Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

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

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.

Policies:

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

Hazards:

  • 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 http://www.nps.gov/orpi.

Other Trip Options:

Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge lies just to the west.