Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Organ Pipe Cactus

If you are also missing that sense of wanderlust and wish to rush back to nature and greenery then perhaps you would like to keep Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona on your visit list.

The monument gets its name from the actual cacti in the area who in turn get their name because their branches resemble organ pipes. In1976, it was declared a UNESCO biosphere reserve, and the following year, ninety-five percent of the cacti were declared a wilderness area. It is situated in the extreme south of Arizona, bordering with the Mexican state, Sonora. This is the only place in the country where this type of cactus grows originally and wild. 

Even though many other types of cacti are also present in the area along with other types of desert flora native to the area, this one specific type has garnered a lot more fame due to its unique shape. The interesting part here might be that even if you are not familiar with what do Organ Pipe Cactus plants look like, this is the shape and form that you most likely imagine when you think of a cactus. Cartoon images have obviously helped in forming this shape. However, there is a lot more to do and explore than snapping photos of these very picturesque cacti.

Two Sides of the Monument: Mirroring the Irony of the Cacti

Before we dive into the beauty and allure of the area for the visitors from all over the country and from the farthest parts of the world, let’s familiarize ourselves with a tragic side to this area as well. Just as a cactus is gorgeous to look at but painful to touch and possibly poisonous, Organ Pipe Cactus monument also has two sides to it – “a paradise for the tourists but a death trap for migrants”. In an article published in The Guardian in 2015, Rory Carrol wrote, “One park with two very different types of visitor. One seeking recreation, the other survival. This is the new normal on the front line of America’s border crackdown.” With this piece of information, one might wonder what secrets and mysteries are buried in these lands and what a tourist might wish to explore, especially after having a brush with looming death even when sitting inside his house. If this information has been enough to pique your curiosity, then let’s educate you more on what to expect, how to prepare, and what to do on your trip to this inspiring national park.

Location and Landscape

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is the large desert area in southwestern Arizona. Its northern boundary is about 15 miles south of Ajo and is accessible by road. The cities of Yuma (northwest) and Tucson (east-northeast) lie about 140 and 185 miles, respectively, from the monument. Britannica notes that Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge also adjoins the monument to the west and northwest, and the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation binds it to the east.

Organ Pipe cactus at dusk

The monument encloses an area of more than 500 square miles of the preserved segments of the rugged Sonoran Desert. Park headquarters and a visitor’s centre are located in the southeastern portion of the monument, about 5 miles north of the border town (within the monument) of Lukeville.

Talking about the landscape, it consists of several ranges of mountains and hills interspersed with broad and relatively flat valleys. The relief rises to its highest elevations in the Ajo Range along the eastern boundary, reaching 4,808 feet at Mount Ajo. A small, permanent, spring-fed pond is located at Quitobaquito in the southwest corner of the national monument; otherwise there are no perennial waterways, explains Britannica. However, several intermittent streams within the boundaries can quickly become raging torrents during and after the often intense thunderstorms that occur during the summer monsoon period (July–September).

The monument is accessible via a north-south road that bisects its eastern portion before continuing on into Mexico from Lukeville. However, unless you are packed for several hours and possibly days if your trip plan is as such, do remember that there are not many facilities available on the way to this park. There are not many restaurants or service stations, and there is no accommodation either for you to rest if it gets late on the way. The only residence you will have is camping that is available within the monument. It is also advisable to plan your trip in relatively cooler months and weather.

Wildlife in the Monument

In addition to the primary attraction organ-pipe cacti, several other desert plants can also be found here, including desert ironwoods, flowering spiny shrubs, large candelabra-shaped cacti, creosote bushes, and the rare elephant tree. The times when the clouds shine upon the area and bless it with some rainfall (especially during the winter and early spring) certain wildflowers also bloom profusely giving an almost dreamlike color to the scenery.

Desert Coyote

If you are also interested in spotting the animals of the desert then you can find mammals like desert bighorn sheep, javelinas, coyotes, a variety of kangaroo rats, and the Sonoran pronghorn – an endangered species of antelope. If you are lucky, and hopefully prepared, you might also catch sight of the occasional mountain lions. 

Among the numerous birds you might catch flying above you are the northern cardinals, Gila woodpeckers, cactus wrens, and several species of hummingbirds. Looking on the ground while your strolls can make you see desert tortoises, chuckwallas, venomous Gila monsters, and several species of rattlesnakes. Scorpions, tarantulas and other desert spiders, and the endangered Quitobaquito pupfish are among the smaller creatures found there, according to Britannica.

Things to do at the Cactus Park

According to NPS website, most visitors visit this national monument in December, January, and February to enjoy the Sonoran Desert’s winter warmth, but each season offers a unique perspective and experience. Choosing when to visit may depend on your length of stay and what you like to do. Leisurely hiking trails and those designed for the experienced hiker meander through a diversely vegetated landscape. Your options may range from photography and night-sky gazing to wildflower walks, camping, ranger programs and the scenic drives.

There are also Ranger Programs available at the monument, but those are better suited for those with more thirst for knowledge and exploring the secrets of why the native cacti don’t grow anywhere else. For those wishing to breathe in the desert air, soak in the sun and the colors of the land, and to take photographs of nature being wild and beautiful, there are other things to do, as mentioned above.

Nearby National Parks

Women looking at a map driving to the next national park in Arizona

There are also several places to visit nearby the monument, each with something unique to offer the visitors. These include national park sites and other cultural attractions. Saguaro National Park is one option that contains some of the most pristine and impressive forests of the Saguaro cactus. Casa Grande Ruins National Monument is slightly farther, which was created as the nation’s first archeological reserve in 1892. The Casa Grande Ruins National Monument preserves the remains of an ancient farming community. Tumacacori National Historical Park is another option where you will find the three Spanish colonial mission ruins in southern Arizona, founded in the 17th and 18th centuries, respectively.