The Mind-Blowing Enchantment of New Mexico: San Antonio & Bosque del Apache

Most enchanting places in New Mexico for your bucket list

The Land of Enchantment, the state motto of New Mexico, is certainly an apt description of a state with diverse landscape and population. This is a state in which the air is crisp, the water fresh, and the people warm and friendly. 

Albuquerque © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We begin in New Mexico’s largest city, Albuquerque. Albuquerque and its suburbs have a vibrant, growing population just shy of one million residents. It is a sprawling, picturesque city, with the stunning Sandia Mountains constraining it on the east, Petroglyph National Monument to the west and the Rio Grande River meandering through its center. 

Petroglyph National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is an annual event held in early October. This nine day celebration hosts over 500 balloons each year and is the largest hot air balloon festival in the world.

Plaza de Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Journey 50 miles north and you arrive in Santa Fe, a world renowned city with shops, historic churches, art galleries, restaurants, and inns. Well known for its artists, cowboys, and Native American influence, Santa Fe is a melting pot of culture and ideas.

Loretto Chapel, Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The commuter rail system, the Rail Runner Express offers a convenient, comfortable, and affordable excursion from Albuquerque to Santa Fe.
Today’s journey takes us in the opposite direction. We’ll drive our motorhome about 100 miles south via I-25 to our first stop in the quaint little town of San Antonio, New Mexico. 

Palace of the Governors, Santa Fe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

On Christmas day in 1887, this little hamlet in southern New Mexico was the birth place of its most noteworthy resident, the legendary hotelier, Conrad Hilton. Along with his brothers and sisters, Conrad grew up helping his father in the five-room hotel where rates were $1 per day. Their first Hilton Hotel burned to the ground with only the grand mahogany bar spared from the devastation.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, this original mahogany antique can be seen in the Owl Bar and Café in San Antonio. This historic café vies with its neighbor, the Buckhorn Bar, for the “best green chili cheeseburger in the world.”

The Owl is an interesting place to stop for lunch. Walk in the door and you’ll step back into time. Your eyes are first drawn to Hilton’s original bar and then to the walls packed with memorabilia and collectable décor distinctly southwestern.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You can’t help but note the dollar bills covering the restaurant’s walls. This is an Owl tradition which encourages visitors to write messages, or their names on dollar bills, then find an available space and tack them up. The cash is gathered annually and given to charity. Over the years, patrons have donated over $20,000.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

San Antonio is gateway to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, a ten minute drive south on SR-1S. Bosque del Apache stands out as one of the country’s most accessible and popular national wildlife preserves providing a seasonal home, November through March, for up to 12,000 sandhill cranes, 32,000 snow geese, nearly 40,000 ducks.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The visitor center is staffed with friendly, knowledgeable volunteers who provide maps and firsthand information on what’s happening at the refuge. Displays introduce you to much of the wildlife that call the refuge home. The gift and nature store offers field guides and gifts to make your visit enlightened and memorable.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Be sure to reserve time for the twelve-mile auto loop through the refuge. This loop is divided into north and south halves. Time spent will depend on how often and how long you stop at the many viewing areas. The south loop has more deep water ponds, which draw an abundance of diving birds. Both loops afford you opportunity to spot a wide array of wildlife.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The enchantment of New Mexico and many critters of the Bosque can be enjoyed any time of year. However, if your visit is from October through March, be sure to take warm clothes as the temperatures can blend with the New Mexico winds to drive a chill straight to the bone.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And there’s no better time or way to appreciate all that the 57,000-acre refuge has to offer than attending the annual Festival of the Cranes, a virtual event in 2020 (November 19-21). Registration required. It’s a glorious pageant of nature celebrating the annual migration of birds as they head south for the winter.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Kiva RV Park and Horse Motel (Bernardo); Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park (San Antonio)

Note: Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park closed for several years but has reopened under the same management.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

I saw them first many Novembers ago and heard their triumphant trumpet calls, a hundred or more sandhill cranes riding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande Valley, and that day their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.

—Charles Kuralt

8 Ways Wildlife Refuges Make Life Better

Rediscover your nature at a national wildlife refuge

We know COVID-19 (Coronavirus) is impacting RV travel plans right now. For a little inspiration we’ll continue to share stories from our favorite places so you can keep daydreaming about your next adventure.

Our lives are brighter because of national wildlife refuges. Even people who’ve never set foot on a refuge benefit from these lands and waters conserved by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Bon Secour National Wildlife Refuge, Alabama © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

How could that be? Come along for a look.

Here are some key ways national wildlife refuges improve the lives of everyday folks.

1. Health

SAbine National Wildlife Refuge, Louisiana © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We are hard-wired to need contact with nature. A large body of research shows that getting outdoors—on national wildlife refuges, for example—can improve peace of mind and physical well-being. Many refuges reinforce that health-and-nature connection by hosting family walks, runs, bike tours, even special events, to get people moving outdoors. 

2. World-Class Recreation

Bitter Lake National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Millions of people enjoy outdoor recreation each year on national wildlife refuges—where they are excited to spot wildlife while they refresh their minds and bodies. Some visitors enjoy birding, hiking, paddling, wildlife viewing, or nature photography. All these activities offer people a chance to unplug from the stresses of modern life and reconnect with their natural surroundings.

3. Wildlife Conservation

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National wildlife refuges are dedicated to conserving America’s rich fish and wildlife heritage. Just five decades ago, bald eagles, alligators, grizzly bears, California condors, Louisiana black bears, and whooping cranes all were at risk of extinction. Refuges have helped—and continue to help—the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service save iconic American species (and many lesser-known ones) by providing healthy habitat on which they depend. For example, Georgia’s Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge supports American alligators.

4. Storm Resilience

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

National wildlife refuges help to lessen the impact of natural disasters on local communities. More than 150 coastal refuges buffer cities and towns from storm surges. For example, during Hurricane Harvey in 2017, wetlands at Anahuac National Wildlife Refuge and McFaddin National Wildlife Refuge blunted the saltwater surge toward North America’s largest petrochemical refinery complex near Houston.

5. Access to Green Space

Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, Washington © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With four-fifths of Americans living in cities or suburbs, access to green space isn’t a given. Fortunately, there is a wildlife refuge within an hour’s drive of most major cities.

6. Reduced Fire Risk to Communities

Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Refuges help reduce risks from catastrophic wildfires. Refuge fire managers routinely burn, cut, or chemically treat overgrown brush, trees, and logging debris that can fuel wildfires. On Florida’s Merritt Island, home to the Kennedy Space Center as well as Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, refuge managers work to lower the risk of fire.

7. Biodiversity

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Think of nature as a web, with each part depending on another. Take one part away, and other parts suffer. Biodiversity is “the variety of living things in a given place—whether a small stream, an extensive desert, all the forests in the world, the oceans, or the entire planet.” Refuges encourage biodiversity. Among the most biodiverse refuges are Santa Ana, Lower Rio Grande Valley, and Laguna Atascosa. Their south Texas counties contain 1,200 plant species, 300 butterflies, and 700 vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish).

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Economic Benefits

National wildlife refuges add to the nation’s economic well-being. For every $1 Congress appropriates to run the Refuge System, wildlife refuges generate nearly $5 in local economies through visits for recreation. In fiscal year 2017, recreational spending by 53 million visitors to national wildlife refuges helped generate about $3 billion in economic activity and support 43,000 jobs.   

Lower Swanee National Wildlife Refuge, Florida © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

Have you ever observed a hummingbird moving about in an aerial dance among the flowers—a living prismatic gem…. it is a creature of such fairy-like loveliness as to mock all description.

—W.H. Hudson, Green Mansion

Banking on Nature: Record Numbers Visit National Wildlife Refuges

A record number of more than 53 million people visited America’s national wildlife refuges

53.6 million people visited national wildlife refuges during fiscal year 2017 (2017-2018) which had an economic impact of $3.2 billion on local communities and supported more than 41,000 jobs. The figures come from a new economic report by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service titled Banking on Nature. The report is the sixth in a series of studies since 1997 that measure the economic contributions of national wildlife refuge recreational visits to local economies.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The National Wildlife Refuge System is a network of 567 national wildlife refuges and 38 wetland management districts located in all 50 states and five U.S. territories. There is a national wildlife refuge within an hour’s drive of most major metropolitan areas, and national wildlife refuges provide vital habitats for thousands of species and access to world-class recreation, including birding, photography, and environmental education.

The report contains economic case studies of 162 national wildlife refuges and other information. Following is information relating to four of these refuges.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, New Mexico

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge supports one of the most diverse and unique assemblages of habitat and wildlife within the Southwest. The 57,331-acre refuge is located south of Socorro at the northern edge of the Chihuahuan Desert. Eleven miles of the Rio Grande bisects the Refuge. The extraordinary diversity and concentration of wildlife in a desert environment draws people from around the world to observe and photograph wildlife. A comprehensive visitor services program provides opportunities for people to connect with nature and enjoy the American great outdoors.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Refuge had about 306,000 recreational visits in 2017 which contributed to the economic effect of the Refuge. During October through May, the Refuge conducts interpretive van tours and interpretive hikes for the general public and also offers over 100 interpretive programs during the annual Festival of the Cranes held annually the week before Thanksgiving (37th annual Festival of the Cranes is November 20-23, 2019).

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Visitor recreation expenditures were $15.8 million with non-residents accounting for $15.5 million or 98 percent of total expenditures.

Green jay at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge is located at the southern tip of Texas next to the Gulf of Mexico. Wildlife finds a haven within the refuge, the largest federally protected habitat remaining in the Lower Rio Grande Valley. Subtropical forests, coastal prairies, freshwater wetlands, and a barrier island support a mix of wildlife found nowhere else in the world. Laguna Atascosa has recorded an impressive 410 species of birds drawing birders from around the world. Several tropical species reach their northernmost range in south Texas as the Central and Mississippi Flyways converge here.

Curved bill thrasher at Laguna Atascosa National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Refuge had about 485,000 recreational visits in 2017. Interpretation activities include bird tours, bird walks, and habitat tram tours. Visitor recreation expenditures were $30.0 million with non-residents accounting for $23.0 million or 77 percent of total expenditures.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge, Georgia

The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge was established in 1937 to preserve the unique qualities of the Okefenokee Swamp. The Okefenokee is the largest refuge in the east and includes over 407,000 acres. The Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge has many designations including being a RAMSAR Wetland of International Importance, National Water Trail, National Recreation Trail, an Important Bird Area, and is a proposed World Heritage Site.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Okefenokee is considered the largest intact freshwater wetland in North America. The Refuge is made up of a variety of habitats, and includes over 40,000 acres of pine uplands that are managed for longleaf pine around the swamp perimeter and on interior islands. Other habitats include open prairies, forested wetlands, scrub shrub, and open water (lakes). The Refuge has three primary entrances and two secondary entrances for visitor access.

Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Refuge had about 724,000 recreational visits in 2017. Visitor recreation expenditures were $64.7 million with non-residents accounting for $59.8 million or 93 percent of total expenditures.

Plain chachalaca at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, Texas

Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge consists of 2,088 acres along the banks of the Rio Grande, south of Alamo in the Lower Rio Grande Valley where subtropical, Gulf coast, Great Plains, and Chihuahuan desert converge. There are over 400 species of birds, 300 species of butterflies, and 450 types of plants. The refuge was established in 1943 for the protection of migratory birds and is a great place to visit for birding and draws in people from all to look for birds like the Buff-bellied Hummingbird, Green Jay, and Altamira Orioles.

Great kiskadee at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

There are 12 miles of trails, visitor center, suspension bridge, and 40 foot tower for visitors to explore. Year-round educational programs, seasonal tram, and birding tours, special events, summer programs and more that are offered to the public.

Green heron at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Refuge had about 196,000 recreational visits in 2017 which contributed to the economic effect of the Refuge. Visitor recreation expenditures were $2.2 million with non-residents accounting for $1.3 million or 58 percent of total expenditures.

Ibis at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…
One touch of nature makes the whole world kin.

—William Shakespeare

A Great Migration: Bosque del Apache

The sound of the sandhill cranes and the scent of roasting green chile herald the arrival of autumn in the Rio Grande valley

It was a frigid November morning at New Mexico’s Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge where we had joined dozens of ardent wildlife photographers and nature enthusiasts, lined up tripod-to-tripod and scope to scope, ready and waiting for the action to begin.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

We were standing on an observation platform called Flight Deck overlooking a network of fields and marshes teeming with thousands of sandhill cranes and snow geese that pause here to feed and rest during their annual migration south.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Talk about a great migration! Every year starting in early November, some 10-15,000 sandhill cranes, 20-30,000 snow geese, nearly 40,000 ducks, and even a few hawks and bald eagles migrate to the Bosque del Apache. This annual event also attracts birders, photographers, and nature lovers of all kinds who also migrate to the Bosque to enjoy this spectacle of nature.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Situated on the Rio Grande just a few miles off Interstate 25 south of Socorro (between Albuquerque and Las Cruces) in the tiny town of San Antonio, the 57,000-acre refuge was established in the 1930s to protect the sandhill crane. The majestic 4-foot-tall crane had nearly vanished along the Intermountain West Corridor, a vital north-south flyway for migratory waterfowl and many other birds.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For instinctive reasons known only to the birds, a sunrise “fly out” en masse is a daily routine. As is a “fly in” at sunset when the flocks return to the shallow marshes after a day of feeding on corn and grain crops farmed on more than 1,300 acres, mostly at the northern end of the refuge.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“They could go any minute now,” said the photographer next to us. An amateur wildlife photographer, here as a member of a photo tour group. “They take off all at once…thousands of them,” he adds, “and it’s really unbelievable.”

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

As we watched and waited, the sun inched over the eastern horizon illuminating a wispy fog rising from the marsh several hundred feet away. Then, without any discernible signal, it happened. In virtual unison thousands of snow geese erupted in a thunder of wings, and in a blur filled the sky as they flew low over head before soaring northward to spend the day feeding in the fields.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Sandhill cranes then started to walk. Others lowered their heads, long necks stretched out in front of them, almost off-balance. This signal is followed by quick steps, the awkward first wing flaps and flight.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s unbelievable how they take off all at once, thousands of them. Nothing we’ve ever seen in nature compares to it. It is the rare human who is not stirred to awe and excitement as thousands of birds soar scarcely 20 feet overhead.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Then in the late afternoon they streak the sky and return to the water to roost for the night. The afternoon fly-in is almost as enjoyable to observe as the morning fly-out.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The spectacular sunrise had also made us forget for a time the freezing chill as we retreated to the warmth of our toad.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Once warmed up, we drove the 15-mile one-way auto loop road and hiked the trails and observed large groups of snow geese and cranes, thousands of ducks of many varieties, hundreds of Canada geese, dozens of hawks, eagles, blackbirds, crows, roadrunners, sparrows, grebes, coots, and other birds along with occasional reptiles, amphibians and mammals, such as mule deer, coyotes, and jackrabbits.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The refuge’s dirt roads are well maintained and RVs should have no trouble driving on them. If 15 miles sounds too long, you can cut your tour short by taking a two-way cutoff and driving on one section—the 7-mile Marsh Loop or the 7.5-mile Farm Loop.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge is open year-round from one hour before sunrise until one hour after sunset. The one-day entry fee is $5 per vehicle including all occupants; an annual pass is $25. Golden Age and other federal passes are accepted.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The refuge hosts a number of special events, including the annual Festival of the Cranes, staged during the height of the fall migration. The 32nd annual Festival of the Cranes is set for November 20-23, 2019. It’s a glorious pageant of nature celebrating the annual migration of birds as they head south for the winter.

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to Stay: Kiva RV Park and Horse Motel (Bernardo); Bosque Birdwatchers RV Park (San Antonio)

Worth Pondering…

I saw them first many Novembers ago and heard their triumphant trumpet calls, a hundred or more sandhill cranes riding south on a thermal above the Rio Grande Valley, and that day their effortless flight and their brassy music got into my soul.

—Charles Kuralt