Bird-watching has its skeptics, but those skeptics probably haven’t seen a skyful of sandhill cranes angle into a pond at sundown, legs unfurled like landing gear, and hit the water as the sun drops below the Chupadera Mountains. Welcome to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico.
An hour and a half south of Albuquerque, the Bosque (pronounced boss-kay) is an unapologetic back-to-nature trip.
A swath of wetlands along the Rio Grande, it’s home not just to the sandhill cranes and snow geese that migrate here each winter, but also an entire Jungle Book of the feathered and four-legged: elk, deer, javelinas, turtles, songbirds, and even the occasional cougar. And with its brilliant winter skies, never-ending views, and sense of solitude, the Bosque invites end-of-year reflection.
The sunrise fly-out is one of the best bird-watching times at the Bosque (the other is the sunset fly-in, so if you’re not a morning person, don’t feel you have to become one now).
Get to the refuge a half-hour before sunrise and drive past the fee station to the Flight Deck, a large wood platform that juts into a pond.
Most cars stop here, but if you want to avoid the crowds, park 30 to 40 yards farther down and walk to an opening in the trees, where you’ll see sleeping geese bobbing on the water.
At some invisible signal, the geese take off en masse, each accompanied by a loud thumping thwap! on the water. After gaining some height, they peel off in small groups, a sea of opal white underbellies.
Stick around and you’ll see the more solitary cranes wake up. Watch them strut in the shallows before launching into the sky like airplanes on a runway, 8-foot wingspans and all.
Tip: Drive 2 miles farther down Old Highway 1 to Canyon National Recreation Trail for a scenic 3-mile hike with views of the whole refuge.
Next: What to do and how to get there
Take a leisurely afternoon drive on the 12-mile Wildlife Drive loop that rings the refuge. The road is divided into the northern Farm Loop and southern Marsh Loop; pull off at the Marsh Loop Trailhead for a quick 2-mile hike.
The Farm Loop is surrounded by fields where the sandhill cranes and snow geese come to feed: Stop at the Phil Norton Blind for the most reliable bird sightings.
As you’re leaving the refuge’s gates on Old Highway 1, head north and look for a pullout on your left, next to a narrow pond (it’s the Wetland Management Unit 3 pullout). In the evening, about half an hour before sunset, sandhill cranes swoop down in groups of twos and threes, taking a few stutter steps before folding themselves onto the water. The intricate ballet is one of the best free shows around.
The Bosque del Apache is an hour and a half south of Albuquerque International airport. From I-25, take the San Antonio exit (#139) east on U.S. 380 to Old Highway 1, then drive 9 miles to the Bosque visitor center.
GET THE LAY OF THE LAND
The Bosque refuge is 8 miles south of San Antonio and 16 miles south of Socorro. Check into the Fite Ranch Bed and Breakfast (from $100; two-night minimum; Fite Ranch Road; fiteranchbed andbreakfast.com). A secluded B&B atop a mesa, it’s 9 miles east of San Antonio off U.S. 380 and a 20-minute drive from the refuge. To access the refuge, pay at the entrance ($5; 575/835-1828). The visitor center has maps and hot coffee.
EAT IN SAN ANTONIO
This tiny town has a spicy rivalry between U.S. 380 neighbors Owl Cafe ($; closed Sun; 575/835-9946) and the Buckhorn ($; closed Sun; 575/835-4423) for who has the best green-chile cheeseburger. Decide for yourself.
Stop at Manzanares Street Coffeehouse ($; 110 Manzanares St.; 575/838-0809) for lattes and cinnamon rolls, then browse the art at Curious Crow Studio (closed Sun–Mon; 113 Abeyta St. W.; figalleries.com).
On Saturdays, locals head to Socorro Springs Restaurant and Brewery ($; 1012 California St.; 575/838-0650) for pizza and growlers of beer or the Stage Door Grill ($$; 115 Abeyta St. W.; 575/835-2403) for juicy fish tacos.
More: Warm winter escapes