24 Hours in New Mexico
The Land of Enchantment
“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.
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.
Albuquerque is home to a list of impressive entities which includes Kirtland Air Force Base, Sandia National Laboratories, the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History, and the University of New Mexico (UNM).
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.
Journey 50 miles north and you arrive in Santa Fe, a world renowned community replete with shops, historic churches, taverns and inns. Well known for its artists, cowboys, and Native American influence, Santa Fe is a melting pot of culture and ideas.
I suggest taking a ride on the Rail Runner Express. This commuter rail system is one of New Mexico's hidden treasures, offering a convenient, comfortable and affordable excursion from Albuquerque to Santa Fe.
Today’s journey takes us in the opposite direction. We’ll auto about 100 miles south via I-25 to our first stop in the quaint town of San Antonio, New Mexico.
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, which included room and board. Their first full-scale Hilton Hotel burned to the ground with only the grand mahogany bar spared from the devastation.
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 step back into yesteryear. Your eyes are immediately drawn to Hilton’s original bar before traveling over the walls packed with memorabilia and collectable décor distinctly eclectic-southwestern.
You can’t help but notice the dollar bills tacked on 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 'em up. Once a year the cash is gathered and presented to charity. Over the years, patrons have donated over $20,000.
I highly recommend their green chili cheeseburger and a side of onion rings. My burger arrived at the table so quickly that my first thought was, can it really be good?
As it sat before me, all alone on the plate, I took mental notes. Hand-pressed burger hanging over the bun, cradled on a bed of fresh, crisp lettuce. A bit of golden cheese peeking out from under a mantle of delicious looking green chili. I had to try this burger, and try it I did. I can't say it’s the best GCCB on the planet, but I will concede it vies for the best I have ever savored.
San Antonio is gateway to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, a ten minute drive south on NM-1S. This refuge is replete with wildlife and is the winter nesting grounds for many majestic birds. Sandhill cranes stand out as one of the most magnificent you can see here. This beautiful bird migrates south from as far away as Alaska to spend the winter feasting on nutritious grasses like chufa and millet.
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. Hands-on displays both entertain and educate you about the various creatures you may encounter. I enjoyed the sand box designed to show the unique tracks left by animals found on the refuge. Simply drag the squeegee to smooth out the sand and then press the cookie cutter-like molds into the sand to leave the critters footprint. It was interesting to compare the prints left by the mule deer and javelina or the bobcat, lynx, and mountain lion.
The gift and nature store offers field guides and gifts to make your visit enlightened and memorable.
Be sure to reserve time for the twelve-mile auto loop through the refuge. This loop is divided into north and south halves; each takes up to 1.5 hours. 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. At times we saw more duck behinds than heads protruding from the water. Both loops afford you opportunity to spot a wide array of wildlife.
The kind lady at the visitors' center suggested that we plan our drive to end up on the north loop at the Willow or Coyote Viewing Decks just before sunset. This gave us the opportunity to watch as the geese and cranes flocked to the large ponds to spend the night. The birds overnight on the water where they are safe from predators.
One of the first individuals we encountered on our trek through the refuge was Mr. Beaver. Although, I’ll admit that I’m not real sure how you identify the gender of a beaver.
As we traveled a bit farther down the road we spotted movement across a small pond and stopped to witness a group of mule deer as they casually grazed on the abundant grass.
From there on it was one sighting after another. Hawks, cranes, geese, ducks and even a bullfrog or two were all captured by the click of the camera.
Shelli and I have spent many a day traveling the terrain of New Mexico. However, this is one adventure that can be enjoyed by any and all. No need for off-road vehicles or specialized shoes and clothing, simply take a little time, bring your sense of adventure, and have a memorable experience on the Bosque.
When you go:
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.
The distance to any of the creatures makes binoculars and spotting scopes advisable, as well as a zoom lens for your camera.
Take the I-25 south from Albuquerque approximately 100 miles. Take exit 139 toward U.S. 380/San Antonio for .8 mile to the Owl Bar and Café on the left and turn off to NM-1S on the right. After lunch, proceed on NM-1S for 8 miles to the Bosque Del Apache Visitor center entrance on the right.
For in-depth information on all aspects of the refuge their website is Bosque Del Apache Wildlife Refuge. (https://www.fws.gov/refuge/Bosque_del_Apache/visit/plan_your_visit.html).
For information and tickets for your ride on The Rail Runner Express, log onto (http://www.nmrailrunner.com).
New Mexico tourism information can be found at: New Mexico Free.
By Ron Elledge
Ron Elledge is a freelance photographer/writer who splits his time between Phoenix, Arizona and Albuquerque, New Mexico when not on a world adventure. Ron's photography can be viewed at www.RonElledgePhotography.com. His love of travel is shared by his wife, Shelli, with whom he travels the globe and documents their journeys.
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