Camp in an Otherworldly Desert

Bates Mountains Route, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona
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Bates Mountains Route, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona
Bates Mountains

Walk beneath 50-foot organ pipe cacti en route to the Bates Mountains. Photo by: Ed Callaert

When 70 percent of Organ Pipe’s backcountry was closed in 2003 due to security concerns (the park has been a thoroughfare for illegal immigration since the 1990s), backpackers lost out on the “lushest, greenest” desert in southern Arizona, says Sue Walter, chief of interpretation. A UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve, the monument is the only spot where visitors can see the park’s namesake cactus in significant numbers and camp in the most biologically diverse region in the Sonoran Desert. Fortunately, security has improved. “We just opened up the backcountry last year and haven’t had any conflicts,” assures Walter.

Take advantage of Organ Pipe’s grand reopening by traversing the 3,000-foot Bates Mountains (check to make sure it’s still open beforehand). Pack enough water for the whole trip, and head north from the turnout on Puerto Blanco Drive through stands of 50-foot saguaro and organ pipe cacti. Camp below 3,197-foot Kino Peak near mile 7; listen for howling coyotes and chirping bats at twilight. Next day, summit Kino via a class-3 scramble up the east buttress (keep your eyes peeled for desert bighorn sheep) for a 360-degree view of the Sonoran Desert. Retrace your steps to your car.

Distance 16 miles, 2 days Trailhead 32.031661, -112.951522 Season November through April Permit $5/group