This magical land of desert delights is an International Biosphere Reserve, home to virtually all the organ pipe cacti in the US. The organ pipe cactus, with is cluster of upright stems growing from a single low trunk, is named for its resemblance to a pipe organ. A mature organ pipe might be 150 years old, 16 feet tall and 12 feet wide. And they are really fun to look at.
This part of the Sonoran Desert, the hottest of the North American deserts, is also home to giant saguaros, ocotillos, chollas… a total of 31 different species of cacti and too many other plants and animals to list. We were shocked to find that this desert is not a dusty brown, but full of vibrant greenery!
Due to concerns about drug smugglers crossing the border through the Monument, Organ Pipe was closed to the public for eleven years, until 2014. Personally, we never felt unsafe while there, but a larger-than-expected cadre of Border Patrol officers was noticeable on the roads and trails.
The National Monument is quite isolated in far southern Arizona: the drive from Joshua Tree was about four-and-a-half hours (stop for a date shake to break up the trip!), and it was another two hours to Tucson when we left. Lukeville is the closest town to the Monument (technically it’s within the Monument); it’s basically just a border crossing with a gas station and convenience store. Organ Pipe is well worth the extra effort to visit and we will definitely return! We spoke to a fellow Airstreamer at the campground who visits Organ Pipe often and then takes his Airstream across to Puerto Peñasco on the Mexican coast, so maybe that’s a future adventure for us?
Organ Pipe has two campgrounds; if you’re in an RV you’ll be camping at Twin Peaks Campground. It’s the most central home base for exploring the park, but if you’re tent camping, you should consider spending a night or two at the prettier and more secluded Alamo Canyon Campground.
We were told we were there just before the snowbirds started rolling in (it was the last week in November), and the campground was gloriously unpopulated and peaceful. The campground is surrounded by the gorgeous green desert and is close to the visitor center, and the campsites have no hookups.
During the winter high season, the park operates a free shuttle service to a couple trailheads from which you can hike back to the campground. It’s a fantastic option that we wish we’d had the opportunity to take advantage of.
Sadly, dogs are not allowed on the trails in Organ Pipe, except for one: the one-mile Campground Perimeter Trail, which, luckily for Bugsy, is a beautiful little loop. We hiked it a couple times, admiring the vistas of rolling desert hills, the lights of Sonoyta, Mexico in the distance, and the Ajo Range on the eastern border of the park. While the humans were distracted with the views, Bugsy was attacked by an innocent-looking jumping cholla cactus, and while trying to remove the cactus ball from her paw, she got a needle through her tongue! After a quick surgery with tweezers (don’t forget to carry tweezers in your hiking pack!) she was good as new, but all three of us were more cautious around those jumping cholla.
The trails below are listed in order of our personal preference. Overall, we enjoyed the hikes up into the Ajo Mountains over the flatter desert walks in the Puerto Blanco Mountains:
It’s possible we rank Alamo Canyon at the top of the list because it was the first hike we did immediately after dropping the Airstream at our campsite, and we were still dazed by the beauty of the scenery. It was starting to get dusky and we had this easy two-mile hike all to ourselves, following a wash into the Ajo Mountains to ruins of a homestead from the 1930s. The trailhead is in the Alamo Canyon Campground, a small, primitive, tent-only campground that looked like a treat to spend the night at.
Ideally, you’d do Bull Pasture and Estes Canyon as a loop, but we only had time for a 1.5-mile out-and-back to the top of Bull Pasture. The trail climbs quickly and steeply into the Ajo Mountains for incredible views of the Sonoyta Valley below and the Puerto Blanco Mountains to the west. We would have preferred doing the entire loop trail over the Senita Basin – Red Tanks Tinaja loop below.
This 4.5-mile loop starts from the Twin Peaks campground and leads you to the ruins of a gold and silver mine from the late 19th and early 20th century. The trail is flat and surrounded by the green desert full of interesting plants, and sweeping views of the valley. You could connect up with the Senita Basin trail to have a longer day on the Puerto Blanco Mountains side of the park.
Senita Basin and Red Tanks Tinaja
These two trails, off Puerto Blanco Drive, take you through through a similar landscape as the Victoria Mine hike, but we thought Victoria Mine was a little prettier. The hike to Red Tanks Tinaja, a wee tiny little (at least when we visited) desert pool, and Senita Basin, a sandy wash, was a pleasant and flat 5.5-mile walk. We saw the most Border Patrol officers here of anywhere else we explored in Organ Pipe, and the drive to the trailhead runs for a bit along a low fence that separates the park from Mexico.
The reason we put Arch Canyon last is kind of the result of a mistake we made, so maybe this ranking isn’t totally fair… actually, no, even if we’d hiked the trail the correct way, we don’t think it was worth the time. Arch Canyon features an arch in a cliff looming over a pretty little canyon in the Ajo Mountains, and the arch is cool if you’re not used to the arches in Utah. It’s an easy 1.2-mile hike up into the canyon to the base of the cliff (on the backside of the part with the arch, so your reward is not a cool close-up view). That’s where we got into trouble: at the end of the official, maintained trail is a primitive trail marked with cairns leading straight up the side of the cliff to an overlook. We cannot pass up an overlook, so up we went. It’s a short climb, distance-wise–maybe a half-mile–but did I mention it is straight up the side of the mountain? It was hard-going both up and down, and it took forever on a day when we were trying to cram in as many trail miles as possible. Yes, the views were fantastic from the top, but you can get those views from a much more reasonable trail if you hike to Bull Pasture.
We very much enjoyed driving the 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive, stopping to hike along the way. Be sure to pick up the free Ajo Mountain Drive guidebook at the Visitor Center to learn desert trivia tidbits along the way. Consider packing lunch and having a picnic at one of the scenic pull-offs along the drive.