January 7, 2014
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is in the heart of the Sonoran Desert. The Sonoran Desert is a green desert that covers approximately 120,000 square miles, about the size of the state of New Mexico. It begins in southeast California, covers most of southern Arizona, and continues down into Mexico and Baja California. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument protects a portion of the natural habitat of the Sonoran Desert within the United States. Organ Pipe is also designated an International Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations. The scenic 21 mile Ajo Mountain Drive is a great way to explore the park.
The Ajo Mountain Drive is a one-way, loop, dirt road that is maintained so any car can safely travel the 21 miles. Eighteen numbered signs are posted along the way with safe places to pull over to read the guide book that describes what is seen along the route. There are four picnic sites and two trailheads along the way as well. Stops 1 thru 5 explain much about the plant life of the Sonoran Desert. The Organ Pipe Cactus is most commonly found in Mexico but has adapted to life in the monument. The Organ Pipe Cactus requires the sun’s warmth and cannot tolerate frosty nights. It flourishes in this part of Arizona.
The drive is gorgeous! It is surrounded by the Ajo Mountains with canyons and washes and rock formations around every turn. I cannot resist stopping at Stop 6 for a snack at a picnic table covered by a ramada overlooking Diablo Wash (a canyon). I read in the guidebook about the people who have inhabited the Sonoran Desert as far back as 12,000 years ago. The Tohono O’odham still live on land west of the monument. I continue the drive stopping along the way and learning about the prickly pear cactus, the saguaro cactus, the creosote bush, the jojoba, and many other desert plants. The fruits from both the prickly pear and the organ pipe are edible. (Remember the candy I bought at the visitor center?) I also read about many animals that make the desert their home, and the birds that travel the washes as they migrate from north to south and back again. It is a gorgeous sunny day, about 70 degrees fahrenheit, and I am thoroughly enjoying the views. As I approach Stop 10, I decide I must do the first of two day hikes along the Ajo Mountain Drive.