Head south to the Sonoran Desert to discover a special place filled with wonder.
You may think of the desert as a barren environment but if you know where to look it is teeming with life. Indeed the conditions might be harsh with intense sun and heat and rare rainfall.
When you visit Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument the first things you will notice in the landscape are the large cacti. You’ll spot stately saguaro cactus, prickly pear and cholla. But here in the Northern Sonoran Desert, the organ pipe cactus steals the show.
The plant is common in Mexico but is rarely found north of the border. Visit May through July and you might see the cactus blooming, opening their light lavender flowers at night.
Located in southern Arizona along the border with Mexico, this 517 square mile wilderness park was established as a protected area in 1937. It has been designated a UNESCO International Biosphere Reserve since 1976.
You’ll find a visitor center and two established campgrounds as well as several picnic areas. Hike some of the trails and drive the loop roads to experience the park.
The best months to hike in the park are October through April. There are several short and long distance trails and backpacking is also allowed, but pick up a permit first at the visitor center.
For an easy hike that will give you a view of the desert plants up close, walk the Campground Perimeter Trail. The Desert View Trail is also short and easy and will reward you with views of the Sonoyta Valley and Cubabi Mountains. Take the Palo Verde Trail between the campground and visitor center for more views. Be sure to bring lots of water as the desert air is warm and dry.
The park is especially beautiful after the rains, when the desert explodes in color. Ocotillo, prickly pear, saguaro, poppies and many more wildflowers bring color to the desert landscape.
Dawn, dusk and nighttime are best to spot desert animals like snakes, lizards, roadrunners and coyotes. Maybe you’ll even see a javelina or desert tortoise! Due to the distance from large cities and the clear desert air it is also a wonderful place to see stars in the night sky.
Entrance to the park is currently $12 per vehicle but if you have an America the Beautiful annual pass it is free. If you will visit more than one National Park in year I highly recommend purchasing the America the Beautiful pass which gives you free access to the parks. You can purchase the pass here.
Don’t feel like camping? The town of Ajo is the closest to the park, about 40 minutes drive away. You can search here for convenient accommodations in Ajo.
A note about safety: The park shares a border with Mexico and there have been problems of smuggling and immigrants crossing the border through this wilderness area. There are many warning signs in the park. When you are driving south to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument you will be stopped by border patrol along the highway.
I’m not sure how dangerous this area actually is, but the unfriendly border patrol and the warning signage in the park made me feel very nervous as a solo female traveler. The Kris Eggle Visitor Center is named after a park ranger who was shot and killed in 2002 by drug smugglers while patrolling the park. All of this combined to make me feel uncomfortable hiking and camping alone in the park. It is such a shame as it is an amazing and beautiful place. However I plan to return again with a group to spend more time in this lovely National Monument.
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