Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
It is late in the evening when we arrive at a motel in Flagstaff, Arizona. We had planned to camp at Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park and then travel to Canyon de Chelly National Monument the following day. However, we felt like the touristy, inaccessible Monument Valley was not for us, and we thought Canyon de Chelly would run in the same vein. So we decide to cut our losses and make a beeline for our most anticipated stop Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
The next morning we eat a mediocre continental breakfast and then head south toward Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. It is a long way, and we start the day driving through a light snowfall in Flagstaff and end the day in seventy-degree weather. As we get closer to Organ Pipe, the border patrol checkpoints are frequent. We are about as far south as we can go without actually crossing over into Mexico.
The entrance to the park is unassuming, but as you travel toward this visitor center, things begin to change. The mountains are black and red covered with saguaros and funny, spindly organ pipe cactus. I can tell this is place is going to be the highlight of our trip.
Sonoran Desert Sunset
We arrive at the Twin Peaks Campground just before sunset. This campground is gigantic with 34 tent sites and 174 places for RVs (no hookups). The race to set up camp is on. We have a lot of practice making camp after backpacking 1,400 miles of the PCT last year, so our tent is up in a flash. We don't want to miss the sunset.
There are miles of trails at Organ Pipe, but this evening we choose the one in our backyard 10-feet from our campsite. It leads us to Victoria Mine. We grab a day pack with some warm clothes, headlamps, and water. Walking quickly we soon cover the few miles to the mine. It is a flat trail through the Sonoran Desert with a close look at the spectacular plant life that makes this place so special.
The mine itself is in ruins; however, you can still see the remnants of a building and old equipment covers the ground. This makes it a fun place to explore. You should be aware that there is illegal activity in the area due to the close proximity to the Mexican border. Be on your guard and avoid contact with suspicious persons. The sun is setting, and we are enjoying the soft light of dusk, snapping photo after photo until it is time to head back. Darkness approaches, and we make it back to our camp just before flashlights become a necessity.
Ajo Mountain Drive
We wake just before sunset. The night was warm, and we have slept comfortably. I unzip the tent door on my side. It faces east. We wait. We begin to see the soft light over the horizon. The Coyotes have stopped howling, but we can still hear the Great-Horned Owl hoot quietly. The sun is coming quickly now, and it makes its appearance transforming the sky into an artist's pallet. We cook our breakfast and enjoy the moment.
Organ Pipe has several scenic drives the most popular of which is the 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive. We embark on this easy loop, stopping at the Arch Canyon Trail. The way starts off easily, leading up the canyon. We can see the arch high above us inaccessibly tucked into the mountainside.
Arch Canyon Trail
The Canyon Trail ends abruptly with a rickety sign that points upward towards the arch. Another trail leads us steeply up the mountainside. We struggle to keep our footing on the sometimes nearly vertical, rocky path. After toiling for 45 minutes, we reach a false summit. The wind is incredible. I feel like it will blow me off the precipice to my death. I am forced to crawl to the edge. We are awarded a fantastic view. Far below, the desert opens before us. We can see for miles.
Hoping to gain a better view of the arch itself. We continue on the path upwards. The way is treacherous at some points where you must clamber over a gorge with questionable footing in the face of the winds. Soon we are faced with the actual summit. Although, we must crane our bodies to see the arch from up here. We have it in view at long last.
Organ Pipe is a great place to enjoy outdoor pleasures such as hiking, biking, horse-back riding, and camping. What makes this park interesting is its unique biodiversity. It is designated as a UNESCO international biosphere reserve. This is the only place in the United States where the Organ Pipe Cactus can be found. It is 1 of 28 different cacti found at the monument. Each of these is particularly adapted to survive this desert ecosystem.
Saguaro National Park
It is late afternoon when we leave Organ Pipe National Monument and drive east to Tucson. Out next stop is Saguaro National Park the Rincon Mountain District. Saguaro National Park has two sides. The west side is called the Tucson Mountain District. Check out our blog post on this beautiful park here. We have never been to the Rincon Mountain District though, and we are excited to see something new.
Upon arrival, we are unnerved by the parks close proximity to Tucson. As we take the Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive, we view Saguaros within a cityscape. We saw much better views of Saguaros at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument without the intrusive smog and noises of a nearby metropolis. Disappointed we retreat for the evening to make plans.
The next morning we are plotting with the ranger. We are planning to hike up the mountain into the backcountry. It is going to be really cold, she says. Yes, yes, we reply. We will begin our hike tomorrow morning. With plans cemented, we look for a diversion. The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum is supposedly excellent, and we have a recommendation for the Tucson Mountain Park from some folks we met at Organ Pipe. It is decided.
Tucson Mountain Park
There are over 40,000 plants featured at the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. The grounds are spread out over 100 acres, taking visitors on a tour much like a zoo, through exhibits featuring animals, fossils, and minerals. This museum is oriented for children and has few places where you are able to study the exhibits without being disturbed. General Admission is $25. Here we face the dilemma of being quite interested in natural history but not so interested in sharing the experience with crowds.
I did see a truly amazing thing at Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. An adult male reached out and grabbed a Jumping Cholla stem. This plant is notorious in this area. The Jumping Chain Cholla doesn't literally jump, but it does possess some efficient spines that easily hook into objects. It is an effective reproductive strategy. This man was surprised when he impaled himself instantly. After which he stared stupidly at the broken off stem stuck in his hand while blood streamed down his hand and arm. Wow. He then proceeded to try and remove said stem with his other hand. Officials soon intervened.
Brown Mountain Trail
After this experience, we visited the nearby Tucson Mountain Park. This Pima County park and the Gilbert Ray Campground is gorgeous and well-maintained, and the accompanying drive through Gates Pass is scenic. The staff set us up with a great campsite for $10 and advised us on the miles and miles of trails around the area. Bring check or cash. The campground doesn't accept plastic.
It is late afternoon, but we still have time for the 4.5 mile Brown Mountain Trail at Tucson Mountain Park. The trailhead is next to the Gilbert Ray Campground. This hike climbs Brown Mountain, making a loop, and the views are great. We accidentally timed this hike just right, and we were rewarded with an amazing view of some storm clouds breaking in the distance. The light created an incredible spectacle perfect for photography, and we went crazy with pictures.
Tanque Verde Ridge
We are up early, packing for our backcountry hike in Saguaro National Park East. Driving across town, we park in the Javelina lot and head into the mountains along the Tanque Verde Ridge. The hike is uphill all day and the views of Tucson are far-reaching. You can see it all from up here. Soon we are out of the Saguaro forest and into the Junipers. The city finally disappears from view.
Our destination this evening is the Juniper Basin 7 miles away. We easily reach the area well before dark, set up our camp, and wait for the sunset. It is hard to find a good view when you are in a basin, but we do our best. Afterward, we build a good fire. It is starting to get cold, and the ranger's words come back to haunt me. "It is going to be really cold."
After a delicious round of ramen, we stare into the mesmerizing flames as the stars peek out. I have donned full down. I look like I'm ready for the ski slopes, but I'm warm. We have noisy company this evening. A group of backpackers is in the site next to us, and they will not stop yammering. Ah, the sounds of nature. Finally, RamboJuice has had enough, and he tells them off. We hear not a peep afterward.
I will say that the night we spent on Tanque Verde Ridge in early January was one long night. The ranger was quite right it was really cold and neither of us slept much despite our fancy gear. We pack up and hike back down the mountain. It is just before noon when we load our packs into the car and drive away. The consensus is that, if you like great views of Tucson, the Tanque Verde Ridge Trail is your bag. And that, yes, it is really cold at night in early January.
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Road Trip Tips:
- Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a great place to visit in the winter months because the temperature is comfortable and the crowds are slim.
- Try to time your hikes in the desert with a sunrise or sunset. They are incredible here.
- Tucson Mountain Park is gorgeous. Don't miss it! There are miles of trail, and the big city is on the other side of the mountain, blocked from view.