Solitude in the Sonoran Desert: A Guide to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
April 4, 2021
Travel date March 2021
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a much less hyped park than Saguaro but is equally as impressive. If passing through southern Arizona, the park offers a unique opportunity to see an abundance of cactus with smaller crowds than Saguaro. So, guide your car south to Organ Pipe to find solitude among the cactus.
How big is Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument?
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is 516 square miles of Sonoran Desert in Arizona bordering Mexico. Over 95% of the park is designated Wilderness.
When to Visit
Organ Pipe is a desert in Southern Arizona and summer temperatures exceed 100 degrees. During the late fall and early spring, day temperatures average 60 degrees. The NPS says Organ Pipe is where summer spends the winter. Most visit Organ Pipe between December and March for the mild weather.
How much does it cost to go to Organ Pipe?
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a part of the National Park Service. The admission is $25 per vehicle for a seven-day pass. If you plan to visit other National Parks, the America the Beautiful pass is a bargain at $80 per year for unlimited admission to all NPS sites and many other federal recreation sites.
Organ Pipe Fun Facts
Early settlers thought the dead cacti resembled church pipe organs and named them Organ Pipe cactus.
Organ pipe can live up to 150 years.
In May, maroon buds appear on the organ pipe.
The primary pollinator of the organ pipe is the endangered Lesser Long-nosed Bat which migrates from Mexico.
Organ pipes do not produce their first bloom until they are around 35 years old.
The flowers bloom at night and are closed by mid-morning the following day.
In summer, the organ pipe fruit ripens and splits open revealing red pulpy insides. Many creatures eat the fruit and spread the seeds across the desert.
Say What? Cactus Edition
We learned a lot of new pronunciations during our first winter in Arizona. Here are a few:
octillo: OH-koh-TEE-yo – Octillo is a thorny plant often mistaken for a cactus. They sprout leaves within 48 hours of rain and lose their leaves to conserve water during dry times.
saguaro: sa-WA-roh – Saguaro are Arizona’s tallest cactus can grow up to 70 feet and indicates desert health.
cholla:CHOY-yuh – Cholla is a family of cacti known for easily detachable jointed branches with painful spines.
Gila: HEE-lah – The largest desert lizard in the park is the Gila monster. Gila woodpeckers build nest in saguaros.
History of the Park
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was established by President Roosevelt in 1937. The 516 square miles in the Sonoran desert is a sanctuary for many species including some endangered. It was designated a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1976 to protect the intact Sonoran Desert ecosystem.
Organ Pipe Name
When early settlers saw the dead cacti they saw a resemblance to church pipe organs. The name is based on the appearance of the cluster of pipe like arms.
Park Safety History
In 2002, a law enforcement park ranger was shot by two Mexican cartel members attempting to escape Mexican authorities through Organ Pipe. They crossed the US border after committing a string of murders in Mexico. Officer Kris Eggle was shot while in pursuit of the suspects.
As a result, the park added international vehicle barriers to prevent vehicles from entering the park’s wilderness. The Organ Pipe visitor center was designated by Congress as the Kris Eggle Visitor Center in 2003.
Is it safe to visit Organ Pipe National Monument?
Organ Pipe Cactus Monument is fairly remote and the road through the park leads to the Mexican state of Sonora. There are signs throughout the park warning of smuggling in the area and recommended safety precautions. We didn’t observe anything suspicious during our time in the area but maintained our standard safety practices.
What is the difference between a National Park and a National Monument?
National Parks are generally large protected areas of land encompassing both natural and historical resources. They can only be created by an act of Congress. The National Park Service’s mission is to preserve these areas “for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations.”
The National Park System has 28 different types of locations but technically all are classified as National Parks regardless of the name.
An example is National Monuments which are National Parks despite their name. National Monuments are created to protect a specific feature such as a specific plant. These protected features can range from cultural, natural to historic sites.
This website does a great job explaining the difference between types of public lands.
How far is Organ Pipe National Monument from Tucson?
We stopped at Organ Pipe on a road trip between Tucson and San Diego. Organ Pipe is 130 miles from Tucson. The scenic drive on Highway 86 is a winding beautiful drive through the Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation. Highway 86 is a two-lane road with very little traffic and limited services. We didn’t have any problems driving our 37′ motorhome, Pippi, on the route.
Guide to Camping at Organ Pipe
There are several camping options nearby including free BLM land, campgrounds inside the park, and several private campgrounds. Location and price will likely guide your campsite choice at Organ Pipe.
Nearby Free Camping
When given the option, we prefer to boondock for free on public land. It’s even more appealing if the location doesn’t sacrifice proximity to the park.
Gunsight Wash BLM was only a few miles from the entrance sign for Organ Pipe. Access was via a well-maintained dirt road. Organ Pipe is a bit remote out so expect to drive 20-minutes from the park entrance until you reach the visitor center.
Organ Pipe National Monument has two campgrounds inside the park, Alamo and Twin Peaks.
Alamo Campground is $12 per night for a few first-come, first-served primitive tent only sites. Water is not available and fires are prohibited but Alamo campers are immersed in the quiet desert landscape.
The Twin Peaks Campground is much larger with 174 RV sites and 34 tent-only sites. Some sites are large enough to accommodate 45 footers. Flush toilets and solar showers are available in the campground. Potable water and RV dump are available but the campsites are dry camping with no hookups. Campsites can be reserved on Recreation.gov for $20 per night at Twin Peaks.
Guide to Organ Pipe: What to Do
Organ Pipe National Monument is a great location to explore a pristine desert with over 31 species of cacti. One day should be plenty of time to explore the park including a hike. However, with more than one day you can hike additional trails and enjoy unspoiled star gazing in the desert after dark.
Here are the NPS recommendations depending upon time available:
We enjoy learning about the parks we visit and find the visitor center is the easiest way to get up to speed quickly. If feasible, I recommend always going to the Visitor Center upon arrival at any National Park. Rangers are usually available to provide maps and insider information about the park. Oftentimes, they also have educational and informational displays about the geography, wildlife, and history of the park. A stop at the visitor center will help guide your visit to Organ Pipe.
Kris Eggle Visitor Center
The visitor center is closed on Tuesday and Wednesday. During opening hours they have several educational exhibits and a 15-minute film about the park. When closed, brochures and maps are still available. Be sure to get the Ajo Mountain Scenic Drive pamphlet in preparation if you are planning to take the drive.
Visitor Center Nature Trail
Finally, be sure to take a stroll through the 0.1-mile Nature Trail from the visitors center to see some of the park’s cactus up close. The path leads to a small pond with native fish behind the Visitor Center.
Ranger Led Programs
Between January and March, park rangers lead evening educational programs at the Twin Peaks Campground amphitheater. Topics vary and the current schedule is available at the visitor center.
The easiest way to see the park is to take a scenic drive. Organ Pipe has several dirt roads that lead into the heart of the Sonoran desert. The road conditions vary and some require high clearance and/or 4×4. You can find a guide to current Organ Pipe road conditions here.
Bicycles are also allowed on all park roads open to vehicles. All trails are closed to bikes. The Ajo Mountain Loop is a popular cycle route.
Ajo Mountain Loop
The Ajo Mountain Loop is a 21-mile unpaved road that crossed the Diablo Mountains to the base of the Ajo Mountains returning through the Sonoyta Valley. Allow a minimum of 1-2 hours for this drive without any stops. The area includes dense clusters of saguaro and organ pipe cactus. We picked up a free driving guide pamphlet for the Ajo Mountain Loop at the Organ Pipe visitor center. Vehicles over 25-feet are prohibited on Ajo Mountain Loop.
Many of the hiking trailheads are accessible along this route including Bull Pasture and Estes Canyon.
Puerto Blanco Drive
Puerto Blanco is another popular scenic drive in Organ Pipe and is 41 miles of unpaved road. High clearance vehicle is recommended. A minimum of 4-5 hours is necessary to complete the Puerto Blanco loop including the North and South sections.
Hiking Guide to Organ Pipe
Organ Pipe National Monument offers dozens of miles of hiking trails and even has a Hike for Health program that rewards visitors for hiking five miles or more. Unfortunately, we didn’t read the Organ Pipe guide before planning our day and only hiked about 4.5 miles of trails. We walked the short nature trail at the visitors center and a modified version of the popular Bull Pasture Trail.
How to prepare for a hike
Plan your route and download offline maps if possible. I use the Avenza app to download free maps from Federal agencies such as the National Park Service.
Pack water and snacks regardless of your hike length. The Sonoran desert is particularly dry and one gallon of water is recommended per person per day.
Dress in sturdy shoes and comfortable clothes.
Protect yourself from the elements (sun, cold, or precipitation). Sunscreen and protective clothing is particularly important in the desert.
Hike Bull Pasture and Estes Canyon Loop Trail
Bull Pasture is listed as a 3 mile out and back but we altered the hike to make it a 4.45-mile loop including a portion of the Estes Canyon trail. It is a strenuous trail that leads up a steep grade with some exposed cliffs.
The views from the top were majestic. The small Estes Canyon trailhead parking area has a pit toilet and trash bins.
The closest town to Organ Pipe is Ajo, Arizona. It is a small town with only 3k residents however it is a cute place with a lot of character including street art. Sadly, we didn’t realize this gem was so close until we drove through heading to our next destination. I was particularly bummed when I read this blog about the great things to do in Quaint Ajo.
Summary of Organ Pipe
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a wonderful place to spend some time among organ pipe, saguaro, and cholla cactus. The unspoiled Sonoran Desert offers great bird watching and solitude for star gazing.