Rides & Destinations: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

Stunning but also dangerous if you’re not careful, the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is worth visiting if you’re in Arizona.

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by Joe Berk

The Skinny

What: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, 10 Organ Pipe Drive, Ajo, Arizona, 85321, (520) 387-6849, ext. 7302
How to Get There: From the east or the west, head toward southwestern Arizona on either I-10 or I-8. Take SR 85 south, and you’re there.
Best Kept Secret: Nearby Ajo, Arizona, is an interesting artists’ community. We stayed at Ajo’s Guest House Inn, a charming bed and breakfast.
Avoid: The summer months (the heat is extreme), talking to strangers in the more remote areas of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (Mom was right), and entering the area without water.
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More Info:Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument includes 300,000 acres in southwestern Arizona along the Mexican border. Think stunning desert vistas, a remoteness so intense you can feel it, heat (it was 112 degrees the day we were there), a sense of danger (more on that in a bit) and organ pipe cactus (a plant found here and few other places in the world). There are at least two interwoven histories here, one of the namesake organ pipe cactus and the other of the inhabitants and explorers of this area.

The organ pipe cactus originated in Central America and migrated to its current location more than 3,500 years ago. It evolved to withstand the Sonoran Desert’s extremes, including cold winter nights, extreme heat, torrential rains, high winds and long periods without water. The organ pipe cactus grows slowly, with most growth occurring in spurts during summer monsoons. It mostly lives on rocky hillsides facing southwest (the rocks capture heat during the day that keeps the cactus warm at night). Less than a foot tall for the first 10 years, only a few survive; those that do flower nocturnally after 35 years. If they make it that far, an organ pipe cactus might live for 150 years. The plants’ flowers provide sustenance to another endangered nocturnal soulmate, the lesser long-nosed bat. The bats then spread the pollen.

The earliest human inhabitants in this area were the Tohono O’odham Native Americans, who called the organ pipe cactus chuhuis. The Tohono O’odham Native Americans used organ pipe cactus trunks as building material and the fruit for preserves, syrups and wines, and they based their calendar on the organ pipe cactus harvest schedule. Spanish conquistadors entered the area in the 1600s and gave the plant the name we know based on its similarity to European church organs. El Camino del Diablo (the devil’s highway), a 250-mile-long, 1,000-year-old trail now on the National Register of Historic Places, was the primary road through the area. It was used by early inhabitants, explorers, missionaries, miners, and smugglers. The ancient road is also known as El Camino del Muerto (road of the dead), a nod to the area’s extreme environment. Arizona’s state legislature donated the land that would become the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument to the federal government during Prohibition (it is said Arizona did so knowing the Feds would improve the roads, making it easier to smuggle liquor from Mexico). UNESCO designated the area a biosphere reserve in 1976 (there are only about 500 such designations worldwide).

Arizona State Route 85 is the only paved road to and through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The Monument’s northern entrance is 22 miles south of Why, Arizona. The name originated from an older Y-configured intersection and an Arizona requirement that towns have at least three letters in their name. SR 85 runs due south to Lukeville, Arizona, on the U.S. side of the Mexican border. There are two unpaved loops on either side of SR 85; the eastern loop is approximately 23 miles long and can be navigated on a street bike, but the western loop is twice as long and much more challenging (a dual-sport or 4WD vehicle is recommended). We took the eastern loop and found spectacular views. Endangerment is a theme central to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. There’s the fragile organ pipe cactus itself (thought to be vulnerable to global warming), the lesser long-nosed bat (as mentioned before, an endangered species), Sonoran pronghorn antelope (another endangered species; only about 100 are thought to exist), and the area itself. Signs warn visitors of criminal activity (the Visitor Center near the park entrance is named for Ranger Kris Eggle, murdered in August 2002 by a Mexican drug smuggler). Snakes, centipedes, scorpions and mountain lions live here, and of course, there’s the heat and remoteness of the place. But its beauty is off the charts, and the ride across the Sonoran Desert floor is amazing.  MC

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