We were in the perfect place for desert meanderings. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has several trails, but this desert also has many areas that are easily accessible from the road and have enough spacing between vegetation to comfortably walk around.
Be warned, however, that throughout the area in and around the National Monument, there are signs posted advising the public that “Smuggling and illegal immigration may be encountered in this area. Avoid encounters with suspicious groups” and other variations of the same message.
But there is a strong border patrol presence throughout and the national monument has taken measures against illegal activity. Read more about those here. We felt comfortable exploring the area, but everyone should make their own decision based on their comfort level.
The Visitor Center is a great starting point for learning about the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Exhibits include displays about history of the area, plants, animals, and wildflowers found here, and displays about each of the five seasons in the park: dry summer, summer monsoon, fall, winter and spring, as well as research – the park is designated an international biosphere reserve.
National Monuments are generally established by Presidential Proclamation in lands already owned by the federal government because they contain items or historic, pre-historic or scientific interest. National Parks are established by Congress because of outstanding scenic features or natural phenomena, and may involve acquiring land.
Both are protected areas and both may include designated Wilderness within their boundaries. Wilderness areas restrict human activity to scientific study and non-mechanized recreation. 97 percent of Organ Pipe National Monument is designated as Wilderness.
Organ pipe cacti are found throughout Mexico but are only found in this area of the United States as they are limited in their range by severe frost. They can live to be over 150 years in age, and will produce their first flowers at around 35 years old. Their flowers bloom only at night during May and June. They are some of the most impressive looking cacti I’ve ever seen.
While at the Visitor Center, I noticed a booklet titled “Desert Ranger Guide (for the Not-so-junior-ranger)”. I have to admit that I’ve been envious of the kids that get sworn in as Junior Rangers – they get a badge and they can also get little uniforms and hats and things.
When I was an eleven-year-old kid having just moved to New York City, I was fascinated by a group called the Camp Fire Girls. But circumstances did not allow me to participate in this or similar groups.
Fast forward to the Visitor Center, I asked the ranger if I could take a copy of the guide. The last time I asked this at another park, the ranger said it was for “older kids”. But this ranger didn’t seem surprised, perhaps he realized that I was, in fact, an older kid at heart. And so I gleefully grabbed the guide and began my assignments (more on this later).
There are also some other roads that require high clearance 4WD.
Both scenic drives provide opportunities to see lots of organ pipe and saguaro, as well as chainfruit and teddybear cholla, ocotillo, prickly pear, jojoba, palo verde trees, hedgehog cacti, creosote bushes and many others. There are over 2,000 species of plants here. A Saudi Arabian prince who visited here is quoted as saying “this is not a desert, this is a garden.” So true.
The North Puerto Blanco drive is a ten-mile out and back drive with views of the Valley of the Ajo. At the five-mile mark you may turn around or continue on a “rugged one-way loop recommended for high clearance vehicles only” for another twenty miles or so. There are hiking trails off both roads.
Our little car, though all-wheel drive, doesn’t have high clearance so we limited our drive to the ten mile stretch. The weather cooled off a bit, so we took Angel and limited our desert meanderings to areas where our car was within sight. Dogs are also allowed to walk around picnic areas.
One time, when Hector dashed out to take photographs he brought back a joint of a chainfruit cholla on his shoe. These are sometimes referred to as jumping cholla because the joints attach to humans or animals walking beside them and are spread throughout the desert.
They don’t really jump, but they attach so easily it seems as if they do. Fortunately, the cholla detached from Hector’s shoe and impaled itself on our floor mat so it didn’t hurt him.
I grabbed the first thing that looked like it might remove the cholla safely, our jumper cables – they worked! It’s super important to watch for these small but dangerous pieces of cholla, they can hide in some unexpected places!
Later in the week, we explored both camping areas within the National Monument. Twin Peaks Campground is a “developed 208-space campground with RV sites up to 40 feet and a designated tent section”. At $12 per night for dry camping, and located in the lovely desert setting, this seems like a good alternative for those not wanting to drive the 20 miles or so to the monument from Why or Ajo. There is a trail around the campground and one from the campground to the visitor center (2.6 miles), both of which allow dogs.
The primitive campground, Alamo Canyon Campground, has four spaces accommodating tents, truck campers and small vans only and is located in a remote and stunning area of the desert. Generators are prohibited and wood fires are not allowed. The drive to the campground, just south of Why, is gorgeous and there is a canyon alongside the campground. Totally worth visiting even for those not staying there.
The Ajo Mountain Loop drive, 21 miles, not to be confused with the Ajo Scenic Loop alongside the town of Ajo, winds along the foothills of the Ajo Range. If planning to drive on this loop, ask for the guide at the Visitor Center.
The views are spectacular and there are several trails along the loop. We chose to do more desert meanderings, as there are many opportunities. There were lots of birds there, including cactus wren, gila woodpeckers, hummingbirds and phainopepla. One evening as we were on the last part of the loop, we saw lots of bats flying around.
There were also lots of saguaros. These cacti grow slowly and can live to be 200 years old. They grow straight up, sometimes under a nurse tree that provides shelter. Most will eventually outlive the nurse tree and grow to be up to 40 feet high. And they they don’t grow their first arm until they are around 70 years old!
Last year, when visiting Saguaro National Park, we learned that saguaros sometimes grow a fan-like form at the end of their arms referred to as a cristate or crested. The exact cause of these anomalies is not known by biologists. And they are pretty rare, so we had lots of fun looking for them.
So we were pretty excited by the prospect of finding more cristates.
Towards the end of our trip, we returned to the Visitor Center to hand in my Desert Ranger Guide. Although the requirement was to do any five activities in the guide, I completed all seven. Those that included questions ranged from very easy to somewhat difficult, I missed two, one of which was a Spanish word – oops.
But I got my Desert Ranger badge. Hector now recommends that anyone traveling in the desert take a Desert Ranger along. And, yes, I’m available for a reasonable fee.