For quite some time, the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was considered to be America’s most dangerous national park. Over the last couple of decades, armed drug traffickers were so prevalent in this vast desert that visitors were barred from entering more than half of it. Past governments should have never allowed the situation to grow so out of control. After all, the park is located in one of the greatest ecosystems in the world.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument | Finally Safe to Visit!
Visiting the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was so dangerous that in 2002 a park ranger was killed while pursuing a group of smugglers. Kris Eggle—an Eagle Scout, a National Honor Society Student, and valedictorian of his graduating class at Cadillac High School in 1991, and a graduate of the University of Michigan where he earned a degree in wildlife biology—was tragically killed at the age of 28.
As a result of the killing, visitors that were brave enough to hike through the park’s most dangerous areas were forced to be escorted by armed rangers with long rifles. Nowadays, under emergency coronavirus measures, any migrants who cross into the US illegally are being expelled to Mexico in an average of 96 minutes and the number of people attempting to cross has plummeted.
What does this mean? It’s now a great time to visit this area of the country where you can witness the only place in the US where the organ pipe cactus grows wild in a safe environment. Also, this is one of the few locations in the US where elephant trees are found. Moreover, the park is a great place for scenic drives, camping, hiking, biking, and horseback riding!
Update: As of February 2021, the Biden administration has revived the so-called “catch and release” system when it comes to dealing with illegal immigrants at the southern border. As a result, this National Park is no longer as safe to visit (as when we visited in 2020) and visitors should tour the grounds most cautiously. At the very minimum, you should make sure to follow past guidelines and do not travel alone, avoid encounters with suspicious people or groups, and avoid traveling through the park from dusk to dawn.
Difference Between National Park and Monument
The main difference between a national park and a national monument lies in the way the land is preserved. National parks are protected because of their scenic, recreational, educational, and inspirational significance. On the other hand, national monuments contain objects of cultural, historical, and/or scientific interest—this means their content can be quite diverse.
Therefore, national monuments protect wilderness areas (such as the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument), military forts, fossil sites, ruins (such as the Aztec Ruins National Monument), and buildings (such as George Washington’s Birthplace National Monument in Westmoreland County, Virginia).
Top Things to Do in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
The majority of visitors to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument arrive in the cooler months. This is mainly because the daytime highs in the warmer months can easily exceed 110 degrees Fahrenheit. However, the Sonoran Desert can be enjoyed at any time of the year. As a result, each season offers visitors a unique experience and perspective.
The organ pipe cactus will typically live about 150 years and produce its first flowers around the age of 35. Also, they normally bloom in May and June, opening their white, creamy flowers only at night.
Deciding on how you’d like to spend your time will help to ensure a great adventure. There are both leisurely and challenging hiking trails, wildflower walks, scenic drives, night-sky gazing, opportunities to practice photography, and camping—just to name a few. Below are the top things to do in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
1. Take a Scenic Drive
Taking a scenic drive is probably one of the best and most popular ways of enjoying the splendor of the park, and the most leisurely! Also, some of the best hiking trails in the park can be easily accessed while taking one of the scenic drives.
Before a visit, pack a cooler with chilled drinks, snacks, and lunch. Remind yourself to treat the drive similarly to a Walt Disney World ride. That is, go slow and really take time to admire the environment around you.
This pace will allow you to observe some native wildlife including Desert Bighorn sheep, Mule Deer, javelina, and Sonoran Pronghorn. Additionally, take advantage of the opportunity to see a large variety of desert reptiles. Such animals include lizards, desert tortoises, rattlesnakes, or the elusive Gila monster. Look for wildlife basking on trails and roads or resting under shady shrubs and bushes.
The Ajo Mountain Drive and the Puerto Blanco Drive are the two main scenic drives that visitors can experience. Both drives offer visitors plenty of opportunities to view the organ pipe cactus and local flora and fauna. Below are the main differences and highlights between the two.
Ajo Mountain Drive
The Ajo Mountain Drive is the most popular scenic drive. Just about the entire 21-mile drive takes place on a gravel road. Small cars, including compact vehicles, should have no problem traversing the passage as it’s well maintained.
However, keep in mind that the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is situated within one of the most remote and extreme parts of the USA. Therefore, a trustworthy vehicle is highly recommended. Finally, RVs over 24 feet are prohibited.
From the Kris Eggle Visitor Center, the Ajo Mountain Drive heads east towards the Ajo Mountain Range. The entire drive takes about 90 minutes (non-stop) and passes what feels like a neverending cactus plain. However, in due time, the flat landscape gently evolves to rolling hills before progressing through the base of volcanic mountains.
Along the way plan on stopping at scenic viewpoints, photographing giant organ pipe cacti, and spotting interesting local flora and fauna. Also, two trails start along the drive. They are the Estes Canyon/Bull Pasture Loop at 3.1 miles roundtrip and the Arch Canyon Trail in-and-out at 1.4 miles roundtrip.
Puerto Blanco Drive
For many years, much of the 37-mile loop drive was closed due to the dangers of drug/human traffickers and illegal aliens. However, due to the new border wall and an increase in border patrol, the threats have been mitigated. As a result, the entire drive is now open.
From the Kris Eggle Visitor Center, the scenic drive heads west, towards the Puerto Blanco Mountains. There are many informational stops along the way which provide wonderful views of the area.
A few of the highlights include the Pinkley Peak Picnic Area, Senita Basin, Red Tanks Tinaja trail, Dripping Springs Mine trail, and Quitobaquito Springs. Also, if this interests you, Puerto Blanco Drive passes by a huge section of the border wall. Drivers heading past Pinkley Peak should have high ground clearance vehicles.
2. Enjoy a Bike Ride
While bikes are not allowed on the trails, they are allowed on all vehicular traffic roads. The Ajo Mountain Drive is a great place to explore on a mountain bike. However, the park only allows biking during daylight hours.
3. Look for Wildlife
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is home to a wide variety of animals. Mammals, birds, fish, and reptiles all call this little piece of southern Arizona home.
The animals at Organ Pipe play a significant role in the ecology of the Sonoran desert. Throughout the monument, there are javelina, roadrunners, scorpions, Gila monsters, and six varieties of rattlesnakes. Since the actions of visitors at the park can impact the behaviors of the animals—guests should be sure to respect the environment and leave no trace.
4. Go Hiking
There are many miles of great trails to go hiking on at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. However, our two favorites are the Arch Canyon Trail 1.4 mile (in-and-out) and Estes Canyon/Bull Pasture 3.1 mile (loop).
Also, there are two short interesting hikes near the Dripping Springs Mine on the west side of the park (along the Puerto Blanco Drive). At one time, the trails were used as roads to connect the various copper mines.
5. Camp & Sleep Under the Stars
There are two campgrounds within the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Both will allow you to enjoy the sights and sounds of the desert at night. The main campground is located next to the visitor center and the other at Alamo Canyon—however, this one is considered primitive.
Free camping (BLM lands) is available about 20 miles north of the visitor center, just outside the town of Why.
6. Participate in a Free Ranger Program
The park rangers hold free interpretive programs and presentations at the visitor center. Allow them to educate you about the national monument and to answer all of your questions. Visit the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument website to find out what’s in the works.
7. Go Horseback Riding
Some may say that the best way to enjoy the Sonoran Desert is on horseback. There are a handful of trails that are open for equestrian use, they include:
- Campground Perimeter
- Victoria Mine
- Old County Road
- Lost Cabin Mine
- Senita Basin Loop
- Milton Mine
- Red Tanks Tinaja
Horseback riding is a unique way to explore the desert and experience it from a unique perspective. Sadly, due to the remote location of the park, there are no outfitters supplying rides so visitors must BYOH (Bring Your Own Horse).
8. Gaze at the Night-Sky
Because of the short days, winter is the best time of year to stargaze in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. During these cooler months, park rangers hold presentations regarding constellations and invite visitors to explore the desert sky with them. Check the park bulletin boards, website, or stop by the visitor center to find out more about the night sky events, solar-viewing programs, telescope viewing, and constellation talks.
9. Become a Junior Ranger
Many children love the opportunity of speaking with park rangers and becoming Junior Rangers. During the course, Junior Rangers become familiar with the responsibilities and duties of being a real Park Ranger. Upon successful completion, participants receive a signed Junior Ranger certificate and a free badge.
There is simply nothing comparable to visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The unique location, interesting local flora and fauna, and amenities make this a fabulous park to explore. Furthermore, it’s the only place in the US to be in the presence of the Organ Pipe Cactus, a one-of-a-kind plant!