Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: Ajo Mountain Drive

Arguably the best way to get a representative view of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the Ajo Mountain Drive is a 21-mile scenic drive into, you guessed it, the Ajo Mountains, located within the park’s boundaries. Sometimes called the Ajo Mountain Loop Road, this drive takes visitors on a journey through rugged mountains while offering breathtaking views of the surrounding desert. And, yes, on this drive you’ll see plenty of Organ Pipe cacti!

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument covers 516 square miles of Southern Arizona, so you could spend a month there and not see all of this isolated, biodiverse jewel of the National Park System (NPS). But most people spend significantly less than a month there—and Ajo Mountain Drive is for them.

Careful drivers can navigate this 21-mile loop in most vehicles and it traverses much of what makes Organ Pipe great including unique desert flora, steep mountains, and dramatic views.

Ajo Mountain Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s no surprise that the Ajo Mountain Drive is the most popular scenic drive in the monument. It takes you through an excellent overview of the monument’s landscape bringing visitors through desert washes and up into the Ajo Mountains. For those wanting some good views and photographs of cacti, the drive provides ample opportunities to see large stands of its namesake cacti, the organ pipe cacti, as well as saguaros, cholla, and barrel cacti.

The Ajo Mountain Drive is a 21-mile graded, one-way dirt road. The drive takes approximately 2 hours and has been designed so that a passenger car driven with caution may be taken over it safely. Trailers, buses, and motorhomes over 25 feet are prohibited on the drive. After the first mile, the drive becomes a one-way road, so be prepared to finish the entire 21-mile loop.

Ajo Mountain Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Before you embark, stop at the monument’s visitor’s center to pay your entrance fee and pick up a guide to the route; numbered stakes along the road correspond to entries in the guide.

You can also follow along with the audio tour/written guide on the NPS App or download a PDF version of the guide.

There are four picnic sites provided on the drive. Stops #6 has a shaded picnic area and Estes Canyon after stop #11 has a ramada and backcountry restrooms. The Ajo Mountain Drive also provides access to the trailheads for the Arch Canyon, Old Pima County Road, and Estes Canyon/Bull Pasture trails. 

By the way, I have a series of posts on Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument:

Ajo Mountain Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Leaving the visitor’s center, head east on Ajo Mountain Drive which is across State Route 85 from the visitors center.

In the early going, you’ll see plenty of Sonoran Desert staples such as saguaros, chollas, and ocotillos along this wide, washboarded dirt road. Straight ahead, to the east, are the craggy peaks of the Ajo Range which is topped by 4,819-foot Mount Ajo. You’ll get a closer look at the mountains later but for now enjoy the view along the road—which splits and becomes a narrower, one-way route at Mile 2.

Two miles past the split, you’ll spot your first organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi), and a mile later these aptly named, many-limbed columnar cactuses line both sides of the road. The monument harbors most of the U.S. population of this species—which, like the saguaro, tends to grow on south-facing slopes. While there are 30 other cactus species at the monument, the organ pipes are among the most visible and dramatic and you can enjoy them over lunch at the shaded Diablo Canyon Picnic Area, just ahead.

Ajo Mountain Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Past the picnic area, a paved section of road, one of several on this drive, winds into the foothills of the Ajo Range offering lovely panoramas around every corner. Healthy organ pipes proliferate on seemingly every hillside—on average, these cactuses’ stems grow about 2.5 inches per year.

Also, watch for a natural arch high above the road; from the Arch Canyon Trailhead, at Mile 9, you can hike a short, easy trail that offers good views of the rock formation. (An unmaintained and much steeper extension of that trail will take you up to the arch, but it isn’t for the faint of heart.)

The road then curves to the south and around the mountains providing nice views of the cliffs on the left. Past the Estes Canyon-Bull Pasture Trailhead which leads to another lovely hike, you’ll pass through a forest of healthy organ pipes and tall saguaros.

Ajo Mountain Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Around Mile 13, the organ pipes fade away as the road rolls into a flatter area that isn’t as ideal for those cactuses and numerous chollas, ocotillos, and prickly pears take their place. But the monument’s crown jewels return a few miles later offering one more look at a plant you aren’t likely to see elsewhere.

Eighteen miles in, you’ll return to the two-way road you took at the start of the drive. Turn left and retrace your route for 2 miles back to SR 85 where you can think about which of Organ Pipe’s 516 square miles you’ll explore the next time you visit.

Some reminders

Water is not available anywhere along the drive so carry plenty with you. Fires and camping are not allowed on the drive. Pets are not allowed on trails or in the backcountry. They must be leashed at all times. Please do leave pets unattended.

Do not cross washes when flooded. Do not pick up hitchhikers. Report any suspicious activity to park staff immediately. Do not contact any suspicious persons. If you see them in distress, contact a ranger for help. Remember that you’re only a few miles from Mexico.

Ajo Mountain Drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Tour guide

  • Length: 21-mile loop
  • Directions: From Ajo, go south on State Route 85 for 33 miles to Ajo Mountain Drive. Turn left (east) onto Ajo Mountain Drive and continue 21 miles around the loop and back to SR 85.
  • Vehicle requirements: A high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle such as an SUV or truck is recommended, but the route is passable in a standard sedan in good weather.
  • Special consideration: NPS fees apply. Additionally, while the monument is safe to visit, crossings and other illegal activities do occur along the U.S.-Mexico border. Stay on maintained park roads, do not pick up hitchhikers, and report any suspicious behavior or distressed people you encounter to the monument’s staff or the Border Patrol.
  • Warning: Back-road travel can be hazardous so be aware of weather and road conditions. Carry plenty of water. Don’t travel alone and let someone know where you are going and when you plan to return.

Worth Pondering…

Alone in the open desert, I have made up songs of wild, poignant rejoicing and transcendent melancholy. The world has seemed more beautiful to me than ever before.

I have loved the red rocks, the twisted trees, and sand blowing in the wind, the slow, sunny clouds crossing the sky, the shafts of moonlight on my bed at night. I have seemed to be at one with the world.

—Everett Ruess

The Winds of Organ Pipe: Diverse Sample of the Sonoran Desert

In Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, located on the border with Mexico, the star is obviously the organ pipe cactus

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.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Ajo Mountain Drive, Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Puerto Blanco Drive, Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Twin Peaks Campground, Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Alamo Campground, Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

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

Serenading the Sonoran Desert: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

With its multiple stems, the organ pipe cactus resembles an old-fashioned pipe organ

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals, including its namesake.

This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. With its multiple stems, the cactus resembles an old-fashioned pipe organ—you can almost hear them serenading the desert.

Organ pipes and saguaros often grow side by side © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

There are 28 different species of cacti in the monument, ranging from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion. These cacti are all highly adapted to survive in the dry and unpredictable desert. They use spines for protection and shade, thick skin, and pulp to preserve water, unique pathways of photosynthesis at night, and hidden under their skin are delicate to sturdy wooden frames holding them together.

Organ pipe and saguaro cacti © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The monument’s namesake, the organ pipe cactus can live to over 150 years in age, have up to 100 arms, reach 25 feet in height, and will only produce their first flower near the age of 35.

The organ pipe cactus bloom in May and June, opening its 3-inch white, creamy flowers at night. Flowers will close up again by mid-morning, and very rarely remain open into the afternoon. This leaves very little time for daytime pollinators to feast on the sweet flower nectar. Lesser long nosed bats do most of the night pollination, and over the centuries, have developed a unique relationship with these cactus.

The organ pipe cactus thrive in this southern Arizona park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The fruit of the organ pipe ripens just before the summer rains and splits open to reveal a bright red seed-studded pulp. These seeds, with the aid of nurse plants or rocks, have the potential to grow from small seedlings into hundred-armed giant.

The beauty that is Organ Pipe © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Organ pipe cactus thrive in the Sonoran summer. High temperatures and the monsoon rains of July and August trigger the greatest cactus growth. Within the monument boundaries, an average organ pipe cactus stem grows about 2.5 inches a year.

The beauty of the Sonoran Desert © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Highway 85 cuts through the monument from north to south. From the Kris Eggle Visitor Center you can take two drives. Both are unpaved but well maintained.

Along the Ajo Mountain loop drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Toward the east is the Ajo Mountain loop drive, the most popular scenic drive in the monument. It is a beautiful 21-mile, one-way desert tour usually passable by normal passenger cars. RVs over 24 feet are prohibited, due to the twisting and dipping nature of the road. The loop offers amazing views of barrel, saguaro, and organ pipe cactus. And in the spring, the desert floor can be filled with such wildflowers as brittle bush, Mexican poppies, globe mellow, owl clover, and lupine. If you keep a keen eye out, you also might also see desert bighorn sheep, deer, coyotes, and javelina. A self-guided-tour pamphlet, which can be purchased in the Kris Eggle Visitor Center for $1.00, describes 22 stops along the way and greatly enhances the experience. For example, the third stop is at a large saguaro, where visitors can learn many things about the stately cactus. Its flowers bloom in May and June, its fruit maturing a month later. Many animals dine on the fruit’s red pulp and its tiny black seeds. The Tohono O’odham people grind its seeds into a buttery substance that is considered a delicacy.

The skeletal ribs of a once thriving organ pipe cactus © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Saguaros stay generous past their fruit-bearing prime: Their decaying, hole-dotted trunks provide shelter for birds, and their “skeletal ribs” once constituted building materials for American Indians.

The beauty of the organ pipe and its name-sake national monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Interpretive programs are offered January through March. Take the opportunity to spend three hours with a ranger driving on the Ajo Mountain drive. Since space on this van tour is limited to 10 per day, interested visitors should sign up early at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center.

Along the Puerto Blanco drive © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Puerto Blanco drive west of the visitor center provides access to the Pinkley Peak Picnic Area, Red Tanks trail head, Senita Basin, and Quitobaquito Springs. The drive offers stops along the way that provide wonderful views and information on the ecology and culture of the Sonoran Desert. The entire 37 miles of the drive was completely reopened in 2014. Be advised that many travel books and websites do not reflect this change. High clearance vehicles are recommended beyond Pinkley Peak.

Twin Peaks Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Twin Peaks Campground offers 208 sites that are generally level, widely spaced, and landscaped by natural desert growth. The campsites will easily accommodate big rigs and are available on a first-come first-served basis.

Alamo Campground © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

As well, Alamo Campground has four well-spaced, primitive spots.

Our experience in this extraordinary desert—is exotic, inviting, and utterly unforgettable.

Worth Pondering…
Take your time.
Slow down.
Live.

A Small Town with a Big Back Yard

This is the place where the “Summer Spends the Winter”

“A Small Town With A Big Back Yard”, the tiny Arizona burg of Ajo (ahh-ho) is situated deep in the Sonoran Desert, 42 miles south of Gila Bend and 37 miles north of the Mexican border.

The Ajo Central Plaza © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

A discovery worthy of Lewis and Clark, Ajo just might be the “best kept secret in Arizona.” This is the place where the “Summer spends the Winter”, according to the local Chamber of Commerce.

For many snowbirds, as it was for us, Ajo is merely a stopping-off point on the way to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. For others, especially Spring Breakers, it’s a town to pass through on their way to Puerto Penasco (Rocky Point).

The Old Train Depot northeast of the plaza dates from 1915 © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The town of Ajo reflects its one time wealth to this day. Glistening white churches and a well-designed plaza are so inviting.

Ajo today is a retirement community and snowbird haven along with an increasing number of artists. Ajo’s gorgeous mountain views and charming Old World architecture are enchanting and we soon fell in love with this friendly community in southwestern Arizona.

Across the street from the Central Plaza through a high arch of the train depot © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Ajo got its name from a poor Spanish translation of an Indian word. To make body paint, the local O’odham Indians used copper. Their word for paint was aau’auho, which sounded to the Spanish like the familiar word ajo, meaning garlic in their language. Later, the wild lily plants in the area were named ajo for the flavorful bulb at its roots.

The birthplace of copper mining in Arizona, copper has provided the sinew for this desert town for about 300 years. Ajo was the oldest-known mine site in the state, and until the 1980s Phelps Dodge ran a sizable copper mining operation out of here.

The Immaculate Conception Catholic Church follows the ornate architectural style of the plaza © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The town of Ajo is worth a good walkabout. Most of the town, and in particular the central plaza, was created by John Campbell Greenway to be a good place for his New Cornelia miners to raise their families. Visitors can pick up a walking tour map/brochure at the Visitor Center located at the old train depot.

Greenway, formerly a Rough Rider with Theodore Roosevelt, was the highly successful general manager and an owner of the Calumet & Arizona Mining Company that included the Lavender Pit Mine at Bisbee and the New Cornelia Mine at Ajo. He was the second husband of Isabella who, following John’s death in 1926, founded the Arizona Inn in Tucson and became Arizona’s first U.S. Congresswoman.

The Ajo Federated Church © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

For Ajo’s architecture, Greenway chose Spanish Colonial Revival, a Mediterranean style with Moorish influences: high arches, white stucco surfaces, tile roofs, and considerable decoration.

Across the street from the plaza, the most prominent features are two white churches. The Federated Church, while visually interesting, has almost no ornamentation. The Immaculate Conception Catholic Church follows the more ornate architectural style of the central plaza. Both are eminently photogenic.

Organ pipe cactus and saguaro along the Ajo Scenic Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

A number of the buildings from the 1920s and before are still standing. Just beyond the churches,  the historic Curley School was constructed in 1919. The Train Depot directly northeast of the plaza dates from 1915. New Cornelia Hotel just east of Curley School was constructed in 1916.

A few miles further, past loads of cacti, long hills of white sediment and stretches of crushed stones in multi-colors line the highway, left by the New Cornelia Copper Mine.

Several boondockers along the Ajo Scenic Loop © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

An easy scenic drive, the Ajo Ten-Mile Loop skirts the backside of the open pit New Cornelia Mine. Along the way you can stop at the overlook and little museum about the mine. Also, in the St. Catherine’s Indian Mission, the Ajo Historical Society has a small museum out here. To no surprise, it too is mostly about Ajo’s glory days sporting one of the world’s largest copper mines.

The New Cornelia Copper Mine © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

A large wildlife refuge, Cabeza Prieta spans Sonoran Desert wilderness. Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge is home to 275 species of animals, including endangered big horn sheep and Sonoran pronghorn. Capable of 60 mph, pronghorns are the fastest land animals in North America.

Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Located 35 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.

Worth Pondering…

The vast emptiness and overpowering silence of the desert and surrounding mountains sharpens your senses, enhancing self-contemplation, and stimulating creativity.

—Anon