It’s time to flee to snowbird heaven for awhile when winter sets in up north, or decides to linger too long. When you do, stop in and check out Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, in Ajo, AZ.
Located in the biological and geographical center of the Sonoran Desert, about 130 miles southwest of Tucson, there is no place quite like this park. It is much greener here than most would expect. This is the only place in the U.S. you will find organ pipe cacti, a cactus with many arms growing from a single base. It is also home to the giant saguaro, barrel cactus, several kinds of cholla, prickly pear, mesquite, palo verde… the list goes on and on. There are over 500 plant species and subspecies here in the monument and a great many of them are armed with spines, so be careful!
The park was designated an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976 by the United Nations due to its mostly untouched wilderness, the unique ecosystems and the fragile environment. It is located just five miles from the international border with Mexico at Lukeville, an area with heavy traffic in illegal border crossings, drug, money and gun smuggling. Because of this parts of it are, sadly, no longer untouched, and have been closed to the public for several years. The border patrol maintains a constant presence and there is good cooperation between them and the park law enforcement rangers.
Armed smugglers and illegal immigrants are just two of several hazards in the monument. The other dangers include heat, spiny plants, poisonous snakes, scorpions, and lack of water. Most hikers stay on the well-maintained trails for these reasons. There are four that are easily accessed: Alamo Canyon, Estes Canyon/Bull Pasture, Victoria Mine, and Arch Canyon.
There are two campgrounds: Twin Peaks Campground near the Visitor Center can take RVs of any length as well as tent campers, and Alamo Canyon which has five primitive camping sites suitable for small campers or tents. There are no hookups at Twin Peaks, but a dump station and potable water are available and half the restrooms have a shower. You must pack in your own water at Alamo Canyon, but there is a vault toilet.
There are excellent and informative ranger programs held at the Visitor Center during the day and at the campground’s amphitheater in the evening. Many wild creatures make their home in the Sonoran Desert, but you won’t see most of them as they are not active during the daylight hours. There are almost 300 species of local and migrating birds to see. One of the wild creatures you won’t see is the pack rat – be warned – leave the hood of your car, truck or motorhome open. They can do a lot of damage.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is reached via AZ 85 from Phoenix or AZ 86 from Tucson. AZ 86 crosses the Tohono O’Odham Indian reservation and passes near Kitt Peak National Observatory, located high above the desert under some of the best night skies in the country. The visitor center there is free, though there is a modest charge for a guided tour. AZ 85 and AZ 86 meet in the small town of Why, and 85 heads south to the monument from that point.
Aside from Kitt Peak, the national monument is pretty far from other tourist attractions and is not heavily visited. Its remote location and rugged unspoiled landscape are part of the charm of this beautiful park.
Winter months are mild, with warm days and chilly nights, occasional rains, and infrequent freezes that do not last more than a few hours. I can personally vouch for the fact that there are frequent stunning sunrises and sunsets and, if you take a stroll after dark, you’ll be amazed at the brilliance of the stars. The most popular time to visit is from December to March.
If the winter rain is sufficient, there will be a gorgeous spring wildflower show. Early summer is hot and dry with temperatures in the low 100s; late summer brings violent thunderstorms and lightning. Temperatures drop down into the 90s but the humidity increases.
If you fall in love with this part of the Sonoran Desert, as I did, you can volunteer for a job at Organ Pipe National Monument and spend the whole winter. They provide excellent sites and amenities in a separate campground for the volunteers. When the wind blows stop and listen carefully. If you’re lucky, you may hear the cactus sing.
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