Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Organ Pipe National Monument: A Unique Patch of Desert

On the US-Mexico border, in Southern Arizona, Organ Pipe National Monument is one of the most unique areas of the Sonoran Desert. One of the most fascinating National Park unit in the state, and an International Biosphere Preserve, this patch of the desert is home to a thriving community of plants and animals.

A Day Trip from Phoenix to Hike Among Organ Pipe Cacti

During the Coronavirus-time we rarely leave the house, let alone travel. But day trips were safer, especially if your destination is outdoors. Over the years we considered Organ Pipe National Monument a bit too far to visit and enjoy in one day. Mostly because we never considered it an only destination for a trip.

When visiting it, we either camped there, or stopped on our way to Puerto Penasco (also known in the US as Rocky Point). We used to do this pretty often, but it’s been years since we drove in that direction.

But, as it turns out, Organ Pipe National Monument is close enough to visit as a day trip from Phoenix. So, when we got in the car on one of the last days of 2020 to leave Phoenix for a day, we drove to Organ Pipe National Monument. It was a beautiful day in the Sonoran Desert, with clear skies and perfect temperatures for being outdoors.

Though the desert is just as beautiful closer to home, after hiking the trails in Phoenix for a few months, we needed a change. And Organ Pipe National Monument offers just enough of it to make the two-and-a-half-hour drive worth it.

Driving through Desolate Areas of Arizona

To be fair, the drive towards Organ Pipe National Monument is mostly boring. In a normal year, it’s slow going on two-lane highways through the desolate desert. But during the pandemic few people were on the road. This meant we could drive at a normal pace, making the road trip shorter.

Every time I leave Phoenix I notice what a beautiful area we live in. Aptly named the Valley of the Sun, the city is surrounded by mountains, showcasing gorgeous rock formations.

Past the farmlands we drove through some truly desolate desert areas until we reached Ajo. Its name means garlic in Spanish, though all we saw throughout the town is the remnants of mines.

Wall art in Ajo, Arizona

Since we were getting close to the Mexican border, we passed through a checkpoint, empty on the way there, but stopping every car the way back.

And past it, we entered some of the most beautiful areas of the Sonoran Desert, filled with volcanic hills, saguaros, ocotillos, and an occasional organ pipe. We were entering the Biosphere Preserve Organ Pipe National Park is part of.

The International Biosphere Reserve

Started by UNESCO in the 1960s, the International Biosphere Program is a conservation effort, thought up as a solution to the environmental problems that were confronting the world. The program is designed to preserve samples of the world’s diverse ecosystems. This means we have UNESCO-designated reserves of tropical forests, prairie grasslands, coral reefs, river system, and deserts.

The Organ Pipe Cactus Biosphere Reserve was created in 1974 to conserve the unique ecosystem of the Sonoran Desert in an area intact from human development. The reserve is managed by the US National Park System, and as such, part of the Organ Park National Monument.

The Organ Pipe Cactus

Though this patch of the Sonoran Desert is home to a wide variety of cactus species, and many other unique plants, it is the only place in the US where the unique organ pipe cactus lives.

Organ Pipe Cactus
An older, healthy organ pipe cactus.

When you look at it, you realize that it got it is named for its shape, resembling an organ pipe with its many arms. The columnar cactus originated in the dry tropics and started migrating north when the climate warmed after the last Ice Age. It eventually made its home in the Sonoran Desert about 3500 years ago.

The organ pipe cactus lives to be up to 150 years old, and starts having flowers around the age of 35. Its large, cream-colored blossoms open at night in May and June. As night-bloomers, their main pollinators are bats, specifically the lesser long-nosed bats.

The red fruit of the organ pipe cactus ripens in July, before the summer rains. And just after, in July and August is the time they grow the most, thanks to combination of extreme heat and rain. Within the Organ Pipe National Monument’s boundaries their stem grows about 2.5 inches in a normal year (less when it’s extremely dry).

Organ Pipe National Monument is the optimal place for this cactus to grow. This is where you’ll find large strands of them in the US, though they grow past the border, south into Mexico. (Plants don’t recognize or care about borders, even when huge, ugly walls run through them.)

Hiking in Organ Pipe National Monument

Organ Pipe National Monument offers miles upon miles of hiking trails, from easy to strenuous and everything in between.

Hiking trail in Organ Pipe National Monument
Hiking trail in Organ Pipe National Monument

We chose a trail we remembered as a remote one, in the Puerto Blanco Mountains. After parking at the far side of the camping sites, we walked through desert vegetation with views of the surrounding mountains, Lukeville and the border. We were on the Victoria Mine Trail, though didn’t follow it all the way to the old, abandoned mine.

A patch of desert in Organ Pipe National Monument with saguaros, ocotillo, palo verde and organ pipe cactus.
A patch of desert in Organ Pipe National Monument with saguaros, ocotillo, palo verde and organ pipe cactus.

Besides a few gorgeous organ pipe cactus pieces, we walked by even larger concentrations of saguaros. Other cactus varieties I recognized included prickly pear, the cute but not so harmless teddy bear cholla, jumping cholla and other cholla varieties, and lots of ocotillos, palo verde trees, and shrubs like the creosote. In a year with no rain, they all looked pretty thirsty, with their leaves shrunk and the cacti’s ribs narrow.

The thing about columnar cacti like the organ pipe and saguaro, they store water in their columns, and their ribs extend when full, while shrinking back, making them look taller and skinnier as they use up their supply. Because of this, they can survive long periods without any water, but they would be very happy with a bit of rain right now.

hiking in Organ Pipe National Monument
View from the trail with Mexico in the distance.

In the not-so-far distance, we spotted Lukeville, the border town on the US side. We could have walked across the border to Mexico, if we wanted to. We thought about it; at least we considered driving through, but we didn’t bring our passports with us. I remember years ago, all we needed was our driving licenses to cross the border here, but those times are past.

Once Upon a Time… Our First Camping Adventure in Organ Pipe National Monument

As we drove by the campsites, most of them full, I couldn’t help but think of the difference between this and the our first camping trip here, twenty years ago.

After setting up the tent, my husband took the little one on his shoulder for a hike. My four-year-old son stayed with me while I was setting up the picnic table for dinner. Suddenly I heard him whisper, “look, mom, a snake.”

To this day I don’t know how he knew to stay quiet and not startle the snake. As I turned, I noticed it, too. Close enough we could’ve touched him, the largest rattle snake I’ve ever seen to this day (and I’ve seen a few since), was slithering a few feet from us, sliding under out Explorer.

I took my little son’s hand and whispered, “let’s back up a little.” We took a few steps back, while keeping our eye on the snake, both mesmerized by its size and beauty.

I don’t know why I was reading about rattlesnakes just minutes before we set up our tent; but since I did, I recognized it as an adult diamondback, and knew what to do if we encountered one.

Staying as quiet as we could, we followed it from a safe distance. Partly because my son wanted to, but I also needed to make sure he went far enough from our tent so I could feel safe.

He slowly made his way through a few more camping sites, then it disappeared in the desert vegetation. Later, we heard his rattler farther, somewhere at the foot of a giant saguaro.

I don’t think many campers encounter rattle snakes these days. As the campground is busier, they are most likely staying away. This time, we didn’t see wildlife other than a raven perched on top of a saguaro.

Things to Know About Organ Pipe National Monument

  1. Where is Organ Pipe National Monument?

    Organ Pipe National Monument is in Southern Arizona, on the border with Mexico.

  2. How far is Organ Pipe National Monument from Phoenix?

    Organ Pipe National Monument is 130 miles from Phoenix, and it takes about two to two-and-a-half hours to get there from the city.

  3. What are the best things to do in Organ Pipe National Monument?

    Some of the best things to do in the park include hiking, biking, horseback riding and camping. The park also has a few scenic drives to try.

  4. When is the best time to visit?

    Being a desert environment in Southern Arizona, the best time to visit Organ Pipe National Monument, like any place in the Sonoran Desert, is winter, followed by early spring and late fall.

Scroll to Top