Truth is, we were hesitant because of numerous problems on the border related to drug and human smuggling. More than half of the park was closed in 2003, shortly after 28-year old park ranger Kris Eggle was killed while pursuing drug runners (the Visitor Center was named in his honor). That same year, Organ Pipe was designated as “the most dangerous National Park.” That effectively squelched our desire to visit the park.
But in September 2014, all of Organ Pipe was again opened to the public. Park officials maintain that increased border security and patrols have made the park safe for visitors. (It’s true that the Border Patrol is everywhere.) The visitor center, however, does warn that illegal border crossings and activities—including drug smuggling—occur daily. At the same time, they say it’s highly unlikely that visitors will encounter any illegal border activity.
The border issues are complicated, to say the least. Personally, we feel compassion for those trying to make a better life for themselves, and have no concerns with encountering people who are crossing the border—even if illegally—to find work. But we certainly have no desire to cross paths with drug runners.
After a bit of research, we felt confident that visiting the park was safe. Any remaining doubts we had were assuaged after spending time with fellow full-timers John and Pam, who had just come from Organ Pipe when we met up in Tucson.
We’re so glad we went. Organ Pipe is one of the most beautiful places we’ve ever been, and one of the most unique.
This surprisingly green expanse of the Sonoran desert is thick with saguaro and organ pipe cacti. This is the only place in the U.S. to see large stands of the namesake cacti, which thrive in the high temperatures of the Sonoran summers. The organ pipe cacti are awe-inspiringly beautiful, with dozens to hundreds of arms 10-20 feet tall reaching toward the sky. Like most cacti, they grow extraordinarily slowly—only about 2.5 inches per year.
Highlights of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
• Ajo Mountain Drive: If you go, don’t miss the beautiful Ajo Mountain Drive. The 21-mile loop winds along the foothills of the Ajo Mountains, through a picturesque desert landscape accented by hundreds of organ pipe cacti. The drive is mostly gravel, and RV’s over 24 feet are prohibited because of the twists and dips in the road. We were perfectly comfortable traveling the road in our truck.
• Desert View Trail: The lovely Desert View Trail is within walking distance of the campground, and makes for a leisurely sunset walk of a couple of miles. The views are wonderful, and it’s the perfect place to hear the cacti singing in the evening breeze.
• Bull Pasture-Estes Canyon Hike: If you’re up for a more strenuous hike, this is the one to do. At just over 4-miles round trip, the Bull Pasture-Estes Canyon trail ascends through beautiful desert terrain—red rocks and a variety of cacti—culminating on a high plateau with sweeping views of Mexico and Organ Pipe Monument. The trail is accessed from Ajo Mountain Drive.
• The Campground: Twin Peaks campground, within the park, is gorgeous. With spacious sites, lovely natural desert landscaping, and concrete patios, it looks like a fancy RV resort. Well, except for the fact that it doesn’t have electric or water hookups. There are three solar showers within the campground—a great idea, but in reality uncomfortably chilly and with painfully powerful jets of water that can’t be adjusted. The campground is first-come, first-served and a bargain at $12.00 per night (half-price with the Senior Pass).
Despite the tragic problems associated with the border, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a beautiful and peaceful place to visit. The sunsets are spectacular, the night skies dark, and the only sounds are the singing of the coyotes and the wind whispering through the spines of the cacti. Our sole regret is that we had only two nights to spend in the park. We’ll return, next time for at least a week.[portfolio_slideshow]