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Some of the desert environment on the Ajo Mountain Drive touring road was impressive.
Organ Pipe Cactus NM
Closest available address
10 Organ Pipe Drive Ajo, AZ 85321
Park is open 24 hours. Visitor Center is open 8:30am to 4:30pm.
Best time to visit
Fall, Winter, Spring
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a 330,000 acre park located in the southwestern part of Arizona. It became a national monument in 1937 and is designated as an International Biosphere Reserve. Although the park area is classified as a desert due to sparse rainfall and high temperatures, there is a diverse range of plant and animal life here, including a large number of the namesake organ pipe cactus. Facilities include a visitor center/museum, campgrounds, touring roads and hiking trails. The park borders Mexico and security issues have led to partial park closures in the past. As of April 2015, the entire park was open.
Monument lands were donated by the state of Arizona to the US government. President Roosevelt created the monument to help recover and preserve the Sonoran Desert which had been overgrazed by ranchers and overdeveloped by miners. Mining and ranching continued in the park till the 1970s. It was also in the 1970s that most of the park was designated as a wilderness area. The park had a major problem with illegal immigration in the 1990s and early 2000s, but increased patrols, fencing and vehicle barriers have diminished the problem.
This monument is the only place in the US where the organ pipe cactus grows naturally. It does not grow further north due to cold and frost. Elevations in the monument range from around 1,000 feet to 4,800 feet at the top of Ajo Mountain. There are also some desert springs, the best known is Quitobaquito Springs, which is located in the western part of the park and is home to a rare fish.
Temperatures were in the 80s during an April visit but hiking was still doable. It can get well over 100 degrees in the summertime. The visitor center staff were welcoming and provided helpful suggestions of places to go and things to see. One of the best features of this park is the diversity of desert plants which are well suited for a parched environment and scorching summer heat. The visitor center displays were informative regarding both the local plants and animals. Also, a short nature trail behind the visitor center was worthwhile. A new pond has been built there to give some rare desert fish a second home. Although the park film was about 15 minutes, it was mainly nature pictures and can be skipped in favor of the museum itself. From a sightseeing perspective, the main attraction is the Ajo Mountain Drive on the east side of the park. It’s a 21 mile dirt road but is drivable for all vehicles. Both the scenery and the interpretive signs were enjoyable. A short hike was taken at the Arch Canyon trailhead, but turned out to be a dud. It was uninteresting and the narrow, rocky trail ended as more of a climb up steep rocks. Had there been more time, the Estes Canyon Loop Trail would have been tried as well. The Red Tanks Tinaja Trail off the North Puerto Blanco Drive in the West side of the park was hiked. It was better from a recreational standpoint than Estes Canyon but was more of a place to stretch your legs than to enjoy the mountain scenery and desert vistas. Puerto Blanco Drive is partially paved and a two way road for a few miles past the visitor center. After that it’s a dirt road and only open to high clearance vehicles. If you have such a vehicle, it typically has less traffic than the Ajo Mountain Drive.
The park is close enough to Phoenix and Tucson to make it a realistic daytrip. It’s not a bad excursion to enjoy some desert mountain scenery and to take some short walks, but is less scenic and less convenient than Saguaro National Park in Tucson. Organ Pipes will be of most interest to those into nature, especially plant enthusiasts. Border smuggling and illegal immigration activities still occur in this area; you should be mindful of your situation and security when visiting. With a half day, you can cover the key sections of the park, but if you want to go for longer hikes or drive more of the back roads, consider spending a day or two.
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