A 5 mile drive from the U.S. / Mexican Border on State Route 85 you’ll find the entrance to Organ Pipe National Monument. It is the only place in the United States where Organ Pipe Cactus grow wild, and it is part of the Sonoran Desert. Along with the Organ Pipes, Saguaros, Barrel Cactus, Chollas, and more grow in the area.
Organ Pipe is a fantastic example of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert. Cactus forests extend in all directions, treating visitors who are new to the area to flora they’ll never see anywhere else! The drive along Route 85 is extremely scenic. Whether you’re visiting for a day, or planning to spend a week camping, Organ Pipe is worth a visit if you’re planning a trip to the Southwestern states.
2015 promises to be a great year for visitors to the National Monument. Areas that have been closed since 2003 have been re-opened to the public. The Park Service has worked incredibly hard to increase staff and ensure visitor safety. And they’ve worked hard to ensure that visitors to the area are educated about it as well.
A senseless Act Impacted This Park
In 2002, Ranger Kris Eggle was slain in the line of duty while working in the park he loved. He worked for the Park Service to ensure the safety of visitors, and worked to stem the flow of illegal drugs coming across our southern border.
On August 9th of 2002, while performing his duties, Kris was shot and killed by members of a drug cartel hit squad that he was pursuing and attempting to bring to justice. And his death impacted the Park Service and the National Monument for years to come.
When we think of visiting National Parks and monuments, the Rangers we meet come to mind. They give tours in the parks they work at. They help visitors to learn about the amazing places they visit. Often they provide fantastic seminars on the parks, what to see and do, and the history of the parks. But they do so much more beyond playing tour guide and front desk greetings. Many of these Rangers work tirelessly to ensure the safety of the visitors who pass through their parks.
In the aftermath of the slaying of Kris Eggle, a large section of Organ Pipe National Monument was closed to the public. Given the size of the park, and the limited resources available, park services could not ensure the safety of visitors to the area. A huge loop drive through the park covers more than 50 miles of remote wilderness, and given the use of that area by folks doing illegal things a large section of the drive was closed down.
13 years after the murder of Kris Eggle Organ Pipe National Monument is finally re-opening the remote parts of the park. With additional staff on hand, increased border patrol presence, and a new plan from the Superintendent of the park, visitors can once again tour the entire loop through the park. The change took time, and of course the Park Service has been working tirelessly to ensure the safety and enjoyment of all visitors.
While this is great news for visitors, border issues still exist. And visitors need to educate themselves about the issues and pay attention to their own safety. The area still sees a fair amount of illegal immigration, and some of the open desert is still used for smuggling. But a well educated visitor to the area shouldn’t run into any trouble, and if they follow park rules and advisories they should have a safe an enjoyable visit.
During our visit to Organ Pipe we set out on a quick adventure with writer and photographer Bert Gildart. We were looking for locations to do some star trail photography, and we decided to check out the Ajo Mountain Loop. It’s a 21 mile loop ride that is fantastic in a vehicle or on a bicycle. It is also offers a lot of remote desert, and visitors need to keep their personal safety in mind. We stopped at a wash to scout for photo locations, and noted a blue flag waving in the distance. The flag marked the location of a 50 gallon water tank where people crossing the border could get water. The wash we were at turns out to be a popular route into the U.S. from Mexico, and we decided against doing a night shoot right there. A good example of being an educated visitor to the area.
While we opted to not shoot near this particular wash, it must be noted that the Ajo Mountain Loop has remained open for quite some time. It is a beautiful 21 mile drive and allows visitors direct access to this amazing example of Sonoran Desert. During daylight hours we didn’t feel concerned about safety. Our primary concern was being in the area after sunset and bumping around with headlamps and flashlights while setting up our camera gear.
Recreation In Organ Pipe
Organ Pipe Cactus Nation Monument offers many recreational opportunities. From hiking and cycling to nature walks and amazing photographic opportunities, there’s something for most visitors.
With the re-opening of the larger loop in the park, cycling opportunities couldn’t be better. Given both the Ajo Mountain Loop and the 50+ mile loop in the main park, cyclists who enjoy dirt / gravel rides will have plenty to do. A half day can be dedicated to the Ajo Mountain Loop, and a full day can be taken riding the main loop in the park.
There’s plenty of opportunity for amazing hikes in the park as well. There are several trails around the main camping area in the park. And of course, hiking enthusiasts can drive along the loops and find pull offs where you can spend the day hiking.
For photography enthusiasts, there’s also plenty to do. Barrel Cactus, Saguaros, Organ Pipes, and other cactus are available where ever you look in the park. Personally I enjoyed walking the perimeter of the campground, as examples of so many cactus species are intermixed with the camping area. Our Airstream was actually parked directly next to a massive Saguaro. How often do you get a photo opportunity like that?
The Park Service also offers a 3 hour guided ranger tour from January through March each year. You can sign up at the visitor center for a space on the van, and for further information about the tour. These tours will help you quickly learn about the park itself, and all of the flora and fauna that you’ll see in the park.
Finally, visitors who opt to camp at Organ Pipe can enjoy an extremely peaceful park. You don’t have to go anywhere or do anything. Sometimes it pays to sit quiet, watch the humming birds, and enjoy a restful day in camp.
The Park Service operates an amazing campground at Organ Pipe National Monument, Twin Peaks. The campground offers 34 tent only sites, and a whopping 174 RV sites. There are no full hookups for RV’ers, so you will be dry camping. Additionally, there is a section for RV’s with generators, and a section for RV’s with no generators (solar only). The park also has restrictions on generator usage. 8-10 a.m. and 4-6 p.m. That makes for a very quiet park for the majority of the day, but you’ll need to plan ahead if you’ve got to run your generator!
The RV sites are extremely large and private. Every site has examples of Sonoran Desert growth, and you don’t have to wander far to find an Organ Pipe Cactus. Additionally, all of the RV sites are concrete slabs, and pull-thrus as well! It’s very easy to get parked, and make sure your rig is level.
With camping fees at $12 a night, staying in Organ Pipe is a very reasonable proposition, and one that I would recommend.
Of course, there are other camping opportunities outside of the park. A short drive North to Why Arizona, campers will find a BLM dispersed camping area. It’s just south of the gas station in Why, and on the West side of the road. While visiting the area we had a chance to check out the BLM site, and we found Class A’s, truck campers, and a few trailers in the area. The location is known as “Gunsite Wash,” and can be found on the Ultimate Campground App, or the USFS / BLM App as well.
While the BLM location is free, I would caution visitors strongly. As noted earlier in this article, there are still safety issues associated with your proximity to the border. Organ Pipe Nation Monument has rangers on staff, and has spent a lot of effort creating a very safe place for you to stay while visiting. The BLM site does not have the same type of attention.
Finally, there are several private campgrounds in the area. The Coyote Howls RV Park is located in Why, Arizona. A few miles north of Why is the town of Ajo. And they have several RV parks and “Resorts” in town.
So, free camping, small fee camping, and full hookup parks are all available near Organ Pipe. Our recommendation? Camp right at the park. Enjoy a beautiful campground in an amazing location, and think about the free boondocking sites on a different adventure! Oh, and just so you know…even though it’s a remote park, the 4G LTE service in the park was amazing!
A Gallery of Images from Organ Pipe