Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Overview

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The desert awaits

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument celebrates the life and landscape of the Sonoran Desert. In this arid wilderness of plants and animals, dramatic mountains and plains scenery, hike a backcountry trail, camp beneath a clear desert sky, drive a lonely road, or just soak in the warmth and beauty of the Southwest. The monument's 330,000-plus acres of protected land allow desert life to flourish under nearly ideal wilderness conditions. Organ Pipe is an outstanding natural preserve where one of the Earth's major ecosystems survives almost unspoiled.

Located between Arizona's Ajo Mountains and the Mexico border, about 100 miles west of Tucson, Organ Pipe is the only place in the United States that you'll find the organ pipe cactus—so named because of the many limbs branching out from its base. Along with its namesake cactus, the monument hosts 25 other varieties, including the familiar saguaro. In the spring, visitors will enjoy both milder temperatures and incredible desert color—the wildflower bloom of golden poppies, blue lupines, and pink owl clover—that paints the landscape following a wet winter. From May through July, the tender, lavender-white flowers of the organ pipe blossom—opening their petals after the day's heat fades.

Much of the flora and fauna that resides here hides out until sunset. Elf owls, kangaroo rats, snakes, and jackrabbits are all creatures of the night, and even those animals that remain active during the day prefer to seek shade during the hottest hours. Take a lesson from these desert dwellers: All travelers in Organ Pipe's unforgiving desert must come prepared. Don't let this keep you from experiencing its awe-inspiring beauty; just as desert wanderers did in times past, Organ Pipe visitors must be aware of thirst and heat (not to mention rattlesnakes), finding ways to safely enjoy the desert on their own terms.

Backcountry Trek to Kino Peak
Beyond Organ Pipe's six marked trails, you'll find extensive backcountry hiking—just be sure to pack a good map and plenty of water (no permanent streams here). Kino Peak, a seemingly insurmountable, 3,197-foot, orange-red monolith, stands sentinel over the Bates Mountains, a large trackless area in the north-central part of the monument. As you hike among the foothills, great walls of volcanic rock and granite loom overhead. Don't be intimidated by what looks like 500 feet of sheer, trail-free cliff face—no rope or climbing equipment is necessary. A bird's-eye view of Organ Pipe makes the scramble to the top of the peak well worth the challenge.

More on hiking in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Desert Biking
If you're feeling up to the challenge of two-wheel travel in the desert, hit the road with Ajo Mountain Drive, a 21-mile, one-way loop that serves as one of the main sightseeing routes within the monument. Little or no technical biking skills are required, but the length of the ride (not to mention the Arizona heat) does require a moderate level of physical fitness. The drive climbs gradually up and around the Diablo Mountains to an elevation of 2,600 feet, offering views of Mount Ajo, the highest peak in the range (4,808'), and Mexico's Cubabi Mountains. Allow at least three hours to complete this loop.

Desert Driving
One of Arizona's most scenic roads, Puerto Blanco Drive (53 miles) showcases the beauty of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The route travels deep into unspoiled backcountry, across plains and through mountain foothills. Besides the varied plants of the Sonoran Desert, the drive passes close to old mines, springs, historic sites, and the surprising, tree-lined Quitobaquito Oasis. In addition, there are a number of side hikes ranging from short nature trails to lengthy, unmaintained routes. A small hill at mile 10 offers particularly fine views over the Valley of the Ajo, the mountains, and the road itself. At the south edge of the Puerto Blanco Mountains, a short spur road takes visitors to Senita Basin—the best place to see the monument's three major species of cacti (saguaro, organ pipe, and the rare senita) growing together. Get out of the car and take one of the trails that climb into the mountains towards other old mines. All of the road is unpaved but still passable without four-wheel-drive.

More on scenic driving in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 13 Sep 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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