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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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
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: http://southwest.fws.gov/refuges/newmex/bosque.html
Daniel Gibson of Santa Fe (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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).