EXPLORING ORGAN PIPE CACTUS NATIONAL MONUMENT
A Unique Sonoran Desert Park
By Eva Eldridge
The early morning light softens the landscape making the beauty of the area seem unreal. I love driving through the desert with the slanted sun of early morning or late evening. Shadows from the saguaros reach across the road and the mountains are dusky purple. There is something noteworthy in every mile as we get closer to the Kris Eggle Visitor Center. A patch of flowering lupine here, a multi-armed saguaro over there, and the Ajo Mountain Range showing different aspects, and we must stop to capture the image.
Nancy Reid, Lisa Smith and I, are on Highway 85 between Why and Lukeville which bisects Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Most of the time I’ve traveled this road, I’m on my way to the coastal area of Puerto Penasco, Mexico. My companions and I joke about the lack of organ pipe cactus because you have to look hard to find any from the highway. That’s the secret of this National Monument. It’s the lure. Come see the cactus, come learn what this Monument is all about.
Organ Pipe hugs the border of Mexico for thirty three miles. This area of the Sonoran Desert is unique with its saguaros, cholla, prickly pear, ocotillo and the organ pipe cactus because it is one of the few places the organ pipe cactus grows naturally north of Mexico. Plant and animal life abound amongst the rocks and desert pavement. Birds soar in the clear blue skies. Patience might even bring sight of the allusive prong horned antelope.
Seasons have their affect on the desert life. During the spring, especially if the rains were generous the previous year, wildflowers can fill the blank spaces with the brilliant yellow of brittle bush. Purplish blue lupines grow low to the ground near disturbed soil. You can find desert marigold with bright yellow flowers, fairy dusters with pink fuzzy tips and in April, the ocotillo produce a flame of red orange flowers on the top of their spiky stems. The cactus bursts forth in delicate blossoms of magenta, white, pink, deep maroon, yellow, and variations on the theme as spring advances. Soon it will be time for the waxy white flowers of the saguaros to appear. After fertilization, saguaro fruits ripen later in the summer in bright red clusters attracting birds, bats, bugs, and humans that nourish themselves on the sweet fruit.
Hiking trails are a great way to experience what the desert is about. The staff at the Visitors Center can help you chose a trail that is right for you, whether it is the short nature trail or the Estes Canyon-Bull Pasture trail. Be mindful of the desert. Bring plenty of water, wear sturdy shoes or hiking boots, and wear a hat and sunscreen. Even during cooler days, the sun can be relentless. During the hike you might see wildlife like rabbits, javalinas, lizards and birds. The monument has documented more than 270 types of birds and seventy different mammals including several different types of bats.
During your visit to Organ Pipe, investigate the history of the area which is rich with archeology. It is believed that the land has been occupied for more than 10,000 years by various peoples. Some left signs of their habitation and others passed through. Only a small percentage of the archeology sights have been investigated. Father Eusebio Kino passed through the area in the late 1600’s and introduced new types of fruits and vegetables. The O’odham lived here for several hundred years and continue to occupy the surrounding country. Ranchers and miners moved here in the late 1800’s and left their mark on the land.
Several mine claims were made, sold and reopened, but none proved to be as profitable as the copper mine in Ajo. Now there are remnants of these mines, and the bits of silver and copper that remain are protected inside the boundary of the Monument. Cattle ranching proved to be unsustainable and cattle overgrazed the area. Fifty years later the slow growing desert is still trying to recover.
If you have time, there are two campgrounds in Organ Pipe. Twin Peaks is developed with RV spaces and tent spaces, and Alamo is more remote and only allows vans and pickup campers along with a few tent sites. Spend the night in one of these areas because the night sky is a treasure all its own. There is little light pollution in the Monument and it’s a perfect place to set up a telescope. Even a pair of binoculars can reveal the magic of the universe.
Organ Pipe National Monument offers the visitor an exceptional taste of the Sonoran Desert including more than 580 plant and animal species that have adapted to the harsh environment. Visitors are surprised by the varied landscapes and history of this land.
The Monument is less than three hours from Phoenix, Tucson, or Yuma and it is worth every minute you spend there. We must support places as unique as the Monument because without it, we lose our history and the diversity that makes our country strong. For more information, please visit the National Park Service website at www.nps.gov/orpi.