Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument – Ajo, Arizona
We are back in the good old USA, alive and well and recovering from sipping a few too many margaritas and eating a few too many burritos and tamales in Puerto Peñasco. Crossing back into the states was a non-event, except for an approximately 30-minute wait at the border. Imagine a line of motorhomes as far as the eye can see waiting to cross!
The officers didn’t board Betsy, but they did ask if we had meat with us. We answered truthfully that we had some frozen chicken and several pounds of seafood, and they seemed OK with that. A quick check of our passports and we were on our way.
Just five miles north of the border we pulled into Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, where we dry camped overnight. We verified that our residential refrigerator could survive 14 hours on batteries, since we we weren’t allowed to run our generator for that length of time. It was a good test, because we plan to do more dry camping this year.
We stopped here to explore the only small area in the Sonoran Desert in the U.S. where Organ Pipe cactus grows naturally. We had seen them in abundance along the highway in Sonoyta, Mexico, but we wanted to take a closer look.
Of the two scenic drives in the monument, we took the Ajo Mountain Scenic Drive as soon as we got settled in. The dusty and sometimes rough dirt road (better for jeeps, but our poor CRV managed to survive) winds up and down along the foothills of the Ajo Range.
We’ve been enjoying the beautiful desert landscape since November, but this drive was different and special as we viewed stands of Organ Pipe cactus that reside only in this area.
Organ Pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi) is so named because of its multi-limbed growth habit which resembles the pipes of grand organs found in churches. It is a columnar type cactus that can grow as high as 23′ and the second-largest cactus, eclipsed only by the majestic Saguaro.
It can live over 150 years, and won’t produce its first flower until near the age of 35. Organ Pipe cactus blooms in May and June, opening its white, creamy flowers only at night. The flowers will close up again by mid-morning, and very rarely remain open into the afternoon – which means I won’t see one anytime soon.
The 21-mile drive offered up magnificent desert scenery, comprised of extensive cactus plains separated by imposing volcanic mountains that were also covered with many and varied desert plants of the Sonoran Desert.
At stop #9 we took a closer look at an abnormal growth on an arm coming from the center of a cactus. Known as a “cristate”, it’s an unusual trait that also forms rarely on Saguaro cacti.
We noted that another desert plant, the Ocotillos which appeared to be just large spiny sticks during the past few months, are now growing leaves and blooming:
Its bright crimson clusters of tubular flowers are a favorite perching spot for some birds:
After a long day of driving from Mexico and then through the Ajo Scenic Mountain area, Steve was ready to kick back and resume reading his latest book as fresh shrimp from Puerto Peñasco cooked on the grill. Not a bad way to end the day!
After running the generator the following morning to recharge our batteries, we moved Betsy down to the visitor center parking lot. Checkout was 11:00am and we didn’t want to be rushed on our hike. From there we followed the Palo Verde Trail, and combined with the Campground Perimeter Trail we clocked 3.6 miles to get our legs warmed up.
The trails here don’t have any elevation gains to speak of, but it was nice walking across the desert on a cool morning before continuing our trek north.
Then I spotted a hidden crestate in the middle of a large Organ Pipe:
After the hike I was drawn to a garden near the visitor center, where a Costa’s Hummingbird was darting in and out of Chuparosas blooms:
I patiently watched and waited until the light came at just the right angle to reflect off his purple head, while he perched on a branch:
We had been desert rats for almost four months, and our overnight stay at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument capped our meanderings in the Sonoran Desert. It may be a long time before we see the diverse flora and fauna of this area again, and we will definitely miss it!