Wednesday, March 4, 2015

This isn't a desert, it's a garden

Of the four major North American deserts, the Sonoran has the most rainfall and, as a result, the most plant diversity. The wettest, most plant-diverse part of the Sonoran desert is in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. It's a long drive to Organ Pipe. Phoenix and Tucson are each about 150 miles away. You have to really want to see a unique part of the desert to make the effort to visit and explore Organ Pipe.

Surprisingly, the landscape and diversity of Organ Pipe isn't evident until you're in the the heart of the place. Driving south through Ajo and Why, all you see is a basic creosote desert with the occasional mesquite, palo verde or sajuaro to break up the scene. We started to worry that we had driven 170 miles from Yuma, AZ just to see the same desert that surrounds Yuma. It's actually 20 miles further South past Why, Az where the desert starts to get interesting.

Like most places, the best parts are not seen from a car. We ended up driving about 80 miles within the park, but the best parts of the park were on the 60 miles of hiking we did in the backcountry. The most impressive scenery was on the side trails where only the smugglers and the Boarder Patrol travel. These areas have been closed for years due to "illegal activity"and have just been reopened. 

A favorite place for travelers over the centuries and for smugglers today is a remote spot called Dripping Springs. The plant diversity just explodes in this wet little ecosystem in the mountains. 

A constant flow of water fills the basin in this cave and has saved lives for centuries.

This view looking North from the saddle above the spring is what the smugglers see before they bed down here for the night.

This little steel fence runs for about 40 miles along the mexican border on the southern end of Organ Pipe. It was put in to stop drug smugglers from driving across the border. It's too remote for foot traffic in this area. 

And the traditional 30 foot tall anti-personnel fence.

This old bull snake was a surprise to see spread across the trail. It was about 68 degrees, usually too cool for the snakes to come out. He was over five feet long and looked like he may have just had something to eat.

There are abandoned mines all over AZ. Organ Pipe has at least a dozen that we could find. Here's the old store building for the Victoria Mine.

Some impressive thick stone wall and window/door frame construction.

We've been lucky in finding unusual desert inhabitants in the backcountry. Last year we stumbled upon a large desert tortoise and this year we found a grove of rare elephant trees. Most people don't get excited about trees, but these are almost impossible to find outside of a botanical garden. About seven miles into a hike one day we found a grove of ten trees. Not only were there a lot of trees, but they were also the biggest we've ever seen. These trees are in the same family as frankincense and myrrh. When you rub the leaves of an elephant tree it smells like frankincense (kind of a sweet and citrusy fresh pine). FWIW, myrhh tends more towards the black licorice, resiny aroma spectrum.

Just thought we'd include this picture because for some reason the camera made an interesting special effect. It's just a basic, low-cost point and shoot Nikon Coolpix pocket camera.


  1. We saw our first elephant tree the other day on a hike in the Gila Mts just east of Yuma. Actually it's possible we've seen them before but did not know what they were. We definitely must return to Organ Pipe now that the entire park is open.

  2. Where did you park the RV while you were at Organ Pipe? Is it state park, BLM, or what? I guess more importantly, how hard would it be to find? It just looks wonderful.

  3. There's a BLM campground for free, primitive camping about two miles south of Why, AZ on Rt. 85 called Gunsight Wash. It's about 20 miles from the interesting parts of Organ Pipe National Monument. There's also a campground near the visitors center at the heart of Organ Pipe. It's $12/night (no hook-ups, but there is water and a dump station).