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Backpacker Magazine – April 1999

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Roads end in Arizona with tall tales, natural gardens, cacti forests, and shoe scorpions.

by: Larry Rice

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Contact Information:

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument St. 1, Box 100 Ajo, AZ 85321 520/387-6849 or 520/387-7661 Location: Organ Pipe is in southwest Arizona, 100 miles west of Tucson. Surrounding towns include Lukeville (south), Why (northeast), Ajo (north), and Sonoyta, Mexico (south).

Getting There: Go west from Tucson on highway 86, then south on highway 85.

Seasonal Information: Extreme temperatures, intense sunlight, and little rainfall (averaging 9.21 inches per year) characterize the region.

The best hiking months are October through April, with sunny days in the 70s and 80s. From May through September temperatures often exceed 105 degrees F and ground temperatures may soar to a scorching 175 degrees F. Nights are considerably cooler than days year-round. In January, nighttime temperatures can plummet into the teens.

Brief, violent thunderstorms sometimes occur in August and September. December through March, there are usually gentle rains.

Visitation is highest in February, March, and April.

Wildlife: There are six varieties of rattlesnakes, gila monsters, and scorpions. These creatures are important to the ecology of the area and should not be harmed.

Elf owls, kangaroo rats, and jackrabbits are creatures of the night. But you'll see bighorn sheep and birds in early morning and late afternoon. Coyotes and javelinas adapt their activities to both day and night, depending upon the heat.

Insects: Flying insects are at their best ~ that means your worst ~ in May and June.

Plant Life: Foremost among the desert dwellers are the cacti. Altogether 26 species inhabit the monument, including the saguaro and, of course, the large and multi-branched organ pipe cactus ~ the monument's namesake. The organ pipe is found rarely in the United States, although common in Mexico. In the heat of May, June, and July, the organ pipe waits until the sun goes down to open its tender lavender-white flowers.

The blooming cacti are upstaged only by springtime explosions of gold poppies, blue lupines, pink owl clover, and other annual wildflowers.

Facilities: The monument campground is open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis. Water, flush toilets, grills, tables, dump station, and amphitheater are offered. Group campsites are available by reservation.

Private campgrounds are located in Lukeville and Why.

If you prefer primitive camping, you can stay at a backcountry campground ~ Alamo Primitive Campground.

Parking: Contact park office for information.

Permits: Permits required for backcountry camping are available at the visitor center.


  • Fires are permitted in grills.
  • Wood gathering is prohibited.
  • Pets, if leashed, may be taken on two trails.


  • When hiking, take one gallon of water per person per day, less in winter.
  • There are no reliable sources of drinking water in the monument outside the visitor center/campground area.
  • Bring sturdy shoes, a hat, sunscreen, and a flashlight.
  • Avoid overexertion and overexposure to the sun.
  • Watch out for the many desert plants with spines and thorns.
  • At night carry a flashlight and watch for rattlesnakes. But do not harm them; snakes are protected.

Leave No Trace: Backcountry campers must be at least half a mile from any road. All LNT guidelines apply.

Maps: Topo maps and guides are available for sale at the visitor center or can be purchased by mail.

Information is also available at

Other Trip Options: Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge lies just to the west.

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