Fly into Albuquerque and for all the stark drama of the Sandia Mountains and the surrounding high desert, the most striking feature from the air is the verdant, serpentine course of the Rio Grande.
While the river physically divides the city, it's also one of the places that brings Albuquerque together. Home to the botanic garden, aquarium, and zoo that make up the Albuquerque Biological Park, as well as to the natural areas protected by the Rio Grande Valley State Park, the river and its cottonwood forest are like a long, meandering central park for the city.
Spend a day exploring highlights along the 20-mile stretch of river from near downtown to Alameda Boulevard and you'll discover one of Albuquerque's most diverse summer destinations. Along the river and the forest ― known locally by the Spanish word bosque (pronounced bohs-keh) ― locals walk, bicycle, fish, catch concerts, and simply retreat into the shade on hot afternoons.
For out-of-towners who visit the bosque, it's always a surprise to discover that Albuquerque is a river city. The Rio Grande is not just central geographically; it is also close to the hearts of many Albuquerque residents. "As the world gets crazier and crazier, people need more of these natural places to stay healthy and happy," says Beth Dillingham, superintendent of the Rio Grande Nature Center State Park. "And because Albuquerque has so many barren and brown areas, a place that is lush and green takes on a whole new meaning. We have people who come just about every day ― avid birders, bicyclists, and one woman who comes just to write her poetry."
The nature center and the lands surrounding it offer the best look at the natural river and bosque environment. Designed by architect Antoine Predock, the center blends into its forest and wetland setting. You enter the half-buried building through a culvert-style tunnel. Inside, an observation room overlooks a reed-lined pond busy with waterfowl, while the Sandias rise in the distance.
For all the bosque's natural beauty, the forest and river have undergone great changes over the years. Before upstream damming, the Rio Grande used to spread, providing water for the forest. Now the river largely remains contained within a defined channel. With its natural cycle disrupted, the bosque has seen a reduction in new cottonwood growth and is aging. Conservation efforts are now focused on germinating new trees.
In addition to its riverbank habitat, the bosque, which extends several blocks east and west from the banks of the Rio Grande, encompasses distinctive communities that retain a rural feeling even though a busy and modern downtown is just a few miles away. A great way to get a taste of life beneath the cottonwood canopy is to stay at Los Poblanos Inn, a historic bed-and-breakfast and organic farm in the town of Los Ranchos de Albuquerque on the east side of the river.
Towering cottonwoods line the entry drive, which leads to a 1920s-vintage courtyard building designed by master New Mexico architect John Gaw Meem. Lavender brightens the fields next to a pond thick with lotus blossoms and perfumes the air with its sweet fragrance. Like the bosque itself, Los Poblanos is a cool, green oasis.
"It's so soothing to be near the river. That's the power of water," Beth Dillingham says. "In the desert, water is life."