Having lived in Arizona for over 30 years, Chuck and his wife enjoy the great outdoors of the American Southwest.
Flower on Organ Pipe Cactus Starting to Open After Dark
Arizona's Organ Pipe National Monument About Only Place in to See Organ Pipe Cactus in United States
In spring the southern Arizona desert is awash in flowers especially following a winter where the rain has been plentiful providing the water necessary to allow all plants to grow and bloom.
On a recent weekend my wife and I decided to visit the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument located a two and a half hour drive west from our home in Tucson. We wanted to see and photograph the blooms on the Organ Pipe Cacti which grow in abundance in the National Monument.
Our reason for this trip was viewing and taking pictures of the blooming organ pipe cacti which are found in the Monument .
Organ Pipe cacti get their name from the multiple narrow stalks growing upward look like the pipes on a pipe organ.
Organ Pipe Cacti are very common in Mexico but rare north of the border. The National Monument is about the only place in the United States where this species of cactus can be found.
Closeup of My Wife Taking a Picture of Flower on Organ Pipe Cactus in Full Bloom
Organ Pipe Cactusis a Night Blooming Plant
There was just one problem and that is the fact that the Organ Pipe cacti bloom at night and the blossoms on many of them start wilting shortly after sunrise. While some blooms open shortly after dark and are gone a couple of hours after sunrise others don’t begin opening until a few hours before sunrise and are at their prime for a couple of hours after sunrise.
With sunrise occurring about 5:00 in June (the month when the Organ Pipe Cactus begin to bloom) we decided to leave on Saturday afternoon when my wife got home from work and spend the night in a motel in the old mining town of Ajo located about 30 miles north of the entrance to the Monument.
Doing this would not only save having to get up and leave home around 1:30 a.m. to arrive by sunrise but also allow us to avoid making the trip in the dark.
Typical Organ Pipe Cactus Growing in in Desert at Organ Pipe National Monument
Most of Trip from Tucson to Ajo is Across the Vast Tohono O'Odham Reservation
Getting to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument from Tucson Arizona involves taking state highway 86 west to Ajo. Except for three small hamlets the closest thing to a town on route is Sells, which has a population of less than 11,000 people and is the capital of the Tohono O’Odham Nation whose reservation we would be crossing.
The Tohono O’Odham Reservation, like Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, sits on a long section of the border with Mexico and covers an area the size of the state of Connecticut but with a population of less than 20,000. This vast, mostly empty area along the U.S.- Mexico border makes it attractive to smugglers, human traffickers and others desiring to enter the U.S. illegally. This is not a road on which I want to risk having my car break down on after dark.
Once we were out of Tucson we encountered very little traffic. At the start or close to the start of the reservation we did encounter an interior Border Patrol Checkpoint.
While we haven’t previously encountered one of these checkpoints along Highway 86, such checkpoints are not uncommon along roads north of the border leading to the interior of the U.S.
This checkpoint is probably intended to intercept people who had crossed onto the reservation from Mexico and were heading toward Tucson and Interstate 10. Since we were just entering the reservation and heading west we didn’t have to stop.
Crossing the Tohono O'Odham Reservation on Arizona State Highway 86
Arrived at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument at Sunset
We reached Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument about 5:30 and began looking for cacti with blooms. Unfortunately, most of the blossoms on both the Organ Pipe and more numerous Saguaro Cacti had already closed
We did get pictures of the cacti themselves, the surrounding mountains and the sunset.
There was one cactus in front of the Visitor Center that was starting to bloom. We hung around the Visitor Center area until 9:30 or later checking and taking pictures of the bloom that was slowly opening. When we left it was almost halfway to full bloom.
Sunset at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Closer View of Organ Pipe Cactus at Sunset
We stayed in the Park Until After Dark
While the Visitor Center was closed and we were the only ones in that part of the park there was a steady flow of traffic in both directions along State Route 85 which runs from the Mexican border to Interstate 10 just west of Phoenix. This was both not surprising and reassuring.
Not surprising since the Lukeville Port of Entry, which is 5 miles south of the Visitor Center, is only open between 6:00 a.m. and midnight. Reassuring because the traffic indicated that the border crossing was open and not blocked due to problems at the border.
It was now completely dark. Using the flash I got a couple of good pictures of the flower opening on the Organ Pipe Cactus in front of the Visitor Center. With nothing else to take pictures of we left the Visitor Center parking lot a little after 9:00 and drove 30 miles to our motel in Ajo.
Our Picturesque Motel in Ajo, AZ
We Rose at 4 a.m. the Next Morning & Headed for the Monument
We got up at 4:00 the next morning and after a quick breakfast of egg sandwiches and frappuccinos we had brought with us. Ajo, where we spent the night is a small town with nothing open at that early hour,
We then headed back to the park arriving just as the sun was coming up.
The flower that we were monitoring the night before was in full bloom and beautiful.
After taking pictures of that flower we drove across the street (Route 85) to the start of the Monument’s Ajo Mountain Loop a 21 mile dirt road through the eastern section of the Monument.
Warning Sign at Start of the 21 Mile Ajo Mountain Loop Road
Were Relieved to Encounter 4 Border Patrol Vehicles on the 21 Mile Loop Drive
While only 21 miles of decent dirt road, we ended up taking almost 5 hours to make the trip due to numerous stops for short hikes and picture taking.
A sign at the beginning of the loop warned that smuggling and illegal immigration takes place in the area. However, a notice in the Visitor Center stated that illegal activity generally takes place at night and in remote areas as those engaging in illegal activity prefer to remain out of sight.
During our 5 hour trip on the loop we only encountered 2 other passenger vehicles. One was a camper rental with California license plates driven by two ladies with German accents and the other was an empty SUV parked on the side of the road (we assumed the owner was hiking which was confirmed when the car passed us a couple of hours later along the loop).
In addition to the two private vehicles we also encountered a total of 4 Border Patrol vehicles patrolling the loop.
Monument’s Violent Illegal Past
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was created in 1937. According to WikiPedia the Arizona Legislature gave the land to the Federal Government a few years earlier, their reason being their belief that the Federal Government would improve the condition of highway 85 making it easier for smugglers to bring alcohol from Mexico during the Prohibition Era.
This would have occurred when opposition to Prohibition was growing and illegal demand for alcoholic beverages was increasing. It thus seems reasonable that the members of the state legislature would see their alcohol consuming constituents benefit from this exchange of desert land for road improvements to improve smuggling of alcoholic beverages.
However, the Wikipedia article does not give a date or source for the statement and the article has been flagged as needing a citation.
Smuggling & Violence Surged in the 1990s
Smuggling continues to be a part of the Monument’s history. The 517 square mile park is on the U.S.-Mexico border and starting in the early 1990s drug smuggling by drug cartels and illegal crossings by people seeking to enter and settle in the U.S. without going through the normal immigration process began increasing sharply.
In the decade of the 1990s through the first couple of years of the 2000s an estimated 300,000 migrants entered the U.S. illegally via Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Drug smuggling also increased resulting in a steady decline in tourists visiting the park.
Clashes between law enforcement and cartel operatives increased. Park rangers were armed and, as tourism decreased and cartel activities increased the Park Rangers ended up spending more time engaging with criminal elements and less assisting the dwindling number of tourists.
Memorial to Murdered Forest Ranger Kris Eggle
Murder of Park Ranger by Drug Cartel Hit Squad led to Closure of Monument
Things came to a head on August 9, 2002 when ranger Kris Eggle was shot and killed during an encounter with a cartel hit squad. This incident led to the closure of most of the Monument a few months later in 2003.
The park remained mostly closed for over a decade and not reopening until September 15, 2014.
During the years of closure new roads were built to enable Border Patrol and other law enforcement respond to penetrations of the border faster. In addition, vehicle barriers, surveillance towers and pedestrian fences were built and installed.
Today, these security measures plus an increased number of law enforcement officers who patrol the park regularly all help to keep the park safe for visitors.
We Discovered 3 Crested Organ Pipe Cacti
In addition to finding and taking pictures of the flowers on the Organ Pipe Cacti we also ran across 3 crested Organ Pipe Cacti.
Cresting is a mutation that results in part of the cactus being deformed. While relatively rare it is not uncommon to come across a few crested Saguaro Cacti in areas containing large numbers of Saguaros,
Cresting also occurs in other types of cacti and succulents but the cresting is usually not as impressive as it is in the saguaro and organ pipe cacti.
Rare Crested Organ Pipe Cactus
Saguaro Cacti Were Also in Full Bloom
Pipe Organ Cacti were not the only things blooming during our visit.
There are also numerous Saguaro Cacti in the Monument, In fact in the area we were in there appeared to be more Saguaros than Organ Pipe Cacti (Saguaros are common in Southern Arizona's Sonoran Desert).
The saguaros were not only covered in blooms, but the flowers on the Saguaro tend to start opening in early morning with some opening later in the morning and remaining fresh until late afternoon or early evening.
Saguaro in Bloom
Agave Were Also in Bloom
The Monument is also host to a number of Agave Americana plants. These plants are also known as Century Plants due to the fact that, they don’t bloom until after as many as three decades worth of growth. They then bloom only once and die.
Agave in Bloom
However, in addition to the seeds produced by the flowers of the Agave, the plant also produces shoots off its base which then begin growing thereby continuing the life of the original plant in the form of new growth nearby which will then bloom 10 to 30 years in the future.
Close up Picture of the Bloom on an Agave
After 5 Hours and Many Stops We Finish the Ajo Mtn Loop Drive
Despite the security warnings, the low number of visitors and noticeable presenHce of Border Patrol we, to our obvious relief, saw no sign of problems. We finished our 5 plus hour trip on the Ajo Mountain Loop drive about 11:00 and returned to the Visitor Center.
My wife was still missing her morning coffee (she didn’t care for the cold frappuccinos I had brought and, while there was the usual motel coffee maker in the room it didn’t have the French Vanilla creamer she likes) and was wanting some.
The Visitor Center doesn't sell any food or beverages so our coffee options were to drive about 20 miles north to one of the two gas stations in Why, AZ both of which had the usual mini-markets selling snacks and drinks or drive 5 miles south to the border town of Lukeville which had a gas station with a mini-market and snack bar.
We Drive to the Border for Coffee
Lukeville, which is named in honor of Frank Luke, the World War I balloon busting and Congressional Medal of Honor winning aviator from Arizona, is a town with a population of about 35.
In addition to a few houses the town also has a Post Office, gas station/mini mart, a duty free shop, a shop selling Mexican Auto Insurance and the border Port of Entry.
State Highway 85 takes you straight to the border crossing so if you don’t make a right turn into the large gas station/mini-mart parking lot you will find yourself in locked in the line to cross the border.
That is good if you want to buy your coffee in a restaurant as the Mexican town of Sonoyta on the opposite side of the border which has a population of about 12,000 along with restaurants and shopping.
Just make sure to bring your passport if you wish to re-enter the United States after drinking your coffee.
Sign Announcing Upcoming Internal Border Checkpoint
From Lukeville we Headed Home
The town was quiet and normal with cars and people moving in both ways across the border with no signs of problems or trouble.
From Lukeville we headed north on State Route 85, making short stops for pictures as we headed north toward to the Monument exit and home.
Interior Border Check Point at Entrance to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
© 2019 Chuck Nugent
Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on June 14, 2019:
Liz Westwood - thanks for your comment and I am glad you enjoyed this Hub. This was our second trip to Organ Pipe Cactus Monument to see the Organ Pipe Cacti in bloom. However, I should point out that on both trips, time constraints forced us to restrict our visit to the relatively small section of the park lying east of Highway 85 and the Visitor Center. Most of the park's 500+ square miles lie to the west and according to information in the Visitor Center and online there the park offers a lot more to see from ancient ruins, plants and wildlife but it will require more than a one day visit. Thanks again for your comments.
Chuck Nugent (author) from Tucson, Arizona on June 14, 2019:
Peggy Woods - Thanks for your comments. I'm glad you enjoyed this Hub. My wife and I enjoyed this trip and I enjoyed writing about it. As to the danger from criminal elements there is some but as the Border Patrol points out in the warning signs they have posted the people operating illegally try to keep a low profile and stay out of sight. This is why the authorities advise staying on marked trails. Given the miles of empty desert in and around the park people not heeding this and going off the trails increase their chances of encountering criminal elements somewhat but the greater danger is getting lost and dying of thirst in he desert. While we weren't worried about being attacked while visiting the park we did keep an eye out for possible danger and how to deal with it if it occurs the same as I keep an eye on the road when driving on the freeway even though I don't worry about an accident being imminent; Thanks again for your comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the Hub.
Liz Westwood from UK on June 13, 2019:
I admire your dedication staying late in the park and getting up early. It certainly paid off with some lovely photos. You give a great account of your trip and I also feel like I have gleaned a small insight into this border area.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on June 13, 2019:
Your account of visiting the Organ Pipe National Monument was fascinating. The photos are spectacular. I'm not sure that I would want to risk going there, however, with the threat of smugglers, etc. coming from south of the border even with more border control agents patrolling the area. I will enjoy your account vicariously through this article. Thanks for writing it.