There are numerous beautiful city parks in the Albuquerque metro area. However, it is the prevalence of nature and urban wildlife that sets “Burque” apart from other cities of comparable size. The community is blessed with an abundance of natural resources within the city limits, from the many hiking trails through basalt boulders adorned with petroglyphs on the west mesa to the open space and trails at the base of the mountain.
Among the outdoor options readily available to Albuquerque residents and visitors to the “Duke City”, the Rio Grande State Park, is one of my favorites. Located a few miles from the bustle and traffic of downtown Albuquerque, the park is a world away in terms of atmosphere and pace.
For centuries humans perceived the Rio Grande as either a resource or a potential flood hazard to be tamed. A network of acequias stretched like veins from the river to nearby fields. As Albuquerque grew, residents cleared extensive swaths of the cottonwood forest lining the Rio Grande to create more arable land. Overall, 9,000 acres of cattail marsh between Cochiti and Socorro was converted to farmland in the 20th century.
Appreciation for the river and surrounding bosque as a natural, community resource coalesced in the late 1960s when the Bureau of Reclamation submitted a proposal to clear the cottonwoods completely. Cottonwoods grow in flood plains and they absorb a lot of water. The Bureau of Reclamation wanted to make more water available for agricultural use. However, in a city with few trees and an overall dearth of green space, the destruction of the cottonwoods elicited staunch, widespread community resistance. Opposition leaders proposed a conservation minded alternative, The Rio Grande State Park Plan. The plan called for the protection and preservation of a swath of the forest and wetlands as an “educational, ecological, agricultural, and recreational resource” for the community.
The City of Albuquerque moved forward with the plan in 1976, purchasing a 177-acre tract of land. They leased an additional 38 acres in 1980 for the development of the Visitor Center, a wetland area, ponds, and pedestrian access to the Bosque Trail System. As of 1983, the Rio Grande State Park encompassed most of the bosque from Sandia Pueblo to Isleta Pueblo.
Albuquerque dedicated 166-acres to the Rio Grande Nature Center in 1982. The facility serves as a visitor center and research hub for the Rio Grande Valley State Park, as well as providing a refuge on the Rio Grande migratory fly way. The park service set aside 2/3 of the park to create an urban wildlife habitat, with three ponds to support birds and wildlife, as well as multiple wildlife viewing areas for visitors.
Architect Antoine Predock designed the visitor center. The entrance resembles an irrigation drain, with a corrugated metal tunnel leading to the door. Predock utilized numerous green building techniques. For example, high efficiency rooftop photo-voltaic power panels supply heating and cooling, resulting in net-zero energy use. Cisterns store storm water for restrooms and irrigation of native plants. Additionally, the building incorporates rapidly renewable materials, such as straw in door cores and other panels, as well as local New Mexico materials like stone. Restaurants and water fountains are located in the visitor center.
Park programming includes guided bird and nature walks, lectures, workshops, classes for kids, and three annual festivals. They also have facilities dedicated to educational programs, wildlife rescue, a native plant garden, a pollinator garden, a reference library, the Nature shop, with interpretive displays, exhibits, and signage throughout.
Park staff and volunteers planted 98 species of native aquatic and riparian vegetation to restore native habitat. They stocked three ponds with sago pond weed, deep water duck potato, elodea, ducks meat, three square rush, and hard stem bulrush to provide ground cover and food for the waterfowl. They also stocked Gambusia fish in the ponds to control the mosquito population.
Both short trails at the Rio Grande Nature Center cross the 20-mile long, paved Bosque Trail. The Bosque Trail is bike, horse, and pedestrian friendly. It follows the river from the north end of Albuquerque to the south valley.
- The Riverwalk Trail is an easy, one-mile stroll through the bosque and along the banks of the Rio Grande. The trail passes through meadows as well as densely forested areas.
- The Bosque Loop Trail is less than a mile, a quick walk through the bosque with a short spur trail to the river.
The water table impacts the vegetation in the bosque. When the level drops below the point at which a lake and vegetation can be sustained, marshes appear. As the water table drops further, salt grass meadows grow, then willows, then, as the water table drops further, Russian Olive, tamarisk, and cottonwoods take over. However, if the water table plummets, cottonwoods become stressed. Prolonged drops in the water table can kill cottonwoods. If you see mistletoe growing on the branches of a cottonwood, the tree is dying.
The cottonwood forest lining the Rio Grande is the largest continuous cottonwood forest in the world.
Wildlife and Waterfowl
The Rio Grande Nature Center is a wonderful resource for wildlife enthusiasts and bird watchers. The park is home to 300+ bird species. Some are permanent residents, like the Cooper’s Hawk, Great-horned Owl, Canada Goose, Ring-necked Pheasant, Wood Duck, Black-capped Chickadee, Great Blue Heron, and Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers. Other species pass through seasonally. Warblers, Black-chinned Hummingbirds, Black Phoebe and Western Kingbirds migrate along the Rio Grande during the summer months. Ring-necked Duck, American Wigeon, Northern Harrier, Wood Ducks, Merganser, Ruby-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, Chipping Sparrow, Dark-eyed Junco, Western Meadowlark, Sandhill Crane and Bald Eagles pass through during the winter months.
The park also provides habitat for numerous mammals, including cottontail rabbit, rock squirrel, muskrat, coyote, pocket gopher, beaver, raccoon, skunk, porcupine, and weasels.
PARK MAP (PDF)
Directions | Take the Candelaria exit west from I-25 and continue until it dead ends at the Rio Grande Nature Center (on the north side of the road).
Hours |Open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve.
Gates are open from 8 AM – 5 PM, walk-in or bike access
Visitor Center 10 AM – 4 PM
Front Desk 10 AM – 4 PM
Nature Shop 11 AM – 3 PM (Tues-Thurs), 10 AM – 4 PM (Fri – Mon)
Restrooms and water fountains are located in the Visitor Center.
To contact Wildlife Rescue, a wild animal rehabilitation facility located just inside the park gate, please call (505) 344-2500.
$3 per vehicle
$15 per van or school bus seating 15 or more people
$50 per tour bus
Day use fees apply to schools, tours and other groups. Group registration is through the state parks system.
- The park is day-use only. No camping. The west gate to the bosque trails is open. The bike and bosque trails can be accessed from the park.
- The Rio Grande Nature Center State Park and the adjacent CABQ Open Space bosque are permanently under Stage One fire restrictions. NO smoking or fires permitted in the bosque.
- No pets. Service dogs only. However, leashed pets are allowed in the parking area and on the adjacent bosque trails.
- No drones.
To contact Wildlife Rescue, a wild animal rehabilitation facility located just inside the entrance to the park, call (505) 344-2500.