I had read about Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument from other RV bloggers before we started our Odyssey, and it sounded like an interesting place to visit, but it wasn’t on our itinerary when we initially mapped out our route. That’s because Organ Pipe is out of the way, on the Arizona-Mexico border. But as we turned the corner on the west coast and started heading back east, I started thinking about making the detour south to the park, knowing that we weren’t ever going to be any closer to Organ Pipe than when we were in Quartzsite.
My thinking evolved further when we were in Anza-Borrego State Park, when we struck up a conversation with one of the camp hosts, who, it turned out, had previously been a host at Organ Pipe. He told us that the camping was cheap, the cactus and other desert plants were abundant, the night skies were dark, and that our personal safety was not something we should be concerned about. Hmmmm… I hadn’t even thought about that last one. But if spontaneity and serendipity are the attitudes of Odysseeing, “do it now” and “we’re doing it” are the mottos, so we decided to head south from Quartzsite and check it out.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is the only place in the United States where you can see the iconic organ pipe cactus, though they grow far south into Mexico. This is because they are extremely sensitive to frost (just like me!), and this corner of Arizona rarely sees below freezing temperatures. In fact, organ pipe cacti can’t get enough heat. A park ranger told us that they are descended from tropical plants, and are a relatively recent inhabitant of the area, living here for maybe less than 3,500 years. The shape of the plants reminded early missionaries of the pipes of a church organ, hence the name.
The drive from Quartzsite to the park goes through some very remote country, typified by the Barry F. Goldwater Air Force Range, used for air-to-ground bombing practice (they appear to have missed us). The last town before entering the park is Why, AZ, so-named because it used to literally be at a “Y” in the road between AZ-85 and AZ-86, and rather than just call the town “Y” the founders decided on “Why”. When I first heard of this town, I was hoping for a more metaphysical explanation for its name, so the prosaic meaning was a bit of a letdown. In reality, the biggest business in Why appears to be that of selling Mexican auto insurance, so perhaps its name should be Seguro instead.
Campsites are first-come-first-served at Organ Pipe, so I was a bit concerned there wouldn’t be space. But I shouldn’t have worried; the campground was maybe a third full when we arrived. There are no hookups, but water is available, and our new solar setup totally rocks, so we were happy to set up in the no generator section of the campground with our own personal organ pipe and saguaro cacti as a neighbor.
The next day we headed out on the Ajo Mountain Drive, a 21-mile dirt road that takes you up into the picturesque Diablo Mountains and the Ajo Range. We later learned that the native Tahono O’odham people aptly called them the “Red Mountains”, but since the Spanish explorers couldn’t pronounce the native word for “Red”, they substituted “Ajo” (Spanish for “garlic”), which sounded a bit like the native word. “Garlic Mountains” just sounds silly if you ask me, but apparently wild garlic does grow in the mountains, so the Spanish were able to save face.
During the first part of the drive we spotted a rare “cristate” or crested organ pipe cactus. We had help finding it – it was well marked on the interpretive guide we picked had up at the visitor center – but it was cool to see nonetheless.
A bit later we stopped at a pass in the mountains to take in the view, including of the campground far in the distance.
Halfway through the drive we parked the car and jumped on the Arch Canyon Trail, hiking up to the point where we could see the rock arches. We turned around when the trail changed from a moderately inclined path to a steep rock scramble.
The next day we decided to take the Senita Basin hike. The road to Senita Basin heads south and turns off AZ-85 just before the tiny border town of Lukeville. Since we were a bit low on diesel, we decided to go into town to fill up on the way. A park ranger had warned us that the border crossing was getting crowded due to the flood of students on spring break heading south to Rocky Point, on the Gulf of California. We ended up waiting in traffic about 15 minutes to get into town, all the while watching young revelers jumping from car to car, and also into the roadside palo verde, we assume to relieve themselves.
After fueling up we drove the road to the trailhead, paralleling the border at a distance of about 50 feet. Curiously, we could see that the border fence over a nearby hill was evidently quite tall, while the fence along the road was a simple, low steel stockade fence that could easily be stepped through or over. When I asked the park rangers about this difference, they said it was because they wanted the wildlife to be able to cross the border easily; without a low fence the animals (e.g. mountain lions) would try to cross at the only open spot, which would be at the border crossing, and in any event there are cameras patrolling the fence so security was “not an issue.”
Apparently this part of the park has been closed to the public for some time until relatively recently. A Park Service ranger had been killed in the park in the line of duty in 2002, while pursuing members of a drug cartel who fled into the United States after committing murders in Mexico. The Park Service now feels that the area is secure enough that the entire park has been reopened. Border Patrol was very visible throughout this region, both on the roads and in the air, which was reassuring, but this history was on our mind as we drove down the dirt road and stepped onto the trail.
During our three-mile hike we saw only one other person, who had hiked in from the campground. The scenery was beautiful (including stands of the also-rare Senita Cactus), and it was nice to have the trail to ourselves. Our camp host back in Anza Borrego State Park had told us that smugglers don’t want to be seen and generally want nothing to do with you, but nevertheless it was a little spooky to be alone in such a remote place that has a violent history.
After our hike we turned back onto AZ-85 to head back to the campground, and were stunned to see that the traffic backup to cross the border now stretched over 3 miles. We were thankful to have left early.
In the evenings we really enjoyed the talks put on by the rangers, including ones on the physics of sunsets, the stories of the constellations from different cultures, and the hundredth anniversary of the National Park Service. The stars in the night skies were as brilliant as if they had been in a planetarium show, with the Milky Way just popping off of its black background while coyotes yipped and howled, making the southwestern cliché a reality.
After three days we left Organ Pipe and drove across the Tahono O’odham nation (which sadly appears to be just barely eking out an economy) to Picacho Peak State Park, located midway between Phoenix and Tucson. We spent another three days here, taking a few more hikes around (but not to the top) of the eponymous peak. On the first evening we were attracted to the sound of bluegrass music coming from the neighboring campsite, and subsequently invited ourselves to listen in. Bluegrass seems to be the official musical genre of camping.
Picacho Peak was the site of the westernmost battle in the Civil War, and the weekend after we left there was to be a large Civil War reenactment. It was hard to believe that the war was fought this far west, but then I remembered the scene from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (supposedly set in the southwest US, but actually filmed in Spain), where the protagonists disguise themselves in Confederate uniforms in order to escape, but are then captured by Union soldiers after our heroes mistake them for the Confederate army, because their blue uniforms had become covered with gray dust. Who says movies aren’t educational?
We decided to skip the reenactment and headed down to Gilbert Ray Campground, a county park west of Tucson in the Tucson Mountains. I had heard about Gilbert Ray from other RVers, and based on the glowing reviews, was really looking forward to staying there. Since the park doesn’t take reservations, I once again was worried we wouldn’t get a spot, but because we arrived early we got our pick of sites.
The reviews were spot-on: Gilbert Ray has campsites that are laid out with plenty of space in between, the desert vegetation is dense, the views of the mountains are spectacular, the only sounds are the occasional coyotes, and the price is reasonable, at only $20 a night for an electric hookup. Because it’s close to Tucson, we took advantage of the proximity of laundry and grocery stores to catch up on some domestic chores.
One night during our stay we visited the parents of friends who live in nearby Oro Valley. On another we went to a “star party” in the campground, where the local camp hosts brought out their telescopes for us to look through. And of course we hiked, both in the nearby Saguaro National Park and the Tucson Mountain Park. We particularly enjoyed a nature hike with a naturalist who has forgotten more about desert plants than I’ll ever know.
I thought that in the three months I’ve been out here that I had learned all there was to learn about the desert, but I was wrong. I’ve learned a lot, and I’m sure there is still much more to discover on the remaining few weeks of our Odyssey.