Organ Pipe is one of the more remote, least visited parks in the entire National Park system. Located right on the border with Mexico in southernmost Arizona, the park is often dismissed as too out-of-the-way, too hot and dry, or too dangerous to visit compared to other superstar parks in the Southwest such as Grand Canyon or Joshua Tree. But as we discovered in January, Organ Pipe is a fun, fascinating, and seemingly safe place to visit.
In 1937, President Franklin Roosevelt signed legislation establishing Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The 516 square mile park was created to preserve not only stands of the unusual namesake cacti but all sorts of other remarkable flora and fauna unique to the Sonoran Desert ecosystem.
Mature organ pipe cacti often stand 10 feet tall and live over 100 years. Unlike their more common “cousins”, the saguaro cacti, which begin as a single column and branch-out several feet above the ground, organ pipe cacti are multi-armed right from ground level. Some organ pipe cacti develop 20-30 arms curving upwards from a common base. The cacti don’t begin to flower until age 35. In May and June, their blossoms open at night and are pollinated by bats that migrate up from Mexico.
The park is botanically diverse and surprisingly verdant considering it receives only about 10 inches of rain annually. It typically exceeds 100 degrees daily from June through September, but those are also the months when monsoonal rains provide life-sustaining moisture in the form of spectacular thunderstorms. Many consider February through May as the ideal period to visit the park when most wildflowers bloom and daytime temperatures aren’t too severe.
Organ Pipe is a campers’ park; there is no lodge. The large Twin Peaks Campground (over 200 spaces) features solar heated showers and central drinking water but no electrical hook-ups.
Visitors will want to take the 21-mile Ajo Mountain Loop Drive. Aided with a mile-by-mile guidebook, the drive provides an excellent introduction to the plants, geology and history of the area. There are several trailheads along this graded dirt road including the outstanding Estes Canyon-Bull Pasture loop trail. This strenuous four-mile hike up into the golden-hued Ajo Range is a nature-lover’s delight. Over 95 percent of the park is managed as wilderness.
We enjoyed getting familiar with the cacti and other desert plants that flourish in this ecosystem, and look forward to returning in the spring to witness the blooming of the ocotillo, prickly pear, cholla, pincushion, saguaro, and of course the organ pipe cacti themselves. It would be a treat to see a bighorn sheep, javelina, or reclusive gila monster or desert tortoise among the rocks and shrubs.
It should be noted that, being on the border, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument has not been immune to incursions by drug smugglers and illegal immigrants. A US Park Service ranger was, in fact, murdered here by drug runners in 2002. Since then, border security has been greatly reinforced. During our recent visit to the park, the US Border Patrol was very active and conspicuous. We felt quite safe.
To learn more about Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, click on the official website: www.nps.gov/orpi.