Thursday, January 7, 2016

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona and a Day Trip to Mexico


Ajo is a little town about 30 miles north of the Mexican border in southwest Arizona. This is the lovely town square, which is built around the old train station. This Spanish Colonial structure encloses the square on three sides, and includes the Visitor Center (pictured here), shops, cafes, a grocery store, the post office and the library.

One of the beautiful churches, across from the town square.

We are lucky to be here while Christmas decorations are still hung in the square. The palm trees just give it that je ne sais quoi!

Originally, the town was founded because of the Cornelia copper mine worked in the early 1900s. The mine was closed in 1984, but the Visitor Center and the Museum both have wonderfully informative staff who are retirees of this very mine. And they both love to tell the stories. Well worth a visit if you're in the area.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument - A Lesson on Cacti

This National Monument and UNESCO Biosphere Reserve just 15 miles south of Ajo extending to the Mexican border is the northern range of the Organ Pipe Cactus, pictured here.

Southwest Arizona is mainly Sonoran desert, and it's where you find the iconic Saguaro (sa-WAH-row) Cactus. We are lucky and have an amazing sky a few of the days we are here.

This Saguaro has "crested". No one knows why this happens, whether it's a genetic mutation, environmental, or some other cause. Cresting can happen to any cactus, and we only see this one out of thousands of cacti in the park.

This Saguaro is almost glowing in the sun. It's thousands of needles give it that fuzzy edge.

Inside the Saguaro are numerous straws that it uses to extract water from the ground and store for as long as it takes to the next rain, which could be many months or even years. The outside of a living cactus is like a hard sponge, and you can leave a finger depression on its skin much like a soft melon.

A Cholla (CHOY-yah) is not a cactus to be messed with. Its spikes are barbed and will stick to everything, including your skin, clothing or shoes. This year, probably because it's been a wet one, they are heavy with hanging fruit.

A type of Barrel Cactus in bloom.

Unfortunately, these signs are everywhere warning visitors about illegal activities in this area so close to the Mexican border. A similar sign hangs at the entrance to the BLM area where we are camped with many other RVers, however the presence of the Border Patrol Officers is highly visible. Following the death of an officer in the National Monument in 2002 (at the hands of drug runners), the number of officers was increased from about 60 to 500. There are checkpoints between the park and the town of Why near where we are camped, and north of Ajo as well. I have to admit, we feel quite safe here, but we always keep a watchful eye. The only thing you can't leave out at our campsite, we are told, is bicycles. These may be quickly stolen by illegal immigrants traveling the washes.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument - the Senita Basin

A drive to South Puerto Blanco Road takes us to the Senita Basin where several hiking trails can be accessed. Here, the three columnar cacti of the park can be seen together - Saguaro, Organ Pipe and the Senita which is very much like the Organ Pipe, but with many more thorns on their tops giving them a bearded look, hence the nickname The Old Man Cactus.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument - the Ajo Mountain Loop Drive

The arch in Arch Canyon. Actually, there are two, one above the other. Those are full size cacti up inside the arch. We don't climb up as it is getting late and we are on our way to catch the sunset.

An amazing sky frames this extremely tall, straight cactus. Brad is standing at the base. They look alike, don't they?

We have some jaw-dropping sunsets during our stay. This evening isn't as spectacular as others, but is the one we sit in the desert for half an hour waiting. Shortly before I take this photo, we watch three Harris' Hawks hunting together. I'm not sure if that type of collaboration is usual, or it is just a coincidence. Unfortunately, my photos are blurry as they are hand-held at dusk.

I can't decide between these two sunset photos, so you get both.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument - Alamo Canyon

Alamo Canyon is a short one-mile hike. This is the remains of a home from the early 1900s, when a couple raised cattle here for about 30 years. It never ceases to astound me that someone once said "Hey, this looks like a great place to raise cattle". We see cattle, wild horses and burros out in the desert all the time, and I still don't understand how they exist on such dry, sparse vegetation. About a 1/4 mile past this dwelling is the corral and remains of a water pumping and trough system.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument - the Puerto Blanco Loop Drive and Dripping Springs Hike

More spectacular Sonoran desert skies. And a crazy Saguaro to boot! The 37 mile loop drive on Puerto Blanco Road is stunningly beautiful in a vast, barren desert sort of way that we love.

Dripping Springs is reached by a short 1/2 mile trail. The pool is abuzz with bees, none of which bother us thankfully as the agressive Africanized bees can be found in Arizona.

From the spring it's a short but steep climb to the top of the ridge with views north towards Why (pictured here) and views south to Mexico.

Can't get enough of that sky! Another view from the ridge top.

Between Canada and the US, we enjoy a wide open view of each other's country. That is to say, you wouldn't know a political border existed unless you were at a border crossing. It's a very different story on this southern border. This is a vehicle fence - it is to prevent vehicles from crossing into the US. The cars you see here are on Highway 2 in Mexico. But how easy would it be for a Mexican to just walk over (or crawl under) this fence? Very easy, and it happens all the time. Much of the border is lined with a pedestrian fence which prevents any illegal crossing (some photos of the serious fence between California and Mexico in the Imperial Valley), but unfortunately also prevents large wildlife (bighorn sheep, mountain lions, etc.) from passing through which neither government wants to do; hence the vehicle fence allows wildlife to wander freely while deterring easy illegal travel into the US.
A Day in Puerto Peñasco (Rocky Point), Mexico

We've always been very hesitant about driving into Mexico. We've met so many people who drive their RVs down the Baja or mainland Mexico, but the thought scares us. We hear too many stories, and the media makes us paranoid. We are camped near Why along Highway 85 just before New Years, and the highway is very busy with American and Mexican traffic ripping up and down. So we figure, well, why not? If they all feel safe, why shouldn't we? Armed with our Mexican liability insurance (which is required to drive in Mexico), we make the 1.5 hour trek to Puerto Peñasco or Rocky Point on the Sea of Cortez. This sign simply means that the usual permit (basically a visitors' visa) is not required along this corridor since it is such a highly traveled tourist route.

Our first stop is El Pinacate Bisosphere Reserve, an area rife with volcanic calderas (which we don't see due to lack of time), a lava flow, and sand dunes which are among the largest in North America.

Relaxing on Las Conchas Beach (Shell Beach) for a picnic lunch and a break after the drive down. This area just south of the main town has numerous low-rise condos and private homes lining the beach. Most of the vehicles here have California plates.

El Malecón in the Old Port. Shops, bars and restaurants line the streets here and finding a parking spot may require you to drive the one-way route a few times around.

Walking along El Malecón. Note how rocky the beach is here, since we are at the point. Hard to see in this small photo, but the yellow and blue building on top of the hill (top centre of the photo) is La Casa del Capitan, the restaurant with the best view in the city where we have an early dinner.

A fishing vessel heading out. Many visitors come just for the seafood, and I must say that our dinners are spectacular. Brad has the shrimp (best he's ever had) and I, who don't like seafood, have the garlic flounder, and it is to die for. All in all, a great day and we're glad we put aside our fears and brave the drive.


  1. We had considered Puerto Penasco too but now it is miserable. Rain and windy!

  2. We've never driven into Mexico either. Now that you've "felt it out", wonder if you would consider taking your fifth wheel and staying a while longer next time?

  3. Marilyn and Brad, these shots almost brought me to tears they are so beautiful. I love the radiating skies making a bullseye around the cactus subjects.your commentaries are thorough and so interesting. you guys!! see you Tues nite.