs office. Private tours are also available for groups of 15 or more and offered Monday through Thursday.
7. Naval Submarine Base New London
Located on the Thames River in New London, Connecticut, this is the United States Navy’s primary submarine base. Originally constructed in 1868 as a small naval yard, the base today serves as home to at least 15 attack submarines and is neighbor to the General Dynamics Electric Boat Corp., which is a major submarine construction facility. Adjacent to the base is the historic submarine Nautilus (the first nuclear-powered ship) and the Submarine Force Museum. The submarine tour lasts 30 minutes and the museum includes hands-on exhibits about life in the “Silent Service” with a re-creation of a submarine attack center. Both the submarine and museum are open to the public daily throughout the summer and six days a week during the winter. For obvious security reasons, the base and submarine-building facility are off limits to the general public.
6. Minuteman Missile National Historic Site
This Cold War missile facility was one of several central U.S. locations built to respond to a possible nuclear first strike by the Soviet Union. Located at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota, it was rarely seen by the public after being built in 1963, and remained on alert until it was de-activated by the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty in 1991. Established as a National Historic Site in 1999, it consists of a main office, a launch-control center and a missile silo complete with one of the last remaining Minuteman II ICBMs. Ranger-guided tours are offered seven days a week and last approximately two hours. The tour reminds us all of how close we came to worldwide destruction.
5. Alcatraz Island
One of the most recognized locations in the country, Alcatraz Island was actually the West Coast’s first lighthouse and U.S.-built fort before it served as a notorious federal penitentiary from 1934 to 1963. Its famous inmates included Al Capone and the “Birdman” Robert Stroud and it was once off-limits to the public. Today, the island is managed by the National Park Service, although the only access is through Alcatraz Cruises, a private ferry company. It offers daily tours that include a narrated boat tour around the island and guided walking tours of the main prison building and cell house. For an even eerier experience, the most complete tour is offered only at night.
4. Titan Missile Museum
Located in Sahuarita, Arizona, approximately 15 miles south of Tucson, the Titan Missile Museum is the country’s only Titan II missile site open to the public. The museum provides one-hour guided tours of the underground site with a view of three-ton blast doors, eight-foot-thick missile silo walls and an actual Titan II intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), which is now fortunately inert. The longer “Top to Bottom Tour” lasts five hours and takes visitors to all eight levels of the underground silo that reaches depths of 140 feet. This special tour is offered approximately four times per month while the one-hour guided tour is offered every day of the year except Christmas and Thanksgiving.
3. Trinity Site
This isolated 51,500-acre location near the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico is the site of the world’s first atomic explosion. Named for its code name of “Trinity,” the 19-kiloton explosion occurred on July 16, 1945 and introduced the world to nuclear technology used as a weapon. Ground Zero is now marked by a small monument where the first atomic bomb was exploded on a 100-foot steel tower. The site offers one-hour public tours only twice a year on the first Saturday in April and October. The tour includes a visit to Ground Zero as well as the McDonald ranch house where the world’s first plutonium core for a bomb was assembled. In case you’re wondering, radiation levels at Ground Zero are still measurable but low at only one milliroentgen (mR). To put that in perspective, a person would receive approximately five mR when flying coast to coast.
2. Greenbrier Bunker
Located 720 feet under the well-known Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, this 112,544-square-foot bunker was finished in 1961. Designed to serve as the home of U.S. government officials in the event of a nuclear strike or threat to Washington, D.C., it includes four entrances with 25-ton blast doors, sleeping quarters for 1,100 people, a hospital, laboratory, cafeteria and three 25,000-gallon water tanks. Rumors of the facility circulated for years and were finally confirmed in a 1992 Washington Post story. After the story, the bunker was decommissioned and opened for public tours. The Greenbrier Bunker offers daily tours that last approximately 90 minutes.
1. Oak Ridge National Laboratory
Established in 1943, this location is what “Top Secret” is about: A secret laboratory with an entire city that seemed to appear from nowhere in the mountains of eastern Tennessee. The location was established as a part of the Manhattan Project with the goal of producing uranium and plutonium for use in the development nuclear weapons. The location has since expanded into a multipurpose facility focusing on national security, energy, supercomputing, biological systems and neutron science. Now managed by the U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge National Laboratory offers three-hour public tours on weekdays from June through September as well as special tours for educational groups.
One More: Cheyenne Mountain
This facility near Colorado Springs, Colorado, once housed the command center for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) as well as other government agencies, and was immortalized in movies such as War Games. Most of those operations have been moved elsewhere. The facility has hosted public tours in the past, but was closed to the public as of 2011.