Our trip to Organ Pipe National Monument took over 2 hours to reach, and along the way we noticed several border patrol stops. Which makes sense since the park is right up against the US-Mexican border. Occasionally you’ll see park signs warning, “Due to the proximity of the international border, smuggling and/or illegal entry do occur.” Another line discourages you from any heroics, “If you see suspicious individuals, groups, or activity do not engage them or attempt to detain them. You should leave the area immediately.” Kind of ominous, but I was told most nefarious activities occur at night.
Despite border patrol stops, we made it just in time to take a ranger led tour of the Ajo Mountain. We met Ranger Dan and Driver Marge at the visitor center. The center is named after Ranger Kris Eggle, who was shot and killed by a suspected Mexican drug smuggler during a United States Border Patrol operation in 2002. Here you can see a 15 minute film on the area, educate yourself at the shiny exhibit all, and walk a short nature trail. They also have a nice collection of artifacts from the Ancient Peoples of the Sonoran Desert, and as a bonus you can view them online via the National Park’s Museum Collection Database.
At 9:45 am sharp, we loaded up into the van, along with 5 other folks, and drove up dirt roads through the Ajo Mountain scenic loop. The drive is 21 miles and crosses the Diablo Mountains to the base of the Ajo Mountains and returns through the Sonoyta Valley.
At our first stop was at the entrance of Ajo Mountain Drive loop, where Ranger Dan gave us a history lesson on the park. We learned that Organ Pipe National Monument includes the Yuma Desert, a section of the Sonoran Desert, and is 517 square miles large. In 1937, Organ Pipe was established as a national monument by the President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the consternation of local ranchers and miners. Ranching was still allowed by natives and by the original homesteaders of the land before it was a national monument.
Piling back into the van for another driving segment, we passed through several flood washes and learned how the native peoples would dig ditches by hand and plant the “three sisters” – corn, bean, and squash — in preparation for the floods. When the waters came with the monsoons, the dishes would fill up and supply water to the seeds already planted.
Continuing our drive up the mountain at around 2000 ft elevation, we saw dense concentrations of majestic saguaro and magnificent organ pipe cactus, up against large and jutting Diablo Tank. Here our ranger talked about how the mountains of this area were formed under a volcanic field. Unlike the volcanic mountains of Mt St Helens and Mt Rainier, or the fold-and-thrust mountains of the Alps, Ajo volcanic field thrusted up forming fissures and ridges in the Earth’s crust as plates were pulled apart.
For our second stop, we stood near the foothills of Diablo Tank and took of a tour of local flora such as, mormon tea, hedgehog cactus, creosote bush, brittle bush, ocotillo, several species of cholla, prickly pear cactus, wild grasses, saguaro cactus, and of course the park’s namesake, the organ pipe cactus. At another nearby stop, we were able to view one of the park’s oldest organ pipe cactus, which was said to be over 150 years old. And unlike the saguaro, it needs more heat and protection from frost and cold snaps to survive.
From there, we drove on past Arch canyon and the Twin Arches. You can hike up to the Twin Arches, but the route isn’t maintained like trails are. For our final stop, we took in the scenery Estas Canyon. The cliffs above the canyon are named “The Bull” for the way the they form the horns of a bull. There is another trail leading up to the Bull Pasture, where the wild grasses were eaten to near extinction by cattle when it was used for grazing.
At Estas Trailhead, Ranger Dan discussed the wildlife found at the park: desert bighorn, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, two kinds of deer, kangaroo mouse, coyotes, jackrabbits and lots of birds. We stopped by this very large packrat nest housed in the shell of a dead organ pipe cactus. Apparently, packrat nests make great archeology archives. The packrat urine acts as a bactericide, so the organic material is preserved in the nests and some midden material has been dated as old as 40,000 years.
Another interesting animal found in the park is the Lesser Long-nosed Bat, which are the intended pollinators of the organ pipe cactus. The nose of the bat acts like a key for the organ pipe cactus bloom. As they poke their long noses deep into the tubular flower, their long tongues lick up the syrup and by the time they are done their little heads are a mess with pollen.
The Javelina is another animal our group talked about. Often confused for a pig when first seen, it is actually a collared peccary and is only found in the central and southern Americas, and where Arizona is at the most northern tip of where they can be found. I had a chance to see a Javalina fur and skull at another park, but it would be cool to see them in their habitat, but I would need night goggles since they are nocturnal creatures.
Finally, we talked about the Sonoran Pronghorn, of which there are only six left in the park. I have never heard of the Sonoran Pronghorn before I came to this park. The pictures make them out to be a kind of deer with horns resembling beetle tusks. I guessing that pronghorns are the “antelopes” the song “Home on the Range” mentions, although they are distinctly not antelopes. They are only 140 left on American soil and a total of 600 if you include Mexico. They are endangered because their habitat is declining due to continual droughts and the fact that their northern territory is occupied by the Barry M. Goldwater Air Force Range, which is an active United States Air Force bombing range.
Back at the visitor center by noon, we decided to take a short drive to Quitobaquito Springs, which is mere two hundred yards from the US-Mexican border. The water originates from a fault in the granite-gneiss cliffs of the adjacent hills; a fault that pushes up deep water by creating internal cracks. It then runs through a series of small ditches and culminates in a shallow pool known as Quitobaquito Oasis. Within the waters lives the endangered Quitobaquito pupfish. The oasis is serene and the water shimmering like a jewel in the desert. We only saw two coots swimming in the pond. A small trail leads to the spring that feeds the pond. The waters were clear enough to watch pupfish mate in a playful fashion.
This small national monument is just packed with things to do and I could easily spend a week here, hiking, bird watching, wildflower viewing and exploring dirt roads. Nearby is Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge, which is another swath of land where you can increase your chances of spotting a Sonoran Pronghorn. I wholly recommend this place to the avid wildlife watcher.