Even more of a surprise awaits those who visit Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in south central Arizona. Stands of organ pipe cacti, the monument’s large signature plant, grace sunny southern slopes; clusters of long tubular arms rising 20 feet sway gracefully in the breeze. Elephant trees and senita cacti reach their northernmost range in this part of the Sonoran desert, which is like no other area of the United States.
A visit to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a chance to see the rich profusion of desert plant life and to experience the beauty of the Sonoran desert.
Your first stop should be the Visitor Center. The park brochure, exhibits and slide shows will help you plan your visit. Check the schedule for programs: You can participate in ranger-led walks in winter months and you can view wildflowers in early spring.
Before exploring the desert, take some basic safety precautions. Carry plenty of water. Wear protective clothing and shoes. A comb is useful for detaching segments of jumping cactus from shoes and clothing. Watch where you step or put your hands; rattlesnakes may be sunning themselves on a trail or rock. Obtain a complete list of safety guidelines at the Visitor Center.
The short nature trail at the Visitor Center is a good introduction to plants you will be seeing in the park. Twenty-six species of cacti inhabit the monument. Mammals and reptiles live here but many are nocturnal, coming out after dark when it is cool. Keep your eyes open, though, for jack rabbits, lizards and coyotes. Birds you might see are white-winged doves, Gila woodpeckers, Gamble’s quail with their bobbing topknots, and hawks.
After stopping at the Visitor Center you can explore by vehicle or on foot. Be sure to take Ajo Mountain Drive, a guided 21-mile one-way loop on a graded dirt road. First purchase an interpretive brochure at the Visitor Center explaining the stops. At numerous pullovers you can get out and see various features, view spectacular panoramas and take short hikes. Three picnic areas provide a place to have lunch or take a break.
You’ll drive through a number of plant communities; vegetation alters as conditions like topography and soil change. First is mixed scrub, which gives way to mixed cactus and palo verde. Forests of saguaros grow on the bajadas, or low-lying gravel slopes. Palo verde, organ pipe, prickly pear and cholla cacti thrive here too.
At stop 13, a 1.6-mile hike takes you up Arch Canyon along the valley floor. At this higher elevation the plants change again and you’ll find jojoba, agave, rosewood and juniper. You can continue on to a vista, however the trail becomes steep.
The other loop drive is Puerto Blanco Drive. Check with the Visitor Center or at www.nps.gov/orpi for closures. Currently only the first five miles of North Puerto Blanco Drive is open. With the closure, accessing Senita Basin with its unusual plants involves a hike.
Besides the nature trail at the Visitor Center, there are a number of other walks and hikes of varying difficulty. Utilizing a trail system that is 6,000 to 8,000 years old, hikes range from easy, well-marked trails to more difficult overland journeys requiring a map. The Explorer’s Guide to Walks, Routes, and the Back Country is available for purchase at the Visitor Center and describes all the hikes in the park, listed from easiest to most difficult. You should be able to find one that suits your abilities, interests and time limits.
RVers can take Highway 85 south from I-8, the interstate that runs between Tucson and Yuma, or, from Tucson follow Highway 86 to where it joins Highway 85 at Why and drive south for 22 miles. The national monument has a campground for RVs with a dump station but no hookups. Limited services are available in Why and Lukeville, including fuel, groceries and RV parks. You’ll find a wider range of services in Ajo and across the border in Sonoyta, Mexico.
October through April are the most popular months to visit. Daytime temperatures are usually in the 60s or 70s with cooler nights. During other months the daytime temperatures can exceed 105. Spring comes early to the desert so if you are interested in seeing wildflowers, check with the park or www.DesertUSA.com to find out what is blooming.
On Highway 85 north of Why, is Ajo, a historic mining town with Spanish Colonial Revival architecture. It’s a fun place to visit. Walk around the plaza, look in the New Cornelia open pit at the viewpoint or visit the Ajo Historical Society Museum. The Chamber of Commerce on the south end of town has information.
You can also venture into Mexico. Highway 85 takes you to the border crossing at Lukeville, where you can drive to Sonoyta or Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point), a popular resort area in the state of Sonora, Mexico.
The Sonoran desert is unlike the three other North American deserts because it gets rain both summer and winter. In Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument you can experience the richness of its plant life. With huge cacti like the saguaro and organ pipe looming overhead, rugged peaks breaking up the skyline and framing the valleys, you’ll hardly believe you are in a desert—and you’ll know it sure isn’t the Sahara!
Jaimie Hall is an RVer and author whose books include Support Your RV Lifestyle: An Insider’s Guide to Working on the Road, and, with Alice Zyetz, RV Traveling Tales: Women’s Journey on the Open Road.