After a wonderful weeklong visit in the Tucson area, we drove down to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southwest Arizona right on the Mexican border. We’re not sure what the difference is between a National Park and a National Monument but they seem to have a lot more ‘monuments’ in Arizona. This particular one celebrates the Organ Pipe Cactus, which in the US, is only found in this small portion of the Sonora Desert.
As we drove west on Highway 8, then south on Highway 85, there was little traffic other than the occasional RV and a whole bunch of US Border Patrol trucks, which seemed to be everywhere. We also went through several US Border Patrol stops – mandatory highway inspection centers which, after scanning our license plate and (probably) thermal imaging our RV, typically only required a 5 second conversation to pass through. All we could think was what are all these patrol officers going to do once the wall gets built… [Interestingly, large parts of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument were closed a few years ago because of rampant illegal migrant and drug-smuggling activity from Mexico. There are still lots of warning signs but the heavy border patrol presence seems to be doing the trick.]
We arrived at the park and checked into a site at Twin Peaks Campground – an extremely well groomed camping area with paved sites and spectacular desert views (for a modest $16). At first glance, we didn’t think it looked much different than the Tucson area, but then we started to hike around and discovered the different forms of cacti that are unique to the park.
First and foremost, the Organ Pipe Cactus is the big attraction. These big strands of columnar cacti grow to an average height of 15 feet and may live up to 150 years. They were impressive but the best thing for us was that they made sense – they looked like an organ’s pipes and we could pronounce them (unlike their familiar Arizona cousin – the Saguaro – pronounced ‘Sa-war-ro).
The next unusual prickly plant we came across was the Ocotillo (pronounced Oko-tee-yo), which is not part of the cactus family. For much of the year, the Ocotillo appears as a strand of dead, spiny sticks, but after a heavy rain, the Ocotillo explodes into a lush, green shrub. We arrived into the park after a downpour so the Ocotillo were all transformed into gushers of bright green limbs.
The other species of cactus that is common to the Sonoran Desert is the Teddy Bear Cholla (pronounced Choy-ya). Despite the loveable name, these soft-looking cacti are actually razor-sharp. Most annoyingly, the stems detach easily and the ground around a mature plant is often littered with scattered ‘cholla balls.’ These not-so innocent little critters have barbed spines and stick to shoes and dogs like wet gum. Thankfully the Bear had her Muttluk boots for protection but she still managed to pick up a few of the nasty prickle balls.
We spent 3 days exploring the desert, hiking the trails, listening to Ranger presentations and staring at the incredible night sky. This area is known to be one of the darkest in the country so is popular for astronomy. The stars were brilliant and inspired us to bbq up a big tray of delicious sliders (cause they kinda look like moons)…
We finished our visit with a tour through the nearby town of Ajo (pronounced Ah-ho) and are now moving towards Yuma (which thankfully sounds like its spelled)! The weather forecast is finally calling for sunny warm days ahead…