We loved Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, but it does come with two warnings. First, this area is so close to the border with Mexico, that park literature (and rangers) remind you not to approach or pick up strangers and to keep your valuables locked up. Second, this national monument is a long way from any place to stay. The best jumping off point is Tucson, and it was two and a half hours to the monument, putting you on the road for five hours in order to make a visit. It appears to be a similar distance from Phoenix. Despite those warnings we loved Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and we didn’t have any issues.
Organ Pipe Cactus
Saguaro cactuses are the huge, beautiful Taco Time cactuses that are easily found in southern Arizona. Organ Pipe Cactuses are also very large (up to 25 feet in height), but they grow more like a shrub than a tree. Several tall straight “pipes” come out of one root system, making them look vaguely like the pipes on an organ. This type of cactus is much rarer than the saguaro, and we had to go to the monument to see them.
We had some pretty cool animal sightings at Organ Pipe Cactus, though some people might not have liked them very much. This was because much of the wildlife was creepy-crawly. Our boys started flipping rocks looking for scorpions, and it didn’t take them long to find one. It was small and yellowish, but its stinger came right up when it was exposed. We also spotted a very large tarantula along the trail. We thought it was a bit scary, but nothing like the next thing we saw. A ten inch giant desert centipede (the Internet says they only grow to 8 inches, but this guy looked like he was a foot long!) crawled right out in front of us. It made the tarantula seem quite cuddly.
There were some other fun sightings, too. We saw a caracara, which is really cool and rare type of falcon. There were also quails, black vultures and turkey vultures, and a little black cardinal called a phainopepla.
There are also some amazing cactuses. We saw chollas, nicknamed teddy bear cactuses because they look so soft and fuzzy. They are not soft, though. Saguaros and organ pipes were everywhere. Barrel cactuses were easy to spot, too. Chain fruit cactuses, prickly pears, and hedgehog cactuses were also interesting to us. Some folks may look at these succulents and sarcastically say, “Wow, a bunch of cactuses,” but we found them to be fascinating. Like all adventures, they are as good as you make them.
The Visitor Center at Organ Pipe Cactus NM is small, but nice. There is a short trail behind the small store and museum. We enjoyed the Junior Ranger Program, and the ranger on duty was very helpful. He helped us to decide on two hikes that were just right for us.
Ajo Mountain Loop
The first hike we did was on the Ajo Mountain Loop Road. If it is your first time visiting this monument, this is the must-do drive. We had a lovely picnic along the way and saw thousands of beautiful and intriguing cactuses. The saguaros are so fun, because they look like people. “Look, that one is welcoming us! That one has its arms folded!” We had a really great time deciding what each cactus was doing.
The hike along this road was the Arch Canyon Hike. You can see the arch from the parking area, and if you look closely, you’ll notice a double arch. The hike doesn’t offer a much better view, but it does allow you to explore up the canyon and get out into the beautiful Sonoran Desert. It was along this trail that we saw most of our creepy-crawlies. This was easily our favorite part of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.
We also hiked Alamo Canyon. This hike was a little more difficult to find because there isn’t a clear sign. The turnoff is located exactly 2.5 miles south of the Ajo Mountain Wayside. There is a dry wash with a cement barrier if you are coming from the south, and the road is just after that. It’s very easy to miss if you are traveling north. From the turnoff, a passable dirt road travels up Alamo Canyon for a few miles until it reaches the campground. The trail starts behind the bathrooms. We enjoyed this trail through the cactuses as well. It eventually comes to a small ruin and a corral that have been long since abandoned. Again, it was what we saw along the way more than the destination that made this hike nice.
Puerto Blanco Drive
We ran out of time for Puerto Blanco Drive. There is a section of this road that is two-way and accessible for all vehicles, but once it turns to one way a 4-wheel drive is highly recommended. We decided not to risk it in our rental car. So check with the rangers to see if this drive is for you and your family. There are some hikes and stops along this drive that look interesting.
Though it’s a long way from anywhere, we thoroughly enjoyed Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. We spent an entire day, including driving time on this adventure. It was a highlight of our Tucson trip. For more information on Organ Pipe, visit the National Park website. We also visited Saguaro National Park. Check out our family guide for all the details on this amazing national park.