Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

February 23, 2017

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is located south of the tiny town of Ajo, AZ, in the Sonoran Desert, and shares part of the border between U.S. and Mexico.

It was founded in 1937, and in 1976 The United Nations designated Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument as an International Biosphere Reserve. Then in 1977, Congress declared 95% of the monument as a Wilderness area.

This is a rare Crowned Saguaro. I happened to spot it from the highway while I was driving to the monument and walked out to it.

Archaeological evidence places human beings in this area approximately 1,600 years ago. The Hohokam people’s culture existed here from the first years Common Era (C.E.). through C.E. 1450. Barely 90 years after the Hohokam culture dispersed across the landscape, the first Europeans (Spaniards) ventured into the Sonoran Desert, and named the area “New Spain.” Nearly 150 years after the first Spaniards confirmed the lack of large and wealthy civilizations, missionaries combed the area to collect the many valued souls of the people who lived here. With the spread of Christianity, local American Indian cultures changed to use the European methods of farming and ranching taught by the missionaries. Not long after the area was purchased from Mexico by the United States in 1853, both ranching and mining dominated as the major industries for American Indians, Mexicans, and European settlers- lifestyles which lasted into the 20th Century and overlapped with the creation of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in 1937. The town of Ajo, (linked to my blog post on Ajo) just north of the monument became a copper mining town in the 1800’s.

I decided to do the Ajo Mountain Drive, a 21-mile loop drive, east of the Kriss Eggle Visitor Center. The sign above was at the beginning of the drive and is a commonly seen warning in this part of the country.

Just before the road turned into a one-way loop and very close to the Old County Road Trailhead, I saw a scrap of fabric on a tall pole and went to investigate. The flag was there to let illegal immigrants know that they could find water in this location. These containers of water are placed in certain areas by an organization called Humane Borders, and the water containers are filled by volunteers. This is an act of compassion for those who come here to seek a better life and is arranged with the permission of the U.S. Government. Keep in mind that many of these people are coming over with hopes of finding a better life. Some are women and children, and a lot of the men that come just want to make money that they can send back to their families in Mexico, so their families can keep food on the table. Yes, drug smugglers and other (real) criminals also cross the border, and I imagine that they too take advantage of these water sources, so I didn’t linger for long in this spot.

I drove the 21-mile loop slowly and took a lot of pictures, but because I visited the monument in winter, the plant life was more limited than it would be in the spring, however, it was still very beautiful.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument exhibits an extraordinary collection of plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert. This is a showcase for creatures who have adapted themselves to the extreme temperatures, intense sunlight, and little rainfall that characterize this Southwest region. Twenty-six species of cactus have mastered the art of living in this place, including the park’s namesake and the giant saguaro.

At the top of this blog post is an image of a Rare Crested Saguaro Cactus (or Cristate Saguaro). In the interest of learning more about the area and it’s fauna and wildlife, I picked up a brochure at the Visitor Center that gave detailed information about certain plants and geology along the drive with numbered stops. I’m glad I did, otherwise, I would have missed another cactus with an abnormal growth, because from the road it looked like all the others. I spent about fifteen minutes studying this beautiful specimen.

A typical organ pipe cactus has growth cells on the tips of its arms. These cells grow in a circle to form our beloved columnar cactus. A crest can occur when the growth cells form a straight line instead of a circle. If you could peel back the skin and tissue of this organ pipe cactus, you would see the comparison of a normal straw like skeleton to a mutated skeleton branching out like fingers of a hand. This beautiful phenomenon is unexplained in the scientific world. Some scientist’s believe that it is genetics; others believe it is a deformation due to frost; yet others think it may be caused by an imbalance in growth hormones. The truth is, scientists don’t know why this strange formation occurs.

I finally reached the trailhead for Arch Canyon and decided to hike to the arch.

The first part of the trail was easy.

Then when I reached this point, it got more interesting. I turned very rocky, and there were cairns.

I got about half way up there (see the image below), when the trail turned very steep and was mostly loose rubble, and very slippery under food. I found myself on hand and knees much of the time because of the steepness and parts of the trail were washed out. It was now turning cold in the shade and wind and I realized it was getting late in the day. That warning sign back down the trail was also in the back of my mind, and I decided to turn back.

When I got back to my car the sun was fast approaching the horizon, and I knew I’d made the smart decision, especially as I was on my own.

The lighting was changing dramatically now, and I wanted to find a camp site before it went dark. I knew there were no boondocking spots close by, so I speeded up my drive.

I stopped several more times hoping to find a way to get a picture of the cactus with backlighting. It wasn’t easy because there is nothing more than needles to have the sun shine through. This was the best I could do:

I made it back to the closest boondocking spot in the area near the town of Why, AZ. just as the sun was setting. There was nothing south of there, probably because of the high number of illegal immigrants and drug smugglers in this area, but that’s just a guess. I found the campsite by visiting

I hope you have enjoyed this installment of my travels during the winter of 2016/2017, and hope you’ll continue the journey with me. Please visit the HOME page to find more articles, and feel free to share, sign up and leave a comment. Also please visit my YouTube Channel. Until next time…remember to step outside of your comfort zone as often as possible and watch it grow.

Roxy ~ A Nomad for Nature


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One response to “Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

  1. I loved reading about the crowned saguaro and all your solo adventures. The photos and your detailed writing takes me right there!


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