You are here

On The Road To Organ Pipe

Patrick Cone photo

To reach the national monument, you’ll pass through the slumbering town of Ajo, Arizona. Once fueled by copper — the state’s first copper mine was here, launched in the mid-1850s — Ajo (pronounced AH-ho, either takes its name from the Spanish word for garlic, or from o’oho, the native Tohono O’odham word for paint) took a substantial hit in 1985 when Phelps Dodge closed its copper mine. Now the town of some 4,000 residents caters to Park Service and Border Patrol employees, travelers heading for a long weekend at Puerto Penasco on the Gulf of California, and snowbirds fleeing northern blizzards.

Today Mexican travel insurance vendors stand out on the main drag. But the picturesque town square, its Spanish Colonial Revival architecture well maintained and appealing, recalls better economic times when Ajo wasn’t so sleepy. Two churches — one Catholic built in 1924, and another, the Federal Church built two years later — front the square practically side-by-side, while vibrant pastel-colored miners’ bungalows line the surrounding streets.

The Curley School, built in 1919 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is the centerpiece of an effort to transform Ajo into an artists’ community. It rents out 30 apartments to struggling artists and artisans.

The Catholic Church fronting the plaza in Ajo/Kurt Repanshek


Though the Agave Grill’s menu tilts towards Asian-American fusion, not Southwestern, it does offer burgers and chicken and beef skewers. Up the street on the west side stands the American Citizens Social Club, which opened in 1946 and could reflect in some eyes the consternation over the state of the international border.

Patrick Cone photo

We had the plaza to ourselves on a Friday morning, the only locals we encountered were two old men walking the streets, followed a few paces back by their two old dogs. A hand-lettered sign on a glass door proclaimed, “Yes, let it be coffee!”

The national monument is 25 miles south of Ajo, beyond the eye-blink way station of Why.

Once inside the monument, while many visitors want to head immediately to the historic Quitobaquito oasis in the park’s southwestern corner, where the only fish in the monument swims in the warm spring waters, Rijk Morawe sent us in another direction: the Senita Basin.

“That, to me, is like the jewel,” said Morawe, the park’s natural and cultural resources chief. “Go to the Senita Basin. That’s where you’re going to see the height of the Sonoran Desert. You won’t see this in Tucson, you won’t see it in Phoenix.”

Patrick Cone photo

It was on our way to the basin that we encountered a lazy gopher snake, easily approaching five feet in length, slowly slithering across the road. We came upon a solar-powered emergency beacon, with a big red button to push if you’re in trouble, and then the ruffling blue flag and water barrel surrounded by cactus, just a few paces from a sketchy route heading north through the monument.

Five minutes down the dusty, bumpy gravel road brought us to Senita Basin. Road’s end featured a lone picnic table and a placard with a short overview of the Senita cactus found in the basin as well as of the prospecting claims that once pockmarked the area.

Chief Morawe had told us we’d find all three columnar cactus species that are protected by Organ Pipe Cactus — Saguaro, Senita, and Organ Pipe — along with Elephant tree and Ironwood in the basin. We also found quiet. It was early April, just past the busy high season that the winter months support, and we were alone under the glaring sun on the 1.2-mile trail that loops through the basin.

Senita Cactus in the Senita Basin/Patrick Cone

As we meandered the trail that rose and fell slightly, our gaze took in the Puerto Blanco Mountains rising to the north and east and the Sonoyta Mountains to the south. While the ocotillo stalks scattered here and there along the trail had dropped their most wands of tubular red flowers and were heading into dormancy, some of the cholla cacti were expanding their footprint in the basin; spiny segments that had dropped off the plant were now rooted.

Out And About In Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

National Park Service photo

Patrick Cone photo

Patrick Cone photo

Patrick Cone photo


Organ Pipe Cactus offers some of the wildest cactus gardens you'll find in North America/Patrick Cone

Organ Pipe Cactus: A Sonoran Desert Treasure

By Kurt Repanshek

The blue fluttering banner was whipping in the hot, dry, desert wind. It was easily spotted above the cactus garden. It did not signal a restricted zone but, rather, salvation. Beneath the flag was a barrel of water, or aqua. Border jumpers heading north from Mexico who couldn’t carry enough water to last through the trek would most likely find this life-saving liquid.

Standing there, surrounded by whip-like ocotillo stalks, barrel cactus, and saguaros, the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument landscape in southern Arizona embraced us with its serenity and beauty. But this land can be intimidating, threatening, and even deadly, not only for those on foot seeking a new life or those criminals running drugs, but also for visitors whose vehicles have run out of gas, or broken down, under the blazing afternoon sun.

Southern border parks such as Organ Pipe Cactus, Big Bend, and Coronado National Memorial have been thrust into the news by threats posed by drug runners and illegal immigrants. That’s unfortunate, however, as the furor over border security obscures the parks’ stark beauty and historical significance.

A barrel of salvation in the desert/Kurt Repanshek

The Sonoran Desert cradled by Organ Pipe Cactus is unlike most other deserts in the world. It receives more rainfall, on average, than other deserts, and is biologically rich, with more than 600 plant species and more than 50 mammalian species. Nearly 300 bird species, and 50 types of amphibian and reptilian species, also have been counted in the monument. Taken as a whole, it’s understandable why the park in 1976 was designated an International Biosphere Reserve.

There’s rich human history here, too, dating back 15,000 years. The Old Salt Trail was used by cultures down through the centuries to bring salt, seashells, and obsidian gathered from Sea of Cortez salt beds at Sonora, Mexico, northward through this landscape. The Tohono O’odham culture relied on the fruit of the saguaros and organ pipe cactus for food, notes the Park Service.

More recent history is seen in the clutter of abandoned mines that prospectors had hoped would make them rich in gold and copper. Early ranchers also impacted the landscape, as cattle overgrazed many areas before the animals were finally removed in 1975.

It was this rich history and unique ecology that led President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to designate the 520-square-mile Organ Pipe Cactus as a national monument in April 1937. A wild desert garden grows here, unlike any other in the United States. There are plenty of cacti, from the Saguaro and Organ Pipe to Senita and hedgehogs. Even the rare Acuna cactus grows here.

And the vegetation nurtures native animals. Tenuous populations of Sonoran pronghorn come and go through the monument, and Lesser Long-nosed bats (another species protected by the Endangered Species Act) flit among the Saguaros and Organ Pipe cactus.

Some of the prettiest sunsets you'll ever see are in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument/NPS

A Dangerous Past Gives Way To Hopeful Future

Though Organ Pipe Cactus is one of the park system’s oldest national monuments, for more than a decade earlier in this century it was forbidden for backcountry travel due to the 2002 murder of Ranger Kris Eggle. Just 28 years old at the time of his death, he had nurtured a deep love for the out-of-doors while growing up on the family farm in Michigan. Not surprisingly, his schooling focused on the outdoors; as a member of the Student Conservation Association he helped track feral hogs in Great Smoky Mountains National Park as a student in 1995.

After launching his Park Service career at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan, followed by a stint at Canyonlands National Park in Utah, he arrived at Organ Pipe Cactus in 2000.

A somber memorial to Ranger Kris Eggle reminds visitors to Organ Pipe Cactus of the dangers of patrolling a border park/Kurt Repanshek

The young ranger came to the national monument after attending the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center, and though he had graduated at the top of his class, he wasn’t headed to a national park where law enforcement rangers might deal with noisy campgrounds, speeding visitors, or hikers’ injuries. Instead, Organ Pipe Cactus was a funnel for illegal immigrants and heavily armed drug runners heading north from Mexico.

It was a hot day early in August 2002 when he was shot while chasing a Mexican gunman said to be trying to execute a $15,000 murder contract on a rival drug lord.

The gunman and an accomplice were fleeing Mexican authorities when they drove into Organ Pipe Cactus just to the east of the border gateway of Lukeville. Ranger Eggle and three Border Patrol agents went after the two, and in the ensuing chase the ranger was shot, the bullet entering his body just below his bulletproof vest.

In the wake of the ranger’s death, heavy lobbying convinced Congress to provide $18 million to build a vehicle barrier along the US-Mexico border. Officials say it has succeeded in ending illegal vehicular border crossings while allowing wildlife to pass through.

The travel of upwards of 1,000 illegal aliens a day led the Fraternal Order of Police to declare Organ Pipe our most dangerous park for a time early in this century. Indeed, at one point 95 percent of the park was closed to the traveling public because of the danger posed by the illegals.

But in 2014, the entire park was reopened after the National Park Service and Border Patrol conceived a plan to allow continued surveillance by the Patrol while Park Service crews erased hundreds of miles of illegal roads and road traces that had been woven through Organ Pipe Cactus.

“It was different groups, it was even visitors,” Superintendent Brent Range replied when asked who created the illegal routes. “Everything related to this cross-border activity. And these things were created over time. So now we have a lot of these routes out here, and we were tasked with restoring a lot of this.”

Rising from the conference table in his office, the superintendent went to a wall covered with maps of the monument, and pointed to many of the areas that were crisscrossed with illegal routes.

Staff from Saguaro National Park helped with the restoration work at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument/NPS

With funding from Homeland Security, staff from the Park Service and Border Patrol pored over maps of the national monument to decide which routes would remain, and which would be erased. Complicating the effort was the fact that 95 percent of the park is official wilderness. In theory, all of the routes should have been removed, but visitor safety dictated that some remain.

“We had to reopen the park, because it needed to be open, it’s public land,” the superintendent said. “We found no significant reason why it should be closed any longer.”

A key priority for the restoration work was to improve habitat for two endangered species: the Sonoran pronghorn (listed in 1967) and the Lesser Long-nosed bat (listed in 1988).

“So we started zoning it out. It seems logical, but to come up with that it took years,” Superintendent Range recalled. “In order to restore those routes, we had to work with Homeland Security because we don’t want to restore routes they need. We want them to have maximum access down here. We need for them to have the access. That keeps the park safer, cleaner for the visitor, for the resource, for the staff, for everybody that comes here.”

Because nearly the entire park is officially designated wilderness, the restoration efforts required some specialized equipment.

“It’s designated wilderness, so we don’t want to create new stuff out there, so we worked with a company that went out on the route, and then restored it as they came back with equipment attachments that they created for this task,” which, in effect, erased the routes, the superintendent said.

By removing wheel ruts and restoring the natural topography of the landscape, the work even cut down on erosion by allowing the natural sheet flow of rainwater to return after cloudbursts.

“This is a success, and shows great inter-agency cooperation,” Kevin Dahl, the National Parks Conservation Association’s senior program manager in Arizona, had told me as I prepared for my trip to Organ Pipe Cactus.

The route restoration work, mostly complete today, involves both erasing the paths and planting cactus and other native vegetation, explained Chief Morawe. The park even set up a plant nursery; it temporarily held cacti that were removed when the vehicle barrier fence was installed along the southern boundary of the monument and then replanted in the restoration effort, and also is used to nurture cactus for use in restoration areas and cottonwoods for use at Quitobaquito.

“Cactus do really well from cuttings. These were saved before they got run over,” said the chief as he led us through a portion of the monument, pointing to some cactus growing in an area where an illegal route once ran.

Among the beneficiaries of the work are the Long-nosed bats, which use Saguaros and Organ Pipe Cactus for food (they eat the cacti’s fruit) and cavity nesting.

Normandy style barriers with the border in the distance/Patrick Cone

At the Sierra Club, which put pressure on the Park Service to remove the illegal routes, Dan Millis said the national monument has come a long way in recent years in terms of access and safety.

“Things have definitely improved now that the park is 100 percent open to the public. It was ridiculous that they kept it closed for so long in the first place,” he said in an email. “There have been some positive developments, such as the roads restoration, and for a while there was a border wall interpretive program offered by monument personnel. Unauthorized cross-border traffic is at very low levels border-wide, with the exception of asylum seekers turning themselves in, mostly in South Texas.

“Border deaths continue to plague the area,” he added, “but humanitarian groups have a larger presence there than ever before, which may be causing the land managers some initial stress. But I think it’s a very good thing in the long run. We have to stop the deaths.”

Of course, President Trump wants a wall, possibly dozens of feet tall and maybe lined with solar panels, built along the U.S.-Mexico border in a bid to halt illegal border crossing. Today, the border is lined with Normandy-style metal barriers.

But Superintendent Range doesn’t debate border wall politics. His focus is to ensure a safe setting for visitors.

Safety does seem paramount at Organ Pipe Cactus. As we crisscrossed the park to visit different areas we saw the constant presence of Border Patrol, particularly along the southern leg of the Puerto Blanco Drive. So visible is that presence, said Mr. Dahl, that he feels the safest out of all the parks he visits in Organ Pipe Cactus.

Well-placed signs alert the visiting public to the possibility of encountering illegals. While the only illegals we saw were two stray dogs exploring the U.S. side of the border, at one point en route to the Senita Basin we came upon vestiges of clothing that had been dropped, presumably, by someone heading north through the challenging landscape.

Along with visitors and university researchers returning to Organ Pipe Cactus in big numbers are outfitters who are interested in obtaining permits to run guided hiking programs and van tours, Superintendent Range said.

“We have the momentum and the vibe, if you will, of just this really neat atmosphere, and it shows,” he said. “The visitors are excited.”

Getting Around Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Exploring Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a days'-long endeavor. No lodging exists within the monument, but the 208-site campground not far from the visitor center is a great basecamp. It’s picturesque, thanks to the surrounding cactus forests and peaks, and clean, thanks to volunteers.

You’ll find water spigots every three sites or so, so you shouldn’t want for water. Too, the campground’s sites have sunshades and tent pads, and there are three restrooms, complete with showers. With water heated by the sun, the showers can be scalding in summer if you’re not careful, but during the cooler winter months no doubt a refreshing option after a day in the monument.

From the campground you can hike down to the Senita Basin via the Victoria Mine Trail. Armed with a good trail map (we used National Geographic’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument map, No. 224), a daylong drive-and-hike in the park can lead you to the remains of several mines and some great trailheads that direct you up some lung-testing hikes.

Remnants of a different era can be found at the Victoria Mine site/NPS

Drive the not-quite-40-mile Puerto Blanco Road loop and you can hike to Dripping Springs, a perennial water source critical for wildlife (it also attracts border jumpers, so be alert). The mostly one-way road also runs past the remains of the Dripping Springs and Golden Bell mines, and takes you to the Quitobaquito Springs.

Quitobaquito has attracted life— human, mammalian, avian, and reptilian—for centuries. This is a true oasis, but the land here has been, as the Park Service notes, “manipulated” by humans. When it came to the Park Service in 1958, the water impoundment filled by springs that ran down from the surrounding hillsides needed work to address leaks.

Now the water in places flows to the pond through PVC tubing. Look into the waters and you might spot endangered Sonoran mud turtles, while in the surrounding vegetation and overhead you can add significantly to your birding life list, as the oasis attracts “one of the highest number of bird species in the Sonoran Desert Network of parks,” according to the Park Service.

Above the pond on the hillsides, we noted the many small rivulets coursing down from above. Bending over for a closer look into these streams, we saw schools of little blue fish—the Sonoyta pupfish, also known as the Quitobaquito pupfish. Listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act, these warm-water fish are thought to exist nowhere else outside the monument (though you can find some out behind the visitor center where middle school students worked with park staff back in 2005 to create a very small pond for the very small fish.)

To help bolster the pupfish population, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has rebuilt some of the Quitobaquito streams to improve habitat.

On one hillside we came upon the final resting place of Jose Lorenzo Sestier, a Frenchman who died here on February 9, 1900, aged 74 years. He had lived at Quitobaquito, the merchant of a store opened just to the east of the pond in 1888 by Mikul G. Levy.

On the eastern side of the monument, the Arch Canyon Trail climbs high above Ajo Mountain Drive. While the first six-tenths of the trail is fairly routine, after that it’s a heart-pounding scramble to the roof of the canyon and its panoramic views of the monument. Not for the unprepared or unfit, this half-day hike is strenuous but absolutely rewarding.

Several other trails head out from the drive, while Alamo Canyon not far to the north offers a primitive camping experience for those with a tent or willing to spread their sleeping bag out among the Saguaros and Organ Pipes and under the stars. There’s no water at the four-site campground, so bring plenty of your own, and wood fires and ground fires are not permitted.

While roaming the desert any time of year can be rewarding with its views, diverse vegetation, and history, good times to visit are during the winter months, when it’s not so blazing hot; in February through April when many perennials and annuals are blooming; or from April through August when the Saguaros, Organ Pipe, Cholla, and Prickly Pear cacti are blooming.

Whenever you come, travel the monument with more water than you think you could ever drink.


Featured Article


Nce summary, Kurt.  However, I'm very disappointed you didn't include pics of the road signs for Why, AZ when you passed through.  I see they've updated the old orange diamond Why signs with green rectangles, but still, photos at those signs are a tradition for visits to Organ Pipe.

Add comment


This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.