The ultimate place to experience the lush, green Sonoran Desert in a remote, wilderness setting is at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Michael and I appreciate the stark beauty of desert landscapes and the unique plants and animals adapted to desert environments. Our favorite desert so far is the Sonoran Desert. We fell in love with this surprisingly green desert when we first visited southern Arizona in the winter of 2011. We stayed in Tucson and hiked in Saguaro National Park and spent time at some of the birding hotspots in southeastern Arizona. We enjoyed it so much that we returned in the winter of 2012. Each time we wanted to stop at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, but sadly it was closed to the public due to the dangers of drug smuggling through this remote area on the border.
Twin Peaks Campground
When we left California in February, we noticed that Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (Organ Pipe) was open to the public again, and we had to take the opportunity to spend some time there. After Kofa National Wildlife Refuge, we stocked up on groceries in Yuma and headed to Organ Pipe. We stayed in the Twin Peaks Campground inside the Monument. The campground is tightly packed, but each site has a grill and picnic table and is surrounded by desert vegetation. Since we were there during “snowbird season” (the season when retired northerners escape the winter and live for several months in the warm southern deserts), we enjoyed meeting and chatting with some very nice neighbors at the campground. There are trails that can be hiked directly from Twin Peaks Campground without having to drive anywhere, though there are definitely other parts of the Monument that are worth making the drive to see. The National Park Service operates a shuttle service at the campground to and from some of the trailheads and offers guided hikes with rangers throughout the Monument.
A Hidden Gem
We spent six nights at Organ Pipe and made it out to hike or explore almost everyday. When our time was up, we did not want to leave. Organ Pipe ranked as one of those places we would like to return to again and again. Of all the public lands we have explored within the Sonoran Desert, we found Organ Pipe to be the ultimate place to experience this desert. Like Saguaro National Park, it is densely vegetated with the stately saguaro cactus, but unlike Saguaro National Park, a hike to the top of a mountain provides views of vast, undeveloped desert rather than the city of Tucson. Don’t get me wrong. We are still fond of Saguaro National Park and other attractions in the Tucson area, but at Organ Pipe, we felt fully immersed in nature. It is one of the hidden gems of our national conservation lands.
On our first day out we took Ajo Mountain Drive, enjoyed the desert views, and hiked the Estes Canyon – Bull Pasture Loop. Ajo Mountain Drive is supposed to be accessible by passenger cars, but we advise driving slowly and carefully in a passenger car, as there were some rocky and rutted sections. There were also some hairpin curves. Our 21.5-foot truck was about the longest vehicle you would want to take around those curves. This was probably our favorite drive in the Monument. There are dense stands of organ pipe cactus, mountain and canyon views, and rock formations, including an arch. At the end of February, there were large patches of bright orange Mexican poppies on the desert floor. In fact, if you only have one day in the Monument, we recommend a leisurely drive along Ajo Mountain Drive and a hike into Estes Canyon. This is probably the best one-day taste of what Organ Pipe has to offer.
We hiked up the Bull Pasture trail, which is a slow and steady climb up to a small pasture in a mountain saddle. From there, we found a trail up to the top of the nearest peak and ate lunch. This is the hike that made us appreciate the remoteness of this monument. Aside from some farmland along a road in Mexico and the monument roads, there was no development within our 360-degree view from the peak. This trail also provides the opportunity to hike up onto one of the “sky islands” (mountains that rise sharply from the desert floor and support other habitats, like chaparral and forest). The peak that we hiked was not as high as some of the “sky islands” around Tucson, but we did notice changes in the vegetation, from cacti down below to chaparral, juniper, and agave at the top.
After lunch, we descended into Estes Canyon to complete the loop. Estes Canyon was densely vegetated with bright green palo verde, saguaro and organ pipe cactus, mesquite, and tree-sized, fruiting “jumping cholla” cacti. There was a lot more wildlife activity in the canyon. We saw black-tailed gnatcatchers, curve-billed thrashers, Gila woodpeckers, phainopeplas, and a desert cottontail. The views of the canyon walls beyond the dense desert vegetation were spectacular. We walked back out to Ajo Mountain Drive along the canyon floor, completing the four-mile hike with a total of 1,103 feet of elevation gain.
Red Tanks Tinaja and Senita Basin Loop
The next day we started off on an easy, level hike through the open desert out to “Red Tanks Tinaja,” a natural rock basin in a desert wash that holds water, which is so precious in the desert. The “tinaja,” Spanish for “jar,” was not an impressive destination. Sure, it was standing water in the dry desert, but we were expecting something much larger.
For a more satisfying destination, we chose to hike on to the Senita Basin Loop. We figured we would just hike to the edge of the loop and see some senita cactus. The senita cactus occurs in larger stands in Mexico, but some small stands occur at the edge of their range here in Organ Pipe. We hiked one mile through a sandy wash, which was a bit tiring considering that each step slides back a bit in the sand. After climbing up out of the wash and hiking further across the desert, we came to the loop and did not see any senita cacti!
We stopped for lunch in the shade of some palo verde and discussed how tired we both were, considering our hike in the Ajo Mountains the day before. After that hike, I had attempted to convince Michael that we needed a day of recovery. With my chronic health issues recovery is slower, and it’s important that I give myself time to recover. However, the very next morning, after learning that a storm was coming the following day, I convinced Michael that we should make the most of the good weather and see more of the Monument. I suggested this easy, level walk through the desert, but here we were at one of the corners of the Senita Basin Loop, and we had not yet seen any senita cacti.
I couldn’t help myself. I was drained and knew that I should call it a day since I barely had the energy to hike back to the truck. On the other hand, my brain was nagging at me. I had to keep going until I saw some senita cacti. We made it this far. I convinced Michael yet again that we should go just a little further. Well, we ended up hiking the entire Senita Basin Loop and did not see a single senita cactus! When we arrived back at the truck, our GPS informed us that we had hiked seven miles! Thank goodness the rain and wind forced us to rest and recover the next day!
Our favorite part of this hike was the Senita Basin Loop. The scenery is gorgeous, and apparently if you drive to the trailhead parking lot for the loop, you will see senita cacti there! We recommend driving to the Senita Basin and enjoying a leisurely walk around the loop, unless you are healthy and in good shape and desire a longer hike. We did not see a single other person on the hike until the very end. If you feel like a lonely walk through a beautiful desert, this is a good one. The couple we did see at the end of this hike turned out to be Michael and Petra from Germany, and we admired their MAN RV back in the parking area.
After the storm passed, we decided to take a hike directly from the campground. We thought we would just stroll through the desert and return when we were tired. However, all the retirees on the trail asked us if we were going to the Victoria Mine as they passed us on their return trips. They were all healthy and spry. It’s hard to watch the seniors pass me on the trail, but it just proves that age doesn’t matter. Good health is what matters. Sometimes I say I feel like I am 80 years old, but I am sure there are 80-year-olds out there who can hike farther than me!
Clearly we were encouraged by all the other hikers to make Victoria Mine our destination. We hiked up over hills and down into washes until we made it to the fenced off hole in the ground and the remnants of an old structure with a rusty old bath tub leaning up against the wall inside. There was a sign stating that the mine was now protected, because lesser long-nosed bats, which pollinate the saguaro and organ pipe cacti, roost there (read more about lesser long-nosed bats). From the vantage point of the mine, we could see the fence along the Mexican border and a group of homes on the other side.
We made the return trip to the campground as the sun was getting ready to set, and the late afternoon sun angle made the desert glow. As we approached one of the washes, a beautiful, healthy-looking coyote passed in front of us. He ran along the edge of the wash and then paused to turn and look at us. His fur had a reddish brown hue that matched the surrounding desert.
For our last day in Organ Pipe, we chose to take the one-mile walk up Alamo Canyon, which was recommended by the National Park Service for birding. There is a small tents-only campground at the beginning of the canyon, a beautiful setting if you are tent camping. One of the more significant washes in Organ Pipe flows out of Alamo Canyon. There was even some surface water present in sections of this wash, which makes it attractive to the birds. We enjoyed a pleasant bird walk, and discovered some beautiful wildflowers by the stream. Birds of the day included phainopeplas, cactus wrens, rock wrens, verdins, Gila woodpeckers, gilded flickers, a ladder-backed woodpecker, an ash-throated flycatcher, and a black-tailed gnatcatcher that posed for us long enough to get an up-close look. We sat peacefully by the stream and listened to the sound of the water flowing through the quiet of the desert.
The Final Hours
On our last evening, we drove over to the Desert View Trail and quickly hiked the switchbacks to the top of the hill to watch one last sunset over Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The Ajo Mountains lit up in pinks and reds, and after the orange globe disappeared, the silhouettes of the saguaro cacti felt like friends standing around us. We felt at home here.
We found it difficult to leave the Twin Peaks Campground the next day. The sun was shining and the temperature was seventy-something degrees and just right. We stood among the cacti, palo verde, and ocotillo chatting with our friendly neighbors. Leaving just didn’t feel right.
We had contemplated staying for a few more days. We could either hang out and enjoy the desert longer, or we could explore one of two other nearby attractions that were calling out to us. First, there is Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge just west of Organ Pipe. With a permit, you can drive in and take a hike. The road is rough and slow going though. This refuge is where the Sonoran pronghorn antelope have been bred in captivity to be reintroduced throughout their historic range. Habitat loss and movement restriction by roads, fences, and irrigation canals caused a significant decline in the population of Sonoran pronghorn in the United States. Then a severe drought in 2002 left only an estimated 21 pronghorn remaining in the U.S. Since then, this program based at Cabeza Prieta NWR has increased their numbers to around 160 (approximately 240 are free ranging in Sonora, Mexico). The idea of exploring these remote public lands was exciting to us.
The other option was to drive down to the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, only about an hour’s drive from the campground, and go on a whale-watching trip! It was the right season to see whales, and we were so close. We gave this idea a lot of consideration. We could leave the trailer in the campground and just drive the truck down and spend the night in a hotel there. However, once we looked into the cost of Mexican auto insurance, we realized that a longer trip to the Sea of Cortez in the future would serve us better.
Reluctantly we left Organ Pipe and continued on to Tucson for laundry, mail, taxes, packages, and errands, things that need to get done even in the almost-free lifestyle we are currently living. If we find ourselves lucky enough to continue traveling indefinitely, we will certainly return to Organ Pipe.
One Last Note
I have to give a shout-out to National Geographic, because they introduced me to the desert and sparked my keen interest in the Sonoran Desert before I even visited in person. I adored their pop-up book titled Creatures of the Desert World when I was a kid. I found the almost human-shaped saguaro cacti fascinating, and I opened the flap to the packrat nests and viewed the elf owl inside the saguaro cactus over and over. Growing up in Maryland, these strange plants and critters intrigued me. I have held this interest in the desert ever since. Walking through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, I was reminded of that pop-up book. When we walked into the Visitor Center, there it was by the cash register, and we simply had to purchase one!