Like Karen said to me, “beauty as far as the eyes can see.” That pretty much captures Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. If you don’t know where that is, you can be excused; it is located in the Sonoran Desert in southwest AZ on the border of Mexico.
Over 95% of this 500+ square mile park has been designated Wilderness – meaning no mechanized anything; you are talking a lot of wilderness. Created in order to preserve part of the Sonoran Desert habitat, it is named after the Organ Pipe Cactus.
This is the most northern reach of the Organ Pipe Cactus due to its’ sensitivity to frost. November through March temperatures in the park range from the mid/high 40’s (at night) to midday temps in the 70’s. Don’t let the mild temperatures fool you, though. If you go for a hike, make sure you bring plenty of water because the sun can wring you out.
Organ Pipe National Monument is outstanding in so many ways. The views are stunning; the Twin Peaks campground is about as nice a boondocking campground as we have stayed anywhere (no water or electricity at the site), the whole park is just enormously interesting, and the staff (and superintendent) have been a pleasure to meet! The views in the evening – from the campground, can be simply stunning.
Keep in mind that, in addition to this being a national monument (protected area) the park is also an International Biosphere Reserve, which is not uncommon for national parks in the US. The goals are to achieve conservation of their biological diversity, and creating or preserving a balance between people and nature. There are a number of different “…ologists” that reside here for the purpose of research and education of this rich and diverse landscape.
While the park (technically a national monument) was first created by FDR in 1937, it was closed from 2002 until 2014, due to concerns following 9/11 and the park’s proximity to the Mexican border. The park shares about 30+ miles with the Mexican border, although today there is a vehicle barrier fence along the border. Interestingly enough, the fence was in part created by re-purposing old railroad rails which are cut to length and then driven into the ground as fenceposts.
Signs within the park let you know that there can be illegal immigration and smuggling inside the park, although smugglers and illegal immigrants want less to do with you than you do with them. As you can see from the pictures, there is close proximity to a major road (State Route 2) on the Mexican side where a significant amount of trucking occurs, in to and out of Sonoyta.
In 2014 a new superintendent was installed, the park was re-opened, and the park has seen continual visitor growth since. A close partnership has been created here between the park and the Border Patrol. The superintendent, himself a law enforcement officer, has built a level of cooperation that benefits the Border Patrol, the park, and the park visitors.
While staying at the campground we spent one day hiking on a trail up to the Victoria Mine – an abandoned mine from years ago. There are any numbers of hikes available in the park, and in fact there is a shuttle that will take you in the morning to a beginning point from where you can hike back to the campground.
There are two “off road” trails you can drive through the park; a 37 mile drive that requires a high clearance vehicle and 4 wheel drive called the Puerto Blanco Drive, and a 20 mile drive that any vehicle can use called the Ajo Mountain Drive. We took both these drives and I would highly recommend.
The Puerto Blanco Drive takes you deep into the backcountry of the Puerto Blanco Mountain range, with views of mountains, cactus and really some rare beauty deep in the desert. The road is one-way most of the way, and can be somewhat rough in places (washboard). While I have 4-wheel drive, I never felt I needed to engage it on this journey.
The Ajo Mountain Drive is mostly a dirt road but any vehicle can make this drive, and I would also highly recommend taking this drive. It wanders through the Ajo Mountains and presents some outstanding views and natural beauty.
Bring everything you might need! There are no stores; perhaps with the exception of a gas station in Lukeville (5 miles away). Other than that, this is remote!
One of the recommended items to bring here would be a string of solar powered string lights (LED) for placing under your vehicle. There are pack rats around and they have been known to chew wiring on vehicles at night. Apparently they do not like light and supposedly the lighting will deter them. Or that could be a bunch of shit. I’m still lighting up the vehicles just the same; take my chances.
Time to say adieu, or in this case adios, but we will definitely return here. Add this to your list!!