Desert Meanderings

Organ pipe  045Organ pipe  001We 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.Organ pipe  052

Organ pipe  043Be 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.

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Border Patrol Checkpoints are all around the border area

Border Patrol Checkpoints are all around the border area

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.Organ pipe  003

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.

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Organ pipe  046Organ pipe  041National 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  019

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.Organ pipe  034

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Saguaro skeleton

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.

Organ pipe  038Organ pipe  010When 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.Organ pipe  012

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).Organ pipe  008

Organ pipe  017There are two scenic drives in the national monument, both on graded dirt roads, described as winding, up-and-down roads, but easy to drive. These have a 25′ max vehicle length.

There are also some other roads that require high clearance 4WD.

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Teddybear Cholla

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Barrel Cactus

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.

Saguaros dancing

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Hedgehog Cactus with Jojoba bush behind on the right

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.Organ pipe  014Organ pipe  037

Organ pipe  026Our 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.

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Chainfruit Cholla surrounded by Creosote bushes

Organ pipe  055One 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.Organ pipe  092

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!


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Saguaro with "Nurse" Tree

Saguaro with “Nurse” Palo Verde Tree

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.Organ pipe  075Organ pipe  062

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.Organ pipe  036

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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.

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Cactus Wren

Gila Woodpecker

Gila Woodpecker

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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.

Organ pipe  064Organ pipe  060There 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!

Organ pipe  039Organ pipe  066Inside my handy Desert Ranger Guide, I found a section that identified locations of several rare cristates along the 21-mile loop.

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.

Organ pipe  076Organ pipe  077The guide also pointed out various arches and wannabee arches along the way, but the arches in this  park are generally pretty small.Organ pipe  070

And we found out that in addition to crested saguaros, there are crested organ pipe cacti at the National Monument. Wow!  Organ pipe  072Organ pipe  071

So we returned to the Ajo Mountain Loop, this time hunting for the crested saguaros and organ pipe. And found all but two of them. So cool!Organ pipe  079Organ pipe  074Organ pipe  065

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Pencil Cholla

Organ pipe  024Organ pipe  044Organ pipe  023Organ pipe  086Organ pipe  087Towards 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.

~ Brenda

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23 thoughts on “Desert Meanderings

  1. Happy New Year, Friends! What a lovely, peaceful place the desert is… LOVE saguaro’s and am sure we’d love the many other cacti varieties. As is always the case, thank you for “keeping” us along with you.

    We leave for Chile and Argentina in a week to travel with Veronicca…. SOOOOO excited about the travels and about her coming back to the USA with us!!!! We will miss you for the month or so we are gone…. Godspeed and prayers for good health for ALL!

    • Thank you and Happy New Year! I’m really excited for your trip to Chile and Argentina – have a wonderful time! And I know how happy you are to have Veronica back – Yay! Will she be staying in Denver? Safe travels and can’t wait to hear about your adventures.

      • Veronicca is awaiting grad school ap responses, hopefully many with scholarship offers attached to them! Will keep you posted. Keep up the Ranger-ing!!!! 🙂 Godspeed. xo

  2. WOW – You guys out did you selves this time. Stunning pictures Hector and congrats to Desert Ranger Brenda. You look very pleased as you should be. : ) I Love the Desert. Safe travels as always, Karen

  3. I am even more excited now to get to this area!! We will head to Why after Anza Borrego. I have only seen one Organ Pipe Cactus in the Desert Museum. I can hardly wait to see many more and that crested organ pipe is magnificent. I knew there were a few there. I also love searching for crested saguaro. Great find, especially that crested arm!! I am most definitely getting a Ranger Guide. Thanks for the suggestion.

  4. I am always surprised to find such beauty in the desert. But, you folks certainly have done it!
    Thanks for sharing and Brenda, you can be my Desert Guide (certified) anytime!

  5. Love love love the tour through the park and I definitely want to put it on my list to see when I get down there. Very proud of you Miss Desert Guide ranger! I’ll give you a call! LOL

    • LOL, thank you! It’s a beautiful place, and btw, the wildflowers start to bloom in March, might be an even better time to come.

  6. Brenda, it was so much fun reliving Organ Pipe, as we haven’t been in so many years. I had a big smile on my face about the Junior Ranger Program as we have been many places and watched eager boys and girls going through the process of getting their badges, bright-eyed and serious as they could be. I am thinking you were the same way when you were completing your guide.

    The cacti photos were stunning and I particularly loved the crested images. Terry knows all too well about the jumping cholla as many years ago he fell into a teddy bear cholla forest when hiking in the Superstitions. I was still picking needles out of his body weeks after his mishap…ouch!

    • We love the junior ranger program, Hector always takes photos when there’s a “swearing in”. I did miss the swearing in ceremony lol, but love my badge.

      Oh, no! I can’t imagine falling into a teddy bear cholla forest – like a worst nightmare! So nice he had you to take care of him. Hey, we’re hanging around a little longer in Anza Borrego than originally planned, hope to see the two of you!

  7. Congratulations, Desert Rangers! You, Hector, and Angel! Thanks so much for the beautiful recount of your desert experience. I miss it there! Happy New Year, sweet friends!

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