Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge spans 57,191 acres of wilderness south of Socorro. The refuge offers a safari opportunity in the high desert, particularly for wildlife enthusiasts seeking serenity and solitude. The Rio Grande’s historic floodplain provides the central attraction as it meanders into the vast, stark terrain of the Chihuahuan Desert. The river provides precious water to southern New Mexico’s fields and creates habitat for jackrabbits, quail, roadrunners and lizards. Creosote, lechuguilla, mesquite and ocotillo grow from the banks of the river, with sunflowers providing a burst of yellow in September and early October.
Wintering birds have been drawn to this fertile habitat for thousands of years. The migration is an ancient tradition. Sandhill cranes migrate south from the northern Rockies, joined by ducks from the Great Plains, snow geese and Ross’s geese. Native American hunters took advantage of the annual abundance. They left ancient depictions of cranes and geese etched in the boulders.
Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in 1939 “as a refuge and breeding grounds for migratory birds and other wildlife.” The refuge provided winter habitat for migrating waterfowl and Greater Sandhill Cranes. Park staff documented 17 cranes during the winter months of 1941. However, currently more than 15,000 Sandhills migrate annually to the refuge.
Park staff create fifty “wetland units” across the 9000-acre swath of land in the Bosque. They flood several of the wetland units every autumn, drawing water from the Rio Grande. They till and plow other units to grow food for the birds.
Public access is via a 12-mile tour loop broken into two sections, the southern Marsh Loop and the Farm Loop. The tour loop entrance is located opposite the refuge Visitor Center. Both loops are one-way unpaved roads. They are linked by a central two-way road. Each loop is two-way for a short distance to allow convenient access to the most popular viewing areas.
The refuge is an important economic resource for rural Socorro and Sierra counties. The refuge employs about 25 people and the Festival of the Cranes attracts thousands of people to the area.
Festival of the Cranes will be virtual in 2021; however, the park is open to the public.
The sound of the sandhill cranes and the scent of roasting green chile herald the arrival of autumn in the Rio Grande valley. Approximately 50,000 Snow Geese and 15,000 Greater Sandhill Cranes spend the October through February at the refuge. They are joined by a few Ross’s Geese, 20 species of ducks, several ravenous raptors, including Bald Eagles and Northern Harriers, resident Roadrunners, and a variety of songbirds. November through February is prime time. The exquisite light, spectacular scenery, and abundance of birds makes Bosque del Apache one of North America’s premier locations for bird-photography. Staff and visitors have seen 358 different bird species in the Bosque del Apache since 1981. If you have an aversion to birds, the experience could be harrowing, reminiscent of the Alfred Hitchcock classic, “The Birds.”
The hour before sunrise and sunset are a bird photographer’s visual manna. The sunrise flyout involves getting up in the wee hours of the morning, before the sun rises. When you arrive at the refuge, you will be greeted by the sound of geese chattering. As dawn approaches, the chatter becomes deafening, until thousands of Snow Geese take flight simultaneously, collectively obscuring the faint rays of dawn. The cranes queue up. They gather in family groups, bugling, chortling and squawking, before following the geese in small flocks in search of breakfast. The cranes like yellow nutsedge or chufa. They use their sharp beaks to dig up the plants’ buried nutlets.
The sunset fly-in is equally spectacular if you prefer to wake up at a more civilized hour. Photo opportunities extend well beyond dusk.
In addition to providing habitat for migrating feathered friends, the refuge’s cottonwood forests and shrublands provide habitat for javelina, bobcats, bears, elk, deer, mountain lions and the endangered meadow jumping mouse.
Seasons at the Bosque
(mid-February through mid-May)
The winter wetlands are slowly drained in the spring, providing prime feeding grounds for migrating sandpipers, stilts, plovers, dunlins, curlews, avocets, and twenty other shorebird species. Flycatchers, vireos, and a dozen species of warblers pass through during the spring, either while migrating or while determining nesting location. Spring wildflowers add color and greater roadrunners make regular cameos as they search for lizards and snakes.
(mid-May through mid-September)
Summer arrives with the hummingbirds, featuring the antics of black-chinned, calliope, broad-tailed, and rufous hummingbirds. Young birds emerge from their nests. Some, like the quail, scurry around in long lines of a dozen or more. As the temperatures rise, most creatures seek shade during the peak heat of midday. Mornings and evenings provide more opportunities for wildlife encounters, particularly near waterways.
(mid-September through mid-November)
Late season sunflowers are a colorful contrast to the red-winged blackbirds that swoop and dart through the grasses. The first cranes and geese typically show up at the end of October, during which time coyotes, mule deer, and javelina are moving through open fields as well. Wild turkeys begin moving to the northern part of the refuge to join up with other family groups in separate male and female roosting flocks.
(mid-November through mid-February)
Winter is peak traffic at the refuge. Thousands of birds arrive in flocks, representing hundreds of species. The marsh areas are wing to wing seating. Whereas the Festival of Cranes is at the end of November, the birds arrive before the festival and remain after the throngs of humans and cameras depart.
Sunrise is stunning at Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge. The rising sun illuminates the layered landscape. Salt cedar and cottonwoods punctuate the lowest layer, lining the Rio Grande floodplain. The river’s alluvial deposits in this area are less than 10,000 years old. They buried older sediment deposited during the last ice age, 15,000 to 25,000 years ago.
The next layer, seen above the bluffs, was formed when the basin floor was about 300 feet higher. Ancient earthquakes heaved massive blocks of stone to the east, creating a third layer, which forms the crest of the Chupadera Mountains. The Magdalena Mountains in the distance provides a fourth layer.
The Magdalena and Chupadera mountains are tilted, fault-block ranges. They provide evidence that the Earth’s crust extended about 50% in the last 28 million years, which means the 50-mile-wide central Rio Grande rift was about 30-35 miles wide when it started to pull apart 28 million years ago. The earthquake activity is superimposed on giant volcanic calderas formed 29-32 million years ago. Collectively, the area is a petrie dish of geological activity.
Piro Indians migrated into the region over 700 years ago due to the abundance of plant and animal life. They built permanent villages out of mud and stones. They farmed the fertile soil in the floodplain, raised turkeys, gathered wild fruit, and hunted wildlife. Ultimately, European diseases and Apache raids forced the Piro to abandon their pueblos in the 1600s. They fled to El Paso with the Spanish after the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and never returned to their native land. As a result, their villages fell into ruin.
Spanish explorers and colonists traveling to the provincial capital in Santa Fe from Mexico established “El Camino Real,” or “the Royal Road” late in the 1500s. This route served as a vital trade connection between Mexico and Santa Fe for almost 300 years. Horses, wagons, cattle and sheep trampled a rutted, dusty road. As more people moved in, they created ranches, farms, and towns that encroached on the Piro people and their pueblos.
Additionally, the Spanish ranchers and settlers started to change the Rio Grande in response to the annual flooding. They built dams and irrigation ditches to control the flow of the river, diverting water for crops, livestock, and homesteads. Whereas taming the flood prone Rio Grande was beneficial to humans, it was detrimental to wildlife and the natural habitat. As the floodplain marshes dried up, the chufa, millet, and other plants that grew in the wetlands started to disappear. As the food resources dwindled, the region’s wildlife, particularly the migratory birds, began to disappear. Fortunately, many people recognized the importance of the native wildlife and habitat. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) initiated restoration efforts in the 1930s.
Bosque del Apache NWR
P.O. Box 1246
Socorro, NM 87801
1001 Highway 1
San Antonio, NM 87832
P.O. Box 280
San Antonio, NM 87832
Phone: (575) 835-1828
September through May | Visitor center and nature store hours are 8:00 am to 4:00 pm daily. Maps and information are available at the visitor center entryway.
Visitor Center and Nature Store Closed
- Thanksgiving Day
- Christmas Eve Day
- Christmas Day
- New Year’s Day
- The Fourth of July
- Tuesdays and Wednesdays in June, July, and August.
If you get a chance, eat a green chile cheeseburger in San Antonio. There is a spicy rivalry between the Owl Cafe (575-835-9946) and the Buckhorn (575-835-4423). Both are closed on Sundays.