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