Rediscovering Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

I hadn’t been to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument since I was 8 years old; and, you really couldn’t even call that a trip since it was more of a quick drive through (as I recall).  About enough to say that you’d been there and that was it (of course I was a kid and I had been to a lot of different places by then, so it’s possible that I just don’t remember it).  Needless to say, when the opportunity presented itself to visit again, I jumped at the chance.

The entrance to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

The entrance to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was established on April 13, 1937, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, citing authority granted to him by the Antiquities Act of 1906.  National monuments are established by Presidential proclamation, whereas national parks are established via an Act of Congress.

Located in southern Arizona and sharing a border with Sonora, Mexico,  Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is not only a U.S. National Monument, but it also has the distinction of being a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) biosphere reserve.  Part of what makes this place so special and unique is that it is the only place in the United States where the organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurben) grows wild.

I was really looking forward to shooting the starry skies over the desert, but that wasn’t going to happen this trip as my time there coincided with a full moon.  As disappointed as I was to not be able to photograph star trails, photographing the desert at night lit only by a full moon more than made up for it.

A full moon rises behind an Organ Pipe Cactus in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

A full moon rises behind an Organ Pipe Cactus in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

One of the trails in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument appears to lead right to the moon.

One of the trails in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument appears to lead right to the moon.

While we were there, we did the scenic drives that are in the park.  First up was the Puerto Blanco Drive, a five mile drive to the Pinkely Peak Picnic area.  Puerto Blanco Drive originally consisted of 37 miles of some of the most scenic back roads driving in Arizona; however, due to safety concerns, all but 5 miles of the road have been closed off to the public.  While what you can see along those 5 miles is breathtakingly spectacular, it is disappointing to not be able to explore areas such as Quitobaquito, the Gachado Line Camp, Dos Lomitas Ranch, the Golden Bell Mine, and the Bonita Well.  The park service has recently opened the road up another 5 miles past the picnic area, allowing a few cars a day to go further into the park until the reach Dewey Springs.

The Ajo Mountains lie in the distance along the Ajo Mountain Drive in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

The Ajo Mountains lie in the distance along the Ajo Mountain Drive in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

The Ajo Mountain Scenic drive is a 21-mile long, mostly gravel road that almost immediately immerses you in the Sonoran Desert.  Stop by the vistior center and pick up the free driving guide that provides a brief history of the area at 18 different stops (most of which provide information on something unique to that particular stop).  For example, at stop 6, there is a ramada built out of ocotillo branches, similar in style to when they dotted the landscape when the people of the Tohono O’odham tribe inhabited the Diablo Wash Canyon as far back as 12,000 years ago.

A Ramada made from Ocotillo branches shelters a picnic table along the Ajo Mountain Drive.

A Ramada made from Ocotillo branches shelters a picnic table along the Ajo Mountain Drive.

At stop 9, you can walk out to see a crested Organ Pipe Cactus.  As of yet, scientists do not know what causes the mutation, but it doesn’t appear to affect the growth of the cactus and it is really  neat to see up close.  This mutation can also be found on Saguaro cacti.

A close up of a genetic mutation in an Organ Pipe cactus forming a cristae.

A close up of a genetic mutation in an Organ Pipe cactus forming a cristae.

About midway through the drive, you will see a double arch in the hillside.  The first arch is pretty obvious, but almost directly above it is another smaller arch.

A double arch can be found along the Ajo Mountain Drive.

A double arch can be found along the Ajo Mountain Drive.

Once again, we had the drive almost completely to ourselves (except for the border patrol agent that passed us on an ATV).  Like any scenic drive, the key to enjoying it is to SLOW DOWN – take time to stop at the pullouts and read the information provided about the area.

Our last night in the park brought some thin clouds (that unfortunately didn’t light up for sunset at all), but made for some neat images once they were lit by the moon.

 

Camping under the stars.

Camping under the stars.

Until the next adventure….

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