The best piece of advice I can give you about Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is to stay inside the park. If you can, and you don’t, you’re a fool. A fool, I say, and I’m not sorry I said it. Now, that being said, as absolutely lovely as the campground is, it is dry camping with limited generator hours and a long, long way from any grocery store, so if you can’t manage that, you’re going to be a sad fool.
Whether or not you can stay inside the park, the first thing you should do is go to the Visitor Center. If you’ve not been foolish, you can hike to it on the easy 3-mile roundtrip trail.
Once there, pick up the latest Cactus Chronicle park newspaper (the one online as of this writing isn’t the most current edition,) sign up for one or both of the shuttle hikes, attend a ranger talk on the back patio, get your copy of the Ajo Mountain Drive Guide, sign up for the Moonlight Hike if a full moon occurs during your stay or a Star Party if it does not, and ask for a Desert Ranger Guide. The last one is the adult equivalent of the Junior Ranger booklet, and you can complete the activities to earn a patch if you like, but there is something in that guide that isn’t posted anywhere, and no one tells you about it otherwise. While you’re at the VC you should, of course, enjoy the exhibits or buy a souvenir or take a stroll around the nature trail.
The next thing you need to know is that there are nightly (save full-moon hike nights) presentations at the campground amphitheater, the topics of which are posted at the VC and on the campground bulletin board. Not staying in the park? Too bad for you. I mean, I think you could still come in for them, but who are we kidding here? You’re not doing that. For the happy campers, you will enjoy walking down to the amphitheater alongside other attendees, flashlights and seat cushions in hand, to be regaled by such topics as “Coyotes: Songdogs of the Desert” or “Seeing By Starlight.” If it’s a chilly night, take a blanket and a cup of hot cocoa. I highly recommend TAZA’s Guajillo Chile drinking chocolate disc sold at an NPS/WNPA park store near you. (I earn nothing from this recommendation other than the joy of sharing a delicious idea.)
Each morning, a joyful noise will greet you from atop your campsite’s cacti.
You can walk down to access the Desert View Trail.
If you’re fans of scenic driving — we are not because, after all, each time we move, we go on a scenic drive, and who needs to spend more time driving? — you will like the 21-mile Ajo Mountain Scenic Drive. We needed to ruin our most recent car wash in order to get to a couple trails that could only be reached from about midway through the one-way loop.
There are 18 marked stops along the way, and if you’ve gotten the guidebook like I told you, the passenger can read the descriptions aloud in a dramatic fashion. If you’ve also acquired the Desert Ranger Guide (DRG), you’re going to be able to do this:
The DRG gives a detailed breakdown of where to spot both crested saguaros and organ pipes along the route! Many of the locations coordinate with the marked pullouts, making for some fairly easy spottin’. It will also direct you to what they claim is the largest organ pipe cactus in the park.
The photo on the left is what the monster once was, and the one on the right shows what it looks like today. It’s not dead, though many of its arms are in the process of dying and regenerating. I dispute that it is the largest in the park, and I will direct you to one I think is larger a bit later. You might, like we did, wonder if people walking all around it for years has had anything to do with its obvious decline.
Me spotting the cristates! The “largest,” as you can see, was also a cristate.
The first of the two hikes you can access from the loop drive is Arch Canyon.
The sign will explain that the view of what is actually a double arch is best from the parking lot’s picnic area. You can keep going, though, but the sign is correct, and the view of the arches not only doesn’t improve, it disappears altogether.
The canyon is pretty, but the trail gets sketchy, and it might cause crankiness.
The second hike, at Bull Pasture-Estes Canyon, is longer and more strenuous.
The view from the top is good, but if you tackle it on a chilly day, be prepared to do the bulk of the climbing on the shady and windy side of the mountain.
Continuing along the drive, between stops 12 and 13, you’ll come to quite possibly the best organ pipe cristate of all.
If you decide to try your hand at the cristate treasure hunt, I hope you have better luck with the last two than we did. The penultimate one is a crested saguaro, and despite the guide’s very detailed directions, we could not see it. The last is said to be a large fan cristate of an organ pipe, but I messed up and thought it was also a saguaro, so that’s what we searched and searched for. We probably looked right at it without registering it. Maybe it’s better than the one above, but we’ll never know. We certainly weren’t going to drive around the whole 21 miles again just to see.
If you’d like to stay closer to home, but still get a little exercise, you can walk the easy one-mile trail that rings the camp.
You can also zigzag through all 17 lanes of the campground which add up to just over three miles.
Since you’ve signed up for a shuttle hike, when the day arrives, you’ll be picked up right at the campground ramada and whisked away to be dropped off at a trailhead from where you’ll hike your way back to the campground. The Senita Basin shuttle will take about 40 minutes to drive out along the dirt road that runs just north of the Mexican border. You’ll parallel miles of built |W|A|L|L| and many more of being-built |W|A|L|L|. The driver will stop to point out the basin’s namesake, the Senita cactus, but despite the trail’s name, you won’t see any more on the hike back. I’ll show you some later, though.
Look at the trail sign again. No, really look this time. The trail sign, not the caution sign. I was so focused on the TBGoof, that I didn’t notice the other one until I was writing this post.
To return, you can hike anywhere from 4.6 to +10 miles, depending on how you combine different
trials trails. We planned our hike to take in the 1.8-mile spur to Victoria Mine and Lost Cabin, making a 9.4 mile day.
If you add in the mileage to the mines and are not super-slow hikers, you will be able to get away from your shuttle mates. Given how very chatty some of them may be for forty straight minutes, you will be glad for that.
You can take another shuttle on another day, but as we discovered, if you do, your return hike will repeat at least 3.6 miles of the previous one. We recommend driving yourselves to the Red Tanks Tinaja Trailhead in order to make a loop hike that only repeats .2 miles of the first one, and .8 miles of itself.
The shortest hike you can do from here would be to take the Red Tanks shuttle, then head directly back to camp for 6.7 miles. Otherwise, you need to prepare for a minimum of 10 miles. If you choose the longer route, you’ll be rewarded with an exciting variety of sights.
Future member of the Crested Saguaro Society!
The Senita cacti are most plentiful along the one-mile stretch of Senita Basin Road that runs east-west and leads out to the Senita Basin
Trial Trail. We learned that from having taken the Senita shuttle, and that was the reason we planned our loop hike the way we did. Senita cacti don’t cotton to the cold, which accounts for why they prefer the basin and is the only place in the U.S. where they’re found naturally. They are, we were told, much more common south of the border. We were also told that their needles are very soft if you pet them in a downward fashion, and I’m demonstrating the truth of that in the above photo.
If the moon is full, you’ve signed up for a Moonlight Hike on one of the two weekend nights closest to it. I signed up for the Sunday night hike, but panicked when I saw only the Saturday night hike highlighted on the bulletin board. Thus I showed up a night early, which was not ideal on a day I’d already hiked over 10 miles. They didn’t take roll call or anything, so I wasn’t publicly humiliated, and I certainly didn’t out myself. It worked to my advantage, though, because the following night was completely overcast.
I would recommend this hike, however, if you go, please try to refrain from talking loudly the whole time, unlike the two people in front of me. Also, when the moon is full on a cloudless night in the desert, you won’t need to use your flashlights. And although it is appreciated to have the red-light feature on your headlamps, you won’t need those, either. You might want to bring a black-light flashlight, which one of the loud-talkers did, and just as I was about to totally lose my cool and tell him to cram a cork in it, his light picked up a creepy discovery.
Obviously, this photo is not my own, but this is exactly what the little fluorescing arachnid looked like hanging out on the side of a rock. This was my first scorpion sighting in the wild, so I was forced to hate Loud Guy a bit less.
There are two more sections of the park to explore, both requiring a drive from the campground. I wanted to check out the Dripping Springs area until we realized it would mean another half-day drive on a rough, one-way dirt road. Consulting a fellow hiker while I waited for the Moonlight Hike to start, when talking was still okay, confirmed that the two short trails weren’t impressive enough to justify the drive. The other area is Alamo Canyon to the north.
This +2 mile out-and-back takes you to some old ranch and corral ruins.
So, remember how I said I didn’t think the largest organ pipe was really the largest anymore? The biggest one we saw, in my opinion, was near the start of the Alamo Canyon Trail.
Here is a side-by-side comparison. Keep in mind, I am 5’1″ and TBG is 6’5″. What say you? How “they” decide the largest, we have no idea. Height? Number of arms? And have “they” really inspected every single cacti in the park? I think not.
Other questions I am left with are: Do Senita cacti ever crest? Why does this park’s name include the word “cactus” but Saguaro National Park’s does not? Why do only nine sites in the campground have ramadas, randomly placed at that? How can this park ever earn a dark sky certification with those blazing lights from the border crossing five miles away? Let’s all contemplate these puzzlers while we enjoy a vibrant shot of a Baja Fairy Duster and our hiking data.