Experiencing New Mexico’s Newest National Wildlife Refuge

Rio Mora Sign - Sig
Rio Mora National Wildlife Refuge

Small road-trips can often lead to the best discoveries and first-time memories.

A recent quick trip trip to Las Vegas, New Mexico turned out to be a treat in many ways for my friend, Ginny and I. We were meeting with the Friends of Las Vegas National Wildlife Refuge to prepare for a grant I’m writing to help host a workshop for other Friends organizations in the Southwest region.

Leaving behind the flat landscape of the Llano Estacado we were eventually greeted by the mountain range surrounding Las Vegas. Snow was still on the top of several mountain peaks. Needless to say, once the mountains came into view our hearts lighten. You can only take so much flat land.

Along the way, we stopped at the little plains church on the edge of the Llano Estacado at Taiban. We had a veteran drive up and talk to us at the church, but we were not able to thank him for his service because we did not know he was a veteran until we saw his plate driving away. So if perchance he gets to read this – “Thank you, dear sir, for your service.” We also chased a couple of six-lined racerunner lizards.

Bush Morning Glory-Sig
Bush Morning Glory
Pink Plains Penstemon-Sig
Pink Plains Penstemon

During this trip, we stopped along the roadside capturing photos of plants we’ve never seen, specifically, bush morning glory and pink plains penstemon.

After meeting up with Debbie Pike, Visitor Services Manager for Las Vegas NWR at the Plaza Hotel, we headed north to one of our destinations at Rio Mora NWR. It’s the newest National Wildlife Refuge in New Mexico. The land was donated to the USFWS in 2012. It became the 560th National Wildlife Refuge in the U.S. Eugene and Clare Thaw, who operated the land under Wind River Ranch, donated the 4,600-acre ranch for conservation research.

We met Rob Larranaga, Refuge Manager Northern New Mexico National Wildlife Refuge Complex and Chris Lohrengel, Refuge Manager for Maxwell National Wildlife Refuge. After exchanging initial greetings, our adventure continued. We drove along a rocky and bumpy road to the western edge of this refuge to give us a close-up view of the Mora River.

Collared Lizard-Sig
Collared Lizard

We stopped along the way so I could photograph a collared lizard that had just scrambled upon some rocks by the road. As we continued our drive a vulture was seen getting attacked by a mockingbird. As we pulled up to the end of the road and parked, that’s when Chris quietly said, “there is a beaver!”

Beaver Dam - Sig
Beaver Dam on Mora River

It was my first “live” beaver swimming ever so smoothly with barest of rippling of the water. After getting out of the car, I crept over to get as close as I could to photograph him. Then he went under. Where I’ve studied beaver in Texas at the Matador Wildlife Management Area and Comanche Springs Astronomy Campus, the only signs I’ve encountered are of logs being chewed, a beaver lodge, beaver dam, and tracks. A few nights while spotlighting for larger predators you could occasionally hear the tail slap on the water on the Pease River at Matador.

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Cliff Swallow Nests

The rushing water spilling over the beaver dam became the backdrop to the mountains surrounding us here at this refuge. Hiking through coyote willow we came near a cliff face that had hundreds of cliff swallow nests, with the swallows flying overhead. You could see tiny little bird faces emerging from some of the nests.

Heading back to the headquarters area, Debbie led us to the lodge where we would be staying at – The Thaw Lodge. This lodge used to be a refuge for the fourth Governor of New Mexico, Octaviano Ambrosio Larrazolo. He was the first Hispanic United States Senator.

Ginny and I hiked to the river. There the running Mora River greeted us again. Two black-billed magpies were hidden in some coyote willow. Later, we observed around 12 vultures coming into roost on a dead tree.

Jackrabbit Mora Duel-Sig
Jackrabbit Duel
Pronghorn Antelope

Heading back to Las Vegas for a late dinner, what seemed like the largest dang jackrabbits ever greeted our driving path towards the gate. After discovering were locked inside the refuge and trying to get out is when Ginny discovered the elk off in the distance and a lone pronghorn.

Driving back to Rio Mora NWR, a hillside cemetery became visible in the dark because some of its crosses were illuminated by solar lights. After settling in at the lodge – the peacefulness and quietness overtook our sleep.

The next morning we were greeted with the sound of the Mora River, as well as a robin chorus around 5 a.m. Robins, I believe must have a secret bit of rooster in them.

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Bison on Rio Mora NWR

After packing up, we went to the next middle section of the NWR. On the road, we kept seeing large turds. Moments later we were greeted by the bison near the river owned by the Pojoaque Pueblo. These bison are much smaller than what we are used to at Caprock Canyons State Park in Texas. Seeing them being able to freely roam the refuge like their ancestors over 100 years ago is a sight to behold. It’s hard to imagine these magnificent mammals were hunted to near extinction.

After driving across a bridge we came to the ghost town of Loma Parda (meaning Grey Hill) which is now a part of the refuge. This town is located about seven miles south of Fort Union and its soldiers would often visit this town for drinks and women.

It’s a small world when you realize that one of the Nazareth’s priests I researched for two years, Father Stanley Crocchiola, wrote about Loma Parda in one of his small published books titled, “The Loma Parda, New Mexico Story” under F. Stanley.

Time was not on our side to fully explore the site, but we did get a sense of some of the buildings and its remoteness.

Our meeting led us back to Las Vegas NWR. A completely different landscape where rolling grassland, ravens, Canadian geese and coots greeted us. Unfortunately, we had to head back to our homes on the Llano Estacado.

Las Vegas Raven-Sig
Raven at Las Vegas NWR

This quick trip to New Mexico turned out to become a remarkable memory. Beaver, bison, elk, magpies, and crazy jackrabbits. Plus – cannot forget the unnamed friendly dog greeting us during our time at Loma Parda.

A welcoming friend

What this small exploration story hopes to inspire in you to do is get out and explore your national wildlife refuges. You’ll never know what you’ll see in the beauty of the landscape the refuges are preserving. Each refuge is unique in its own respect. So go out and enjoy them. You might even be greeted by the sight of a swimming beaver or a scare up magpie sitting in some coyote willow or it could be just a couple of flowers standing proudly in a vast landscape of grass.

Indian Paintbrush

Get outside.

Become inspired.

Explore your world.

Explore your refuges.


Photographs – © Christena Stephens Photography