Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument – Ajo, Arizona

February 2016

I lived in the Phoenix Metropolitan area for something like 11 years but I didn’t actually get out and explore Arizona that much. Pretty sure this is fairly common and it is sad. But I’m making up for lost time this winter as I spend a lot of time in southern Arizona, seeing places I’ve always meant to.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is one of those places I’ve always wanted to go, but never had, so it was high on my list of places to visit this winter. I wasn’t disappointed. The place is gorgeous!

Organ Pipe has an interesting history. It was declared a national monument in 1937 but ranching continued there until 1975, which for you paying attention at home, is a bit odd for this type of public land. In 1976 it was declared a International Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.

Twin Peaks Campground

If you are going to do Organ Pipe right, you need to stay at Twin Peaks Campground, the one and only campground for RVs within the monument. Twin Peaks is a pretty damn nice campground that offers only dry camping (no utilities) but very good spacing between campsites and an awesome location. However, it is still a campground, which means the high probability of obnoxious neighbors. Ugh!

IMG_9675

If you have to have a neighbor, might as well have a view like this

My 4 night stay at Twin Peaks Campground ended a streak of 131 nights of free camping. Oh, how I love me some free camping! I stayed in the non-generator section of the campground, which means you still hear the drone of obnoxious generators, but fortunately they are severely limited to the hours they can be run.

Hiking

Hiking in the monument is broken in two areas – the Puerto Blanco Mountains on the west side of AZ Highway 85 and the Ajo Mountains on the east side of AZ-85. I went for a hike in each area, as I didn’t want one area to feel left out.

My first hike was up Arch Canyon in the Ajo Mountains. On the hiking map, Arch Canyon is .6 miles one way so I figured it would be a nice short hike. However, when you get there and see the map at the trail head, you notice that the official trail ends at .6 miles, but you can continue up to the top of the canyon up what is essentially a goat path marked with the occasional cairn. Of course I decided I wanted to see what that was all about, so up, up, up I went. It was a crazy steep trail at time, but once on top, I had incredible views of the monument and south into Mexico. The .6 miles one-way hike ended up being 3.42 miles total and I was done for the day!

The second hike I took was in the Puerto Blanco Mountains. I caught a ride in the ranger van to the far end of the trail and hiked back to camp. The van dropped a group of hikers off in the Senita Basin, home of the rare Senita Cactus (looks like an Organ Pipe if you aren’t paying attention). I took a side trip on the way back to check out Victoria Mine.

Driving

There are two scenic drives in the park, and I did them both on the same day. The more popular Ajo Mountain Loop is a 21 mile mostly gravel road that takes you through dense concentrations of Saguaro cactus and makes you wonder why they didn’t name this place after them. Oh, right, there already is a Saguaro National Park…

The road much less travelled (literally) is the 37 mile North Puerto Blanco – South Puerto Blanco Loop gravel road. This is a one-way loop (for the most part) that takes you through a very remote section of the monument. The only other vehicle I saw was at a trailhead way the heck out there. Otherwise I was out on my own enjoying the spectacular scenery.

Ranger Tours

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument offers ranger led trips to several different areas via passenger vans. I went on two of them which was more than enough for me. There is something about driving down washboard roads in a passenger van that makes me never want to do that again!

First trip was to Quitobaquito Spring which is in the southwest corner of the monument, down the gravel road that runs parallel to the Mexican border. Located about 200 yards north of the border, the spring is the only place in the US that the Sonoyta, or Quitobaquito, Pupfish can be found.

Second trip was to the Gachado Line Camp, also down the dirt border road, but in the opposite direction of the spring. The line camp, located right on the border, was used by the ranch as an outpost where cowboys would temporarily stay during roundups, etc.

Would I take the ranger tours again? Yes and no. I wouldn’t drive in the van. I would show up at the location, listen to the talk, and then drive myself back. The reason I took the van was I thought I would learn stuff on the way. I did, but for the most part the interior was so damn noisy due to the road condition, that I couldn’t hear much. Plus the rides made my ass sore. For real!

The Border

Seeing the Mexico/US border in person was surreal. It is literally just a line in the sand. OK, there actually is a fence, of sorts. Most of the border in the monument is just a vehicle barrier fence. It doesn’t keep people out. The exception is a 5 mile stretch of pedestrian fencing that runs adjacent to the more populated area of Sonoyta, Mexico.

There were definitely signs of US Border Patrol in the area, but I didn’t see as many as I thought I would. I figured there would be a Border Patrol vehicle every mile or so with eyeballs on the border. Not the case. I guess they rely on technology to be their eyes.

In the weirdest places during my 37 mile loop drive I would see signs of the Border Patrol. At one spot there is a massive surveillance tower equipped with cameras and a rotating radar I assume looking for people walking in the desert. I also passed several “call for help” towers that had a big red button you could press and have someone come get you. Weird. Very, very strange to see these things in the middle of an otherwise empty landscape.

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