Whooping Cranes
(Similar to those at Bosque del Apache)

Off the Beaten Path at Bosque del Apache

by Daniel Gibson

NOTE: This story is adapted from Daniel Gibson's book National Audubon Guide to the National Wildlife Refuges: Southwest (St. Martins, April 2000). Gibson, a native New Mexican and Santa Fe resident since 1983 is also the author of hundreds of magazine articles and the general guidebooks American Southwest and New Mexico (both John Muir Publications).

A typical excursion to New Mexico's famed Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge south of Socorro begins as follows. Along with thousands of other visitors, you will arrive before dawn and stake out a place alongside the marshes. As the sun's first golden-orange  rays slant over the San Pascual Mountains, tens of thousands of snow geese, sandhill cranes and other waterfowl take to the chill morning air with a clamorous din and a flurry of flapping wings. All about you streams a majestic pageant of feathered creatures heading out of their overnight roosts. This is what it was like ages ago, you think--a profusion of seemingly inexhaustible natural wealth.

It is a glorious sight, but one you will share with many of our own kind. As the day warms you will return to your car and make the standard loop along the auto tour route in a parade of cars, and then head home with the masses of other birders. However, there is an entirely different Bosque awaiting your exploration that sees only a handful of visitors each day-a series of five backcountry trails spanning 18 miles that can lead you far off the beaten path. Not only will they provide some solitude at this popular refuge, but also the chance to see a greater variety of the refuge's 320 recorded bird species, 50 mammal species, and 60 species of amphibians and reptiles.

 The trails are open during regular refuge hours. Obey all closure signs. Excellent foot trail guides (25 cents each) are available at the visitor center.

River Trail

The dominant feature of Bosque del Apache is the Rio Grande, but most visitors never see it. The river is hidden on the wide, flat valley floor by sinuous cottonwood bosques (forests) and choking thickets of invasive tamarisk (salt cedar). Its waters are drawn out through a complex system of irrigation canals and ditches to form the refuge's many ponds, marshes, sloughs, and old oxbows, mimicking what nature used to do through periodic floods.

River Trail will bring you face to face with the source of all this wet bounty--the Rio Grande. The 2.2-mile loop trail first bridges a major "low flow" channel, climbs a few feet over a levee, and then descends to flank the river itself for a spell. The silt-choked, chocolate-colored Rio (Will Rogers commented that it was the only river he'd seen that needed irrigation!) is fringed by stately stands of mature cottonwoods. The cottonwoods turn a buttery yellow and finally a pale brown as fall slides into winter, their trunks twisting skyward in a graceful chorus. In summer the female trees produce clouds of a fine, cotton-like fluff. In late spring and summer, this trail is sometimes closed due to flooding.

Rio Viejo Trail

This is a flat 2-mile outing that follows an old course of the river through lovely cottonwood bosques, small clearings, and immense thickets of the exotic tamarisk. The tamarisk along the Rio Viejo Trail is slowly being removed and replaced with native trees and plants, including screwbean mesquite, New Mexico olive, and seep willow--the later covered with dandelion-like seeds in the winter. Here you may chance upon a mule deer, coyote, or even a bobcat. Summer finds nesting songbirds along this trail and the River Trail, including loggerhead shrikes, who capture grasshoppers and stick them on screwbean mesquite barbs to snack on latter. The trail is sometimes closed in spring and summer due to flooding.

Marsh Overlook Trail

This is a 1.5-mile loop with a quarter-mile spur to the top of a knoll that presents a great overview of the refuge and Rio Grande Valley. It circles around a large old oxbow lake fringed with prolific plant life filled with chattering blackbirds. Most conspicuous in the marshes are cattail, smartweed, and bullrush, fringed by coyote and black willow. The tall plumed plant is the exotic phragmites, locally called carrizo. Raptors nest along some overhanging slopes. Except for the optional spur, the trail is flat and easily traversed. It is closed during the Festival of the Cranes.

Canyon Trail

The 1,600 acres of lush wetlands are the Bosque's primary attraction for both birds and people, but flanking these bottomlands are almost 25,000 acres of Chihuahua desert mesas and foothills, and another 25,000 acres of grasslands.

This trail leads into the realm of the dry but hardly lifeless Chihuahua Desert, which reaches it northernmost limit in this area. The contrast between the green and wet valley floor and the uplands is striking. Here you'll find fourwing saltbush, mesquite, hardy evergreen juniper, prickly pear cactus and tree cholla, spiky yucca, Mormon tea, and the most common plant, creosote. Summer monsoon rains bring a surprising outburst of many different wildflowers, including desert primrose, aster, and sand penstemon.

The 2.5-mile, moderately strenuous Canyon Trail loop heads up a sandy arroyo, then takes a turn into hidden, serpentine Solitude Canyon with its artistically sculpted walls. It then climbs up to a point providing sweeping views--the Sandias near Albuquerque some 90 miles to the north, the snow-flecked summits of Sierra Blanca to the east, and poking over the southern horizon mountain chains marching toward Mexico. This trail also provides access to the Indian Well Wilderness Area located within the refuge's boundaries.

Chupadera Trail

This 9.5-miles long trail with a vertical rise of 1,700 feet presents the most strenuous walk in the refuge as it traverses Chihuahua Desert washes and foothills. With little shade and no water, one should be prepared for a five- to six-hour outing on this route from end to end. It accesses the Chupadera National Wilderness Area. Javelina, flowering prickly pear cactus (in late spring), golden eagles, and the views from its 6,190 foot summit makes this an enticing walk despite the effort required.

Some birds--including sage sparrows, roadrunner, lesser goldfinch, Crissal thrashers, ladder-backed woodpeckers, and cliff swallow--are more likely to be seen along this trail and Canyon Trail than elsewhere on the refuge.

The uplands are also home to many of the refuge's 60 species of reptiles and amphibians--most active spring through mid-fall. In drier terrain look for the Sonoran gopher snake, desert box turtles, and two species of rattlesnake: the Western diamondback and Western prairie.

The desert uplands also harbor desert cottontail rabbit and black-tailed jackrabbit, Ord kangaroo rat and rock squirrel. The nocturnal Mexican freetail bat and occult little brown bats also roost in desert canyon overhangs and cracks.

So next time at the Bosque, do yourself a favor. Park the beast and take a hike.


Bosque del Apache is located 18 miles south of Socorro near San Antonio. Coming from the north, leave I-25 at Exit 139, and head east 1/4 of a mile on US 380 to the flashing signal in San Antonio, and turn south (right) onto NM 1. Proceed 8 miles to the visitor center.

The refuge is open daily (including holidays) from one hour before sunrise to one hour after sunset. The visitor center is open 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, and 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekends; closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day. Entry is $3 per vehicle, $25 per commercial vehicles. Walkers and bicyclists are charged per form of vehicle they arrived in.

The refuge conducts three-hour guided birding tours most weekends between mid-November and the end of February. Reservations are required.

The refuge's visitor center has a good 15-minute video about the Bosque, exhibitions and displays, a fine small bookstore, and a gift shop with handmade crafts and artwork, T-shirts, and other memorabilia. You can also rent binoculars here for a full or half-day. For further details call 505-835-1828. More information on the internet is available at:

Daniel Gibson of Santa Fe ( is the author of Audubon Guide to the National Wildlife Refuges: Southwest (St. Martins) and two general guide books, American Southwest and New Mexico (John Muir Publications).

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