Playing in Mute Harmony: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, AZ

Newcomers to Arizona are often struck by Desert Fever. Desert Fever is caused by the spectacular natural beauty and serenity of the area. Early symptoms include a burning desire to make plans for the next trip “south”. There is no apparent cure for snowbirds.

The winds of Organ Pipe

Organ pipes in a mixed cactus forest against the backdrop of the Ajo Mountains © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The organ pipe cactus thrives within the United States primarily in the 516-square-mile Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and International Biosphere Reserve.

Located 35 miles south of Ajo on Highway 85, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument preserves a diverse and relatively undisturbed sample of the Sonoran Desert. Mountains surround the park on all sides, some near, some distant, with colors changing from one hour to the next. Ninety-five percent of the monument is designated as wilderness area, which makes this one of the best places to view the Sonoran Desert.

The many branches of the organ pipe rise from a base at the ground, instead of growing like a massive trunk of the saguaro. It is a stately plant, with columns rising mostly like, well, the pipes of a church organ.

Each desert plant is exploitable to some extent—the organ pipe is no exception. Their pithaya fruit, like a saguaro’s, mature in July, have red pulp and small seeds. Tohono O’odham people have eaten the fruit raw or dried, and have made syrup, jams, and a mild wine from it. Seeds can provide flour and cooking oil.

The organ pipe, of course, has company—25 other cactus species including the stately saguaro, chain-fruit cholla, teddy bear cholla, and Engelmann prickly pear, also make this park their home. A mature organ-pipe cactus may be more than 100 years old. A mature saguaro can live to be more than 150.

Foothill palo verde, ironwood, jojoba, elephant tree, mesquite, triangle-leaf bursage, agave, creosote bush, ocotillo, and brittlebush also contribute to the desert landscape.

The many branches of the organ pipe rise from a base at the ground, instead of growing like a massive trunk of the saguaro. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

It’s also home to coyotes, the endangered Sonoran pronghorn, desert bighorn sheep, deer, javelina, gila monster, Western diamondback rattlesnake, desert tortoise, Gambel’s quail, roadrunner, Gila woodpecker, and bats. Lesser long-nosed bats drink the nectar of the organ pipe, in the process being sprinkled by pollen dust, which the bats then transport to other cactuses for fertilization.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is designated by the American Bird Conservancy as a Globally Important Bird Area.

The monument’s eastern boundary runs along the backbone of the Ajo Range, which includes Mt. Ajo at 4,808 feet and Diaz Peak at 4,024 feet.

The Kris Eggle Visitor Center has information about the desert flora and fauna, plus there are scheduled talks and guided walks. Park rangers are there to talk over plans and interests with you.

The 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive is a one-way dirt road that winds and dips and provides access to some of the finest scenery in the monument.

A self-guided-tour pamphlet, which can be purchased in the visitor center for $1.00, describes 22 stops along the way and greatly enhances the experience. For example, the third stop is at a large saguaro, where visitors can learn many things about the stately cactus. Its flowers bloom in May and June, its fruit maturing a month later. Many animals dine on the fruit’s red pulp and its tiny black seeds. The Tohono O’odham people grind its seeds into a buttery substance that is considered a delicacy. Saguaros stay generous past their fruit-bearing prime: Their decaying, hole-dotted trunks provide shelter for birds, and their “skeletal ribs” once constituted building materials for American Indians.

The first five miles of North Puerto Blanco Drive has been newly reconstructed and is open in both directions, providing access to the new picnic area at the turn-around point by Pinkley Peak.

Camping

Twin Peaks Campground has 208 sites that are generally level, widely spaced, and landscaped by natural desert growth. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Twin Peaks Campground has 208 sites that are generally level, widely spaced, and landscaped by natural desert growth. The campsites will easily accommodate 40-foot motorhomes and are available on a first-come first-served basis. As well, Alamo Campground has four well-spaced, primitive spots.

Be Aware

Because of the dangers posed by drug smuggling and human trafficking along this isolated portion of the U.S.-Mexican border, most of the roads into the remote areas of the monument are closed.

Did You Know?
Coyotes are highly intelligent animals that are well adapted to survive in almost any environment. They are among the most common animals spotted in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and you might hear them “singing” on any given night.

Worth Pondering…
Take your time.
Slow down.
Live.

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