To reach Organ Pipe National Monument you’ll pass through the slumbering town of Ajo, Arizona. Once fueled by copper, the state’s first copper mine was here launched in the mid-1850s. Ajo (pronounced AH-ho, either takes its name from the Spanish word for garlic, or from o’oho, the native Tohono O’odham word for paint) took a substantial hit in 1985 when Phelps Dodge closed its copper mine.
Located 15 miles south of Ajo on Highway 85, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument preserves a diverse and relatively undisturbed sample of the Sonoran Desert. Mountains surround the park on all sides, some near, some distant, with colors changing from one hour to the next.
Ninety-five percent of the monument is designated as wilderness area which makes this one of the best places to view the Sonoran Desert.
The monument’s eastern boundary runs along the backbone of the Ajo Range, which includes Mt. Ajo at 4,808 feet and Diaz Peak at 4,024 feet.
The organ pipe cactus thrives within the United States primarily in the 516-square-mile Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and International Biosphere Reserve. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is designated by the American Bird Conservancy as a Globally Important Bird Area.
Instead of growing with one massive trunk like the saguaro, the many branches of the organ pipe rise from a base at the ground. Originally called pitayas, this cactus is a stately plant, with columns rising mostly like, well, the pipes of a church organ. Their pithaya fruit, like a saguaro’s, mature in July, have red pulp and small seeds.
Each desert plant is usable to some extent—the organ pipe is no exception. These plants played a vital role in the lives of native people for thousands of years. Tohono O’odham people used the wood for construction and picked their fruit for food. The fruit is eaten raw or dried, fermented into wine, and made into jelly, jams, and syrup. Seeds can provide flour and cooking oil.
The organ pipe, of course, has company—25 other cactus species including the stately saguaro, chain-fruit cholla, teddy bear cholla, and Engelmann prickly pear, also make this park their home. A mature organ-pipe cactus may be more than 100 years old. A mature saguaro can live to be more than 150.
Foothill palo verde, ironwood, jojoba, elephant tree, mesquite, triangle-leaf bursage, agave, creosote bush, ocotillo, and brittlebush also contribute to the desert landscape.
It’s also home to coyotes, the endangered Sonoran pronghorn, desert bighorn sheep, deer, javelina, gila monster, Western diamondback rattlesnake, desert tortoise, Gambel’s quail, roadrunner, Gila woodpecker, and bats. Lesser long-nosed bats drink the nectar of the organ pipe, in the process being sprinkled by pollen dust, which the bats then transport to other cactuses for fertilization.
The Kris Eggle Visitor Center offers information about the desert flora and fauna, plus there are scheduled talks and guided walks. Park rangers are there to talk over plans and interests with you.
Organ Pipe offers two scenic drives and numerous hiking trails. The 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive is a one-way road that winds and dips and provides access to some of the finest scenery in the monument. Available at the visitor center, a self-guided-tour booklet describes 22 stops along the way and greatly enhances the experience.
The Puerto Blanco Drive is a four-hour, 41 mile loop that connects the North and South sections of the Puerto Blanco Drive and includes Quitobaquito Springs, a true oasis that is home to an endangered subspecies of desert pupfish. Many birds are attracted to the Springs including vermillion flycatchers, phainopepla, and killdeer.
Both drives offer many opportunities for scenic beauty, solitude, exploration, and photography.
Twin Peaks Campground has 208 sites that are generally level, widely spaced, and landscaped by natural desert growth. The campsites will easily accommodate 40-foot motorhomes and are available on a first-come first-served basis. As well, Alamo Campground has four well-spaced, primitive spots.
When I walk in the desert the birds sing very beautifully
When I walk in the desert the trees wave their branches in the breeze
When I walk in the desert the tall saguaro wave their arms way up high
When I walk in the desert the animals stop to look at me as if they were saying
“Welcome to our home.”
—Jeanette Chico, in When It Rains