Belated Visit: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

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The late afternoon sun lights up a strangely one-sided organ pipe cactus and the cliffs above Arch Canyon in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.

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It is a three hour drive from Tucson to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. For someone that has driven with his wife from Tucson to Vermont and back with four children under 12, that is not a long way. But it is long enough that driving out then back with a few hours to explore in between is going to take the whole day. In 26 years, I had not spent that day. Until last month.

A derelict truck, converted to a fountain, decorates the grounds outside of the Why Not Travel Store in Why, Arizona.

Unless you are dodging the border patrol or driving to the beach in Rocky Point, Mexico, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is not on the way to anywhere. In fact, when you are almost there, you come to the tiny town of Why, Arizona. As in, “Why is there a town here?” It could probably just as well be called, “What,” as in “What were we thinking?” Either sentiment is undoubtedly apt in mid-summer.

Teasing aside, right at the junction of Arizona highways 85 and 86 in downtown Why—there are at least three buildings so it must be downtown—is the Why Not Travel Store. Although I did not enter the store per se, I bought gas and then followed the posted directions past the fountain née truck (pictured) to the restrooms beyond (also pictured). If the store is half as nice (not just clean, but nice) as the restrooms, it must be a really nice store. Don’t be afraid to stop.

The smoothly-graded dirt of Ajo Mountain Drive loops through the eastern side of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

From Why, it is 22 miles south to the visitor center, which is run by the National Park Service. From there, it is 5 miles further to the border with Mexico at Lukeville, Arizona. To the west, there is the rough 40-odd mile loop road, Puerto Blanco Drive, that I plan to drive on a future visit. To the east, there is Ajo Mountain Drive, the majority of which is a roughly 17-mile one-way clockwise loop. The road is dirt, but was very smoothly graded and easy enough for any vehicle, although when it is wet your mileage may vary, as they say.

One of the beauties of the desert is that the geology is front and center, unconcealed by things like forests. One of the first interesting geologic features I encountered was this interesting and colorful mountain:

An Arizona peak along Ajo Mountain Drive in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument shows off its haphazard layers of colorful rock, evoking slabs of clay slapped down in succession.

A little further on the loop drive, there is a nice pair of arches (one admittedly quite small) high above the imaginatively-named Arch Canyon:

Double arches watch from above Arch Canyon in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.

Beyond the geologic, the eponymous cactus of the area are interesting, as well, although this is not a particularly healthy example:

An ailing organ pipe cactus stuggles to survive in the national monument of the same name, Arizona.

While some areas along the road are heavy on the organ pipes and others on the saguaros, there are areas with a pretty even balance of both:

A juvenile saguaro stands in front of a mature organ pipe cactus in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.

In the end, I did two complete circuits of the Ajo Mountain Drive loop road: the first was primarily a scouting mission under the harsh mid-day light, while on the second I frequently stopped to take advantage of the golden hour light. I was pretty sure the day was done when setting sun suddenly barraged the mountains to the east with vivid color:

A dense stand of organ pipe cactus obscure the sunlit mountain beyond in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona.

Here are a few other images from the day:

As well as being beautiful, this national monument is a quiet, peaceful place: despite visiting during the monument’s purported busy season—January through March—I only saw a dozen or so cars in my entire afternoon on the Ajo Mountain Drive loop. On a weekend. I plan to visit again a little later this spring in the hopes of photographing desert bloomage and hiking up to the arch. Unfortunately, combining that hike with the long Puerto Blanco Drive loop in the same day might be a rather rushed expedition. Also, the peak cactus bloom is usually well after the wildflowers’, so it is unlikely that both will be blooming strongly in the same visit.

Bottom line: if you want to take in some nice desert scenery well off the beaten track, grab a hat and some water and go check out the organ pipes down by the border.

Technical Data

Other than the photograph of the fountain, which was taken with an iPhone 11 pro, all of the images in this post were taken with the Nikon Z7 using a variety of lenses: the Nikkor Z 24-70mm f/4 S (10 images), the PC Nikkor 19mm f/4E ED (3 images), and the AF-S Nikkor 300mm f/4E PF ED VR (1 image).

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