Sonoran Desert Adventures: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

If you’ve never heard of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, you’re not alone. We hadn’t either. In fact, we had never even heard of an organ pipe cactus. We were looking for things to do as we crossed through Arizona and there it was on the map. Since we’re huge fans of the National Park Service, we figured that there would be something worth seeing and doing, even if we weren’t sure ahead of time what that would be. We’ve never been disappointed taking a chance on an unknown national park. And we weren’t this time either!

visitor center
The visitor center. That is what an organ pipe cactus looks like!

This area near the Mexican border is the only place in the United States where you can see the unique organ pipe cactus. This explains why I had never heard of them before! They are very rare in the US and worldwide are found almost exclusively in Mexico. This part of the Sonoran Desert is actually a very unique ecosystem. I used to think that ‘desert’ was basically one type of ecosystem. I never realized how much variety there actually is in plant and animal life with only small shifts in latitude or elevation. We spent a lot of time this year exploring deserts and each area was noticeably different from the one before it!

Camping near Organ Pipe Cactus NM

There is nothing but desert for miles around Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The tiny towns of Ajo and Why offer minimal basics, but there aren’t exactly tons of camping options. We planned to camp in the campground at the park. It only cost $20 per night but had no hookups for water, electricity or sewer. It was a good option, but then we found an even better one.

Many national parks, particularly in the West and Southwest, are surrounded by public land, and in most cases it is legal to use this land for short-term boondocking. We have done this several times near several different national parks, and it’s our new favorite way to visit national parks when it’s available. It’s the closest thing to backcountry camping you can get in an RV. Off of Highway 85, south of Why but north of the national park boundary, is a designated camping area on the public land. We knew we found the right place because there was a bulletin board posting rules and small clusters of campers here and there along a dirt road. There are no marked or designated campsites. Everyone pulls over and parks where they want to, and everyone respects each other’s space and the “roads” in and out of their chosen campsites. There are no hookups, of course, but there weren’t any at the national park campground either. We saved ourselves the $20 per night plus a number of towing miles into and back out of the park. Win-win!

BLM boondocking Arizona
Scenic. Quiet. Free. We love boondocking on public lands!

False Start

We had only planned one day to explore the park before we continued our travels eastward. In order to make the most of our day, we tried to get an early start in the morning. We packed a lunch, filled water bottles, packed a backpack for a day hike and headed for the car – only to find a flat tire on the rear passenger side. Unexpected roadschool lesson: how to change a tire. Thankfully we have a full-sized spare that we could drive on until we got back to civilization. We were thankful that this was relatively uneventful, and that the tire hadn’t blown the day before while we were towing (like it had back in Iowa.) Frustrated but safe, we were back on the road. But we got a much later start than we had hoped.

flat tire
They were so excited to help change the tire!

Desert Hike – Rained Out!

With only one day to explore the park, we decided to follow a scenic driving route and stop along the way for an afternoon hike. At the suggestion of the rangers, we followed the Ajo Mountain drive, which gave us a chance to see some of the unique features of the area and to take in some of the best views. About halfway around the loop, we stopped to hike the Arch Canyon trail. The maintained trail was only 0.6 miles along the canyon, then another 0.6 mile “primitive” trail climbed about 1500 feet of elevation up to the arch. If you know us, then you’ve already assumed that we did not stop at the end of the maintained trail. We decided to make a try for the arch. Our little mountain goats scampered up the rocks and loved every minute of it. I had a little more trouble with the steep, smooth rocks while carrying Micah on my back.

Arch Canyon Trail
Heading into the canyon with a great view of the arch!
Arch Canyon trail
He was having a MUCH better time than I was on this part of the trail!

It was a cloudy, chilly day and when we stopped for a snack and water break, putting on our fleece shirts and hats was not enough to keep us warm. The little mountain goats began to complain and ask to return to the car. When the first drops of rain begin to fall, we questioned if we had really felt them. We’re in the desert, after all! But one of the things that creates the unique ecosystem of this area is that is has a rainy season. Two of them actually. The drops came faster and faster, as if to convince us that yes, it was actually raining. While it was sad and frustrating not to continue on up to the arch, we decided to make our way back down to the car. Cold, wet kids would not enjoy the rest of the hike, and the clouds would obscure the view from the top. I was also concerned about safely getting down those smooth, steep and now wet rocks with Micah on my back.

Arch Canyon trail
This was as far as we got. The unhappy mountain goats did not want to stop to take this picture.
Arch Canyon Trail
Seeking shelter from the rain. “If we were stuck here overnight, we would sleep under here and stay dry.”

Thankfully the rain never developed into a downpour, and once we were back on the maintained trail, everyone felt warmer and we were able to end the hike with the happy sense of adventure we had at the start. We enjoyed the rest of the scenic drive loop and headed back to the visitor center.

Junior Rangers

Throughout the day, the kids had been working on the junior ranger books for this park. They had explored the museum and touch-table at the visitor center and looked for specific features as we drove around the scenic loop. They worked hard to finish all their activities in a single afternoon. Now we had to get back to the visitor center before they closed.

touch table
Micah’s not quite ready to be a Junior Ranger, but he sure did love the touch table!

It was tight but we made it. With about 5 minutes left before they closed for the day, our junior rangers said the pledge and received their badges. And for the first time in that whole crazy day, our timing was perfect. Because it was closing time, the ranger offered to let the newest junior rangers help him in his final official task of the day: taking the flag down and folding it. The ranger guided them step by step but allowed them to do most of it themselves. It was a wonderful way to end the day!

junior rangers
Many thanks to this wonderful ranger, whose name I have forgotten. They were so honored to be trusted with the responsibility!

It might sound like our day at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was full of misadventures, and in a sense I suppose it was. But if adventures were guaranteed to always work out perfectly, there wouldn’t actually be much adventure in it. It helped us to be aware of how often things go smoothly for us and thankful that, in the grand scheme of things, flat tires and unexpected rain showers are really just minor inconveniences. We really enjoyed our visit to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and our free camping spot nearby. If we find ourselves in southwest Arizona in the future we would love to go back!



5 thoughts on “Sonoran Desert Adventures: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

  1. Sounds like a fun time had at this National Park. I’ve recently become aware of just how many ‘national park units’ are available in the US – 417! I have to be careful or the goal of seeing them all could consume my life 🙂 Do you guys plan to try to see specific NP places, or is it more of ‘we’re here – what’s in the area?’? This particular one didn’t immediately strike me as potentially interesting, so seeing your adventure was a pleasant surprise. I had no idea that the organ pipe cactus was so rare. Sorry to hear you got a bit cold and damp, but I’m glad no one slipped and got hurt.

    1. Yes, that 417 number is pretty daunting. We’ve done about 60 of them by now, but we’ve never set a specific goal to see all of them. We just really like them and try to catch them when we’re in the area. Sometimes we have one as a destination – this fall we’re kicking around the idea of heading up to Acadia in Maine and that would be a destination. In this case, we were heading from Southern California toward Houston, TX and obviously needed to break that up into smaller chunks. So then we looked at what there was to do that wouldn’t be a significant detour but still get us off the interstate and into nature at regular intervals. We actually went to 8 new-to-us National Parks on our journey from California to Pennsylvania. As I said, they almost always have something special to offer and we’ve never been disappointed or regretted visiting a NPS park. As with so many things, sometimes it is what you make of it. 🙂

  2. Its awesome what your family is doing, and being able to is a blessing. Everyone should do this at least a couple weeks of the year to see the wonders of our great country!

    1. Thank you, Wayne! We agree! We are so thankful to be able to explore all of this beauty and give our children this kind of education!

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