Bosque del Apache (Spanish for Woods of the Apache) was established in 1939 to provide a refuge and breeding grounds for migratory birds and other wildlife and to develop wintering grounds for sandhill cranes, which were then an endangered species. In 1941, only 17 cranes wintered here. Today, they number in the thousands.
The refuge, which encompasses nearly 60,000 acres, straddles the Rio Grande, about 20 miles south of Socorro, New Mexico. It is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
When we arrived at the refuge, our first stop was at the Visitor Center, which has ample parking for cars, RVs and tour buses. The center provides information about the refuge with exhibits, videos and books. There are “touch table” displays of fossils, antlers, shells and bones and also samples of plants found on the refuge and in the North American desert.
Videos on the refuge and its wildlife are shown in the auditorium. We learned that the local farmers work with Bosque del Apache by growing crops on the refuge. They plant alfalfa, which is harvested, and corn, which is left for the wildlife. The refuge staff also grows corn, winter wheat, clover and native plants as additional food. Water is diverted from the Rio Grande to create wetlands and serve the farmlands.
The viewing window inside the center overlooks an outdoor courtyard that attracts a variety of birds and small animals. A microphone near the courtyard pond transmits natural sounds inside. The Visitor Center also houses the Bosque Nature Store, managed by the Friends of the Bosque del Apache, proceeds helping to support the refuge.
Motorists can view the area on a 15-mile auto tour loop. A two-way cutoff divides the full tour into a shorter Marsh Loop of 7 miles and a Farm Loop of 7.5 miles. You can purchase a driving tour CD, which explains stops along the way.
We chose to don mini-backpacks and travel by bike. What a great way to view the wildlife as we quietly rode along! Mule deer, common to the area, crossed the road in front of us and barely looked our way. Elk, coyotes, wild turkeys and porcupines can also be seen. There are many species of reptiles, fish and amphibians and over 340 species of birds plus many kinds of ducks. Viewing platforms, some equipped with a spotting scope, are located along the tour route and are handicapped accessible. The five hiking trails and several designated service roads open to hiking also provide excellent viewing access.
In the autumn, tens of thousands of birds come to roost and make Bosque del Apache their winter home. But when the cranes and snow geese have flown the coop, so to speak, the other Bosque del Apache comes into being. Spring, summer and early fall host other visitors known as damselflies and dragonflies. Summer wetlands attract songbirds and waterfowl. The western painted turtle, Texas horned lizard, New Mexican garter snake and the bullfrog along with raptors and other wildlife are also present.
Of the more than 500 wildlife refuges in North America, Bosque del Apache is one of the most spectacular. Charles Kuralt called it music for the soul. Indeed it is.
Barbara Oliver is a writer who lives in Grand Junction, Colorado.