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April 1999

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

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

Little Known Fact: The greatest 24-hour snowfall ever recorded at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was one inch in 1960.

Television and movies have long portrayed the Arizona desert as cacti and rattlesnake country, a land fit only for the toughest, meanest and most resourceful hombres. I decided to find out for myself if the desert deserves such a fierce reputation. And what better way than to spend a week in the backcountry of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, one of the most arid of Arizona’s hot spots.

Located 100 miles west of Tucson, adjacent to the Mexican border, Organ Pipe encompasses 330,874 acres of Sonoran Desert in nearly ideal wilderness conditions. The monument was established in 1937 to protect rare forms of American cacti, particularly the large and multibranched organ pipe cactus. But Organ Pipe is more than a showcase for unusual plants. The diverse terrain includes stark mountains, broad alluvial plains, isolated canyons and dry arroyos.

It was February, typically a month of mild temperatures and little rain in the Sonoran Desert. Park rangers suggested a number of possible backpacking routes, and I settled on two large trackless areas: the Bates Mountains in the north-central part of the park and Alamo Canyon in the Ajo Range to the east. The only problem was the lack of water. Since there are no permanent streams within Organ Pipe I would have to carry nearly a gallon per day of hiking.

I set my sights on Kino Peak, a 3,197-foot orange-red massif standing sentinel over the Bates range. No trails lead into the Bates Mountains; in the open cactus-coated terrain maintained trails would only get in the way.

Camp most evenings was made in a natural garden as pretty as it was unusual. The winter had been wet. The normally brown desert pavement had turned a brilliant green, highlighted with color from golden poppies, blue lupines, pink owl clover and other annual wildflowers.

Darkness comes quickly to the desert in winter, and with it comes a refreshing coolness. Because of little humidity or plant cover, the ground radiates almost 90 percent of the day’s accumulated heat back toward the sky. Afternoon temperatures that were in the mid-80s quickly plunged to the 40s.

During the next few days I moved deeper into the Bates Mountains. Great walls of volcanic rock and granite loomed overhead. The weather grew warmer. I awoke before dawn to avoid the heat of midday, and exchanged my heavy backpack for a light daypack filled with canteens. It was midday and blazing hot when I scrambled to the top of Kino Peak, but my efforts were rewarded with an eagle’s eye view of the monument. Tomorrow I would drive to Alamo Canyon for another three days of backpacking. In the morning I just had to remember to check my boots for scorpions.

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