As I snaked along the path that led me up to the top of the mountain, I was careful not to touch or bump into anything – and I mean anything. All the plants looked like they wanted to reach out and stick me. In fact, one of the plants, the chain fruit cholla, has been given the nickname of the jumping cactus because its spiny balls sometimes appear to jump from the plant or the ground onto you. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is not the barren desert that comes to mind when you think of dusty cowboy trails like Monument Valley. It’s green and full of life.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve because of its amazing and unique biodiversity. The monument protects 330,000 acres of this wonderful green, living desert.
A green desert
When I first arrived at the park, I was surprised to see how green and lush the area is. I called my parents and attempted to describe what I was seeing, and the only thing I could say was, “It’s so green!” To that, my mom kept answering, “Green?” When I texted them a picture my mom said, “Oh, now I can see the green. I was having a hard time picturing a green desert.”
But that is exactly what the Sonoran Desert is. With its biodiversity, tall saguaro, organ pipe, and cholla cacti, and numerous smaller plants that fill in the understory, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument reminds me of a manicured, well planned-out botanical garden. But this special place is all natural.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument sits on the border between the United States and Mexico. It’s about two hours southwest of Tucson, Arizona and on the ancestral lands of the Tohono O’odham people. It is a pristine example of the Sonoran Desert ecosystem. And because of this, scientists from all over the world come to study the area.
It has 31 species of cacti alone. The park’s namesake, the organ pipe cactus, and the saguaro cactus are probably the most famous. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is truly a unique place. In the United States, the organ pipe cactus does not grow anywhere else in the wild. To learn more about the park, visit its website here.
Hiking at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
With dozen of miles of hiking trails, you can explore many areas of the park. Most trails are fairly short and easy. Several trails take you to historic mines or homesteads, and you can explore and imagine what life was like long ago.
The Victoria Mine Trail is about a 4.5-mile round trip to a historic mine site. Here you can see an old building, the debris field from the mine, and look down in the mine. However, the mine shaft is gated off for your safety.
The Desert View Trail is a 1.2-mile loop that takes you to the top of a mountain where you can overlook Mexico. This trail is fairly easy and has informational placards dotted throughout so you can learn about all the diverse vegetation.
The Alamo Canyon Trail is another easy hike. It’s a 2-mile out-and-back trek that is great for watching for birds. The Alamo Canyon Trail goes deep into the Ajo Mountains to an old ranch. At the ranch, you can see the old house, corral, and well.
Scenic Drives at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
There are several scenic drives within the park. The Ajo Mountain Drive is the most popular and is a 21-mile loop. It’s a gravel road, but passenger cars should be OK. This drive takes you up into the Ajo Mountains views different from those than you can see in the valleys. Be sure to stop by the Visitor Center for a self-guiding pamphlet to take along with you.
Puerto Blanco Drive is another popular route. It is 37 miles and has several stops with scenic views and information. The park does recommend high clearance vehicles.
Bate Well Road is 23 miles one way. On this drive you can see the Bates Well Ranch site; however, the park strongly recommends high clearance vehicles.
Pozo Nuevo Road is a 14-mile drive that connects Puerto Blanco Drive and Bates Well Road. It offers scenic views and the historic Pozo Nuevo line camp. The park again strongly recommend 4×4 high clearance vehicles.
Camino de Dos Republicas to Gachado line shake and Dos Lomitas ranch house extends 10 miles off the main highway of the park. The park advises that this road is rough and crosses several washes.
When the park advises high clearance 4×4, they mean it. I have a high clearance all-wheel-drive vehicle and I scooped up some rocks driving to Gatchado Line Camp. This caused me to have to take off my wheel and clean out the rock because my car started to make a horrible noise.
If biking is your thing, bikes are allowed on all roads that are open to vehicles.
Camping at the park
There are two campgrounds at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Twin Peaks Campground has 34 tent-only sites and 174 sites for RVs. It has restrooms and running water with a few solar showers. However, hookups for electricity, water, and sewer are not available.
Twin Peaks Campground is close to the Kris Eggle Visitor Center. Campsites are $20 per night.
The Alamo Campground is primitive with vault toilets. It has four tent-only sites. Water is not available, and fires are not permitted. These sites are $12 per night.
Safety at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Due to the proximity to the international border, park officials advise you to take precautions while visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. According to the park, people do cross the border here illegally. However, you are unlikely to encounter any illegal activity.
People who cross the border illegally do not want contact with other people and therefore will stay far away. Avoiding unofficial hiking trails is a great way to avoid an encounter. You should report suspicious behavior and secure all your valuables in your vehicle.
Because I was visiting the park alone, I stayed on trails that did not venture too far into the backcountry. While hiking the Victoria Mine Trail, I had hoped to go further to Lost Cabin. A sign a Victoria Mine discouraged solo travel deeper into the wilderness, so I didn’t go.
A couple came behind me, and I decided to ask if I could hike with them if they were going to continue, but they were not. So I turned around and hiked back.
In the end, you are far more likely to get hurt while driving. Most injuries to visitors at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument are from motor vehicle accidents. But be sure to practice Leave No Trace Principle 1 – Plan Ahead and Prepare – and know the associated risk and how to avoid it when visiting the region.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
After just a few minutes at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, I knew it was going to be one of my favorite places. This area is extremely special and should be protected. One way to advocate for the protection of special places like this is to visit them and share your experience with others.