Bosque del Apache NWR--Rio Viejo Trail

Tips for Birding

Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge Auto Tour Loop

The AllTrails website has a description and map of a hike on the Rio Viejo Trail.

The Rio Viejo Trail is accessed from the south end of a parking area which is the terminus of the Main 2-Way (East-West) Road, a bit over a mile directly east of the Auto Tour Loop entrance. Also, the South Tour Loop at its end joins the East-West Road very near this parking area. Vault toilets are located in the parking area, which serves the Bike Trail hotspot as well.

Before proceeding onto the Rio Viejo Trail, consider going to the northeast end of the parking area, walking across the maintenance road (closed to the public) on the west side of the unlined Low Flow Conveyance Channel, and observing the channel from the bridge there. Sightings from the east side of the bridge should be recorded for the Bike Trail hotspot; for sightings from the bridge itself recorded at the Rio Viejo Trail hotspot, eBirders should note in “Checklist Comments” or individual species “Details” that the birds were seen from the bridge. It is highly unlikely that some of the species seen from the bridge would ever be observed on the trail, except possibly as flyovers.

The finely graveled 1.7-mile loop trail is flat and wheelchair traversable. At the trailhead, you may pick up a trail guide; this is an interpretive trail, so lettered entries in the trail guide correspond to lettered markers (upright stakes) along the trail. These trail markers are excellent references for individual species “Details” entries in your eBird lists. Near marker C, the loop portion begins; the trail markers ascend alphabetically if you go to the left, where you will find your first bench. Numerous benches are found along the trail, with a group of picnic tables located between markers J and K.

The trail takes you through restored cottonwood bosque, broken in places by open grassy areas occasionally including wild sunflower (which seasonally attract Lesser Goldfinch and Pine Siskin). Salt cedar, which had claimed the area, was largely removed and cottonwood planted in rows, though there is only the barest hint of an impression you are hiking through a tree farm. At the beginning of the trail, between markers A and C, as well as toward the end, between markers M and N, a few of the planted trees have died but are still upright. In addition to cottonwood (in which Northern Flicker are frequently found), willow, screw-bean mesquite, and Russian olive populate the bosque, whereas invasive kochia often lines the trail.

Just as the original bosque was maintained by periodic river flooding, the restored bosque is maintained as winter water backs up from the southwest (where it flows under the South Tour Loop from a ditch on the west side of that road) into shallow manmade swales. The Rio Viejo Bosque is one of the few areas on the refuge where water moves west to east or south to north. Water may extend as far north as the west side of the trail at marker G, though you are not likely to notice it until you find yourself on the first small bridge at marker I.

Indeed, given that there is no standing water for most of the year, what you are more likely to notice at this section of the trail is that you’re being bitten by mosquitoes. The first bullet point of the current trail guide states that insect repellent is recommended from spring through fall. This moist area attracts a variety of birds but can be particularly uncomfortable for birders seeking spring migrants.

The Rio Viejo Trail is unlike other specific hotspots on the refuge which are managed as seasonal wetlands that attract thousands of waterfowl and wading birds from late fall into spring. You may be able to hear these birds from the trail, but they are more appropriately listed for the hotspots where they are vocalizing; waterbirds are found on lists for the Rio Viejo both due to sightings from the Channel bridge and due to flyovers (with the latter best noted in individual species “Details”). On some visits (particularly in the afternoon), a birder may see only a few species, such as Northern Flicker, Common Raven, and White-crowned Sparrow, along the entire trail, whereas on a visit just the next day, the birder might see a surprising variety of species.

The Rio Viejo Trail is open daily from one hour before sunrise until one hour after sunset. The trail is 1.7 miles roundtrip (level of difficulty: easy).

Travel along a former channel of the Rio Grande through a restored cottonwood forest. The habitat is a Cottonwood forest.

Seasonally, search for Hermit Thrush, Ladder-backed Woodpecker, Western Tanager, Yellow-breasted Chat, Yellow Warbler, Javelina, Elk, and Checkered Gartersnake.

The trailhead and parking lot is located at the eastern end of Bosque Road.

About Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

See all hotspots at Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge

Established in 1939 to provide a critical stopover for migrating waterfowl, the refuge is well known for the thousands of sandhill cranes, geese, and other waterfowl that winter here each year.

Situated between the Chupadera Mountains to the west and the San Pascual Mountains to the east, the 57,331-acre refuge harbors a wild stretch of the Rio Grande, a ribbon of cottonwood and willow trees visible on the landscape from distant mesas.

Petroglyphs tell the story of ancient people who lived and hunted here. The river and its diversity of wildlife have drawn humans to this area for at least 11,000 years when humans migrated along this corridor, sometimes settling to hunt, fish, and farm. Artifacts and stone tools found nearby tell us that nomadic Paleo-Indian hunters pursued herds of mammoth and bison in the valley.

Today, Bosque del Apache is part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, a national network of lands and waters set aside and managed for the benefit of wildlife, habitat, and you.


  • Restrooms on site

  • Wheelchair accessible trail

  • Entrance fee

  • Roadside viewing

Content from Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge website, John Montgomeryy, Birding in New Mexico (National Audubon Society), and John Montgomery

Last updated March 10, 2024