Your truly by one of the gorgeous organ pipe

Your truly gets swamped by an Organ Pipe

The thing about hanging in the lushest desert on earth is that you can never rely on the weather. Days will start out clear, then suddenly cloud up or cloud up and then suddenly clear. Humidity here hovers around 40-50% which is simply insane for a desert. In fact, the entire weather system here makes no desert sense at all. It’s the very reason everything is so darn green, but it also means you gotta grab the good moments when you get ‘em.

Yesterday afternoon was one of those moments. After an entire day of utterly dreary grey clouds, at around 4PM the skies suddenly parted and sun revealed long rays of golden color. Ahhhh, sweet light delight! We thew ourselves into the CRV and raced 20 miles down to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. We were gonna catch this baby at her best!

Along the Ajo Mountain Loop

Along the Ajo Mountain Loop

Now, Organ Pipe is a spot I’ve been waiting years to see. I’d heard about the place from other bloggers and was immediately fascinated by the massive finger-like cactus that bear its namesake. It’s the only place in the US where this weird plant grows wild and it’s a direct result of the intersection between the Lower Colorado Valley and the Arizona Upland…or in other words, crazy desert weather. This unique diversity has granted Organ Pipe the designation of an International Biosphere Reserve which only confirms that it’s a rather special place. The main attraction in the park is the bumpy 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive that takes you into the valley and around the mountain. Despite my weak stomach for such things I was determined that that was the route we were going to take.

Backlit organ pipe

Backlit Organ Pipe

Now if you’re coming here I would recommend stopping at the visitor center for a guidebook since, apparently, that’s the thing to do and will give you lots more information about the drive. We were impatient and by-passed this step to get right to the road while the light was right, and after paying the $8 fee we were on our way.

And it was b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l ! The road leads deep into the desert mountain starting rather sparse, but getting more and more lush as you drive in. Saguaros in every direction, ocotillos, cholla, cresote bushes, mesquite, palo verde….you name it, it’s there. And then of the course the Organ Pipe Cactus, the whole reason we made the drive. These long-limbed cacti rise like prickly flowers from the desert floor and grow up to 16 feet in height. From afar they look like pretty green buds and close-up you can’t help thinking they might swallow you. As we drove on and the light shifted I kept seeing new ways to photograph them…frontlit, backlit, silhouette…how can you not admire their zany form?

Muuuutant cactus, baby!!

Muuuutant cactus, baby!!

Long shadows in the valley

Long shadows in the valley

And then we got to go one step further. What’s better than a simple Organ Pipe Cactus? Why a crested Organ Pipe Cactus!! Scientifically speaking cristation is an “abnormal development of an apical meristem characterized by indeterminate proliferative growth”. Got that?? Or, to put it another way it’s a MUTANT cactus……coooooooooool! I knew from other bloggers there was one of these very rare babies somewhere on the 21-mile drive, but having not bothered to pick-up the guide-book before we started I had absolutely no clue where it was. By pure luck my mutant-seeking eyes locked on something about 20 feet off the road and one quick scream later Paul had stopped the car. Freak cactus found, goal achieved!

At this point, the rest of the drive was pure gluttony. We finished the drive just a half hour before sunset leaving behind golden colors and last impressions of deep red on the mountains. My stomach barely made the bumpy road (the last 7 miles were tough), but my camera & soul were both mighty glad we did it. Totally worth the trip & a definite “must see” for anyone who comes to this crazy desert.

P.S. Organ Pipe National Monument offers several hikes, but only two (near the visitor center & campground) are dog-friendly. The hikes around Ajo Mountain don’t allow dogs, but you can bring doggie in the car for the ride. Polly doesn’t do well on bumpy roads so we left her at home.

P.P.S. Coming up next -> we reveal our summer plans including TWO brand-new (and rather unusual) volunteer positions that we’ve snagged. All I can say at this point is that we’re going somewhere foul, and somewhere high…oh, and “the beast” will be going sailing. Yes, I’m such a tease :)


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65 Responses to Long-Fingered Cacti & Bumpy Rides -> Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, AZ

  1. Ray Burr says:

    Awesome, you got us pumped up now. :) We wanted to see Organ Pipe after Saguaro last year but didn’t work out, but we just rolled into the area today. Can’t believe how green it is around here after spending time in Q and Yuma. Almost lush, hehe

    • libertatemamo says:

      Cool! Enjoy the area (I’m sure you will) and grab those sunny moments when you see them. It’s grey again this AM, but you never know what might happen later.


  2. Ralph says:

    Organ Pipe has long been on my list! I’m trying to guess where you are volunteering next summer…Mmmm…Cape Foulweather???

  3. Astounding pics an info. Thats about the coolest desert post I have read and seen pics, on, amazing mother nature. Its like a scene out of a movie!

    • libertatemamo says:

      Thanks! I do get rather excited about spots like this and I can’t help but gush about them on the blog. Nothing as fabulous as natures beauty!


  4. Jess Curren says:

    Totally not helping my cactus obsession!!!

    • libertatemamo says:

      Haha…sorry…what can I say. You’d be in heaven down here!! Never seen so many cactus species in one place.


  5. Linda Sand says:

    “Somewhere foul” Does the Field of Dreams have camp hosts?

    The beast going sailing–The ferry across Lake Michigan? Although I guess it could really be any car ferry.

  6. We nearly camped at Organ Pipe this past week, but passed up the chance and dashed into Catalina SP instead. After seeing your post, I’m sorry… year. ;-)

    • libertatemamo says:

      Well Catalina is lovely too. We loved it there last year (even saw snow!!). You’ll just have to come back for Organ Pipe some other time.


  7. Rebecca Kite says:

    We also love Organ Pipe. It is an amazing place to explore. I’m guessing Alaska, I know some positions will ferry your RV for you. Please tell, can’t stand the suspense. Becki

  8. Rand says:

    Pinacate Biosphere Reserve in Mexico is the volcanic area you can see from Organ Pipe Nat. Park. If you have an opportunity to explore there you will find it a fascinating desert like nowhere else. Not a place to go unprepared. Wildlife have thrived because it is isolated.

  9. Jenny Waters says:

    I can’t believe how big those cacti are, we will have to visit that. I am wondering if your “sailing” with the beast is in the San Juan Islands here in Washington. If so, I’m sure you will love it. :)

  10. Bob Martel says:

    Hi Nina, How long is the loop road and is it doable by mountain bike? Bob

    • libertatemamo says:

      It’s 21 miles total and definitely do-able by mountain bike. Not much traffic on that road either. We only saw one other car the whole time we were there.


  11. MonaLiza says:

    We forego this last year, now that you showed us its beauty we’ve got to go! Amazing how huge and tall those organ pipes are.

    • libertatemamo says:

      I was surprised just how big they were! For some reason I imagined them as human-size, but not much bigger. These babies were huge!


  12. Nina, you are one awesome photographer–thanks for taking us along! Can’t wait to hear your summer travel news!

    • libertatemamo says:

      Thanks Janna….we had a blast at the monument. What a spot! Hoping to send at least a little of this sunshine up to you in MT!


  13. Kit says:

    I too chased the light and those CRAZY organ pipes, years ago. I was the only tent in the campground and loved it. Did you Boondock?

    • libertatemamo says:

      Yup, we’re boondocked around 4 miles north of the entrance to the monument and 20 miles north of the visitor center.


  14. Geoff says:

    Glad you did the trip at Organ Pipe!! As you said it is worth the bumpy ride. You went right by the “secret” place. did you see it??

    Geoff and Pat

    • libertatemamo says:

      Noooo…I missed a “secret” place?? What is it?


      • Geoff says:


        OK …when you go south toward Organ Pipe just before the Border Patrol Checkpoint on the left side (east) at mile 57 1/2 you will see a dirt road going toward a fence with a gate. Open the gate and go through and you are there! If you take the Beast it will take a bit of manoeuvring to get through the gate but it works. Don’t go too far without checking but you will find a couple of nice spots big enough for you. It is a small BLM spot but if you walk to the end you will see a small grotto made out of some rocks that people have made. If you need help ask the host as he knows where it is. Enjoy. Also my wife says we should tell you about the restaurant 100 Estrella just as you come into Ajo. The food is really good and reasonable. Just in case you are still there for Valentine’s Day (hint Paul!!)

        Geoff and Pat

  15. I was waiting for this post after seeing the Organ Pipe Cactus on your fb page. I could just imagine your excitement as you drove the 21 miles. I know I would have been freaking out, as well, when that crested wonder was spotted. Love the photo!! What a trip! The only one I’ve seen was in the Desert Museum in Tucson.

    Isn’t there an Organ Pipe Cactus with soft hairy like needles? I believe Mark found it when they went through the barrier.

    • libertatemamo says:

      Hmmmm…I’m not sure. Could it be a Senita Cactus? I’ll have to research that one some more. There are SO many cactus varieties in this desert.


  16. Tina says:

    The Beast is going sailing? I’m guessing a trip to the San Juan Islands is in your future. A beautiful place to be sure.

  17. Beartracksblog says:

    Beautiful! I love the lush green desert! Can’t wait to hear where you’re headed this summer. We’ve altered our 2014 route plan and won’t be getting to the coast this year after all. I’ll be enjoying that beautiful area through your updates! -Linda

    • libertatemamo says:

      Awww….too bad we won’t get to see you, but I’m sure your plans will be exciting too. So many gorgeous places to see!


  18. LuAnn says:

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane Nina. I haven’t been to Organ Pipe NM in years and didn’t know there was such a thing as a crested organ pipe cactus.

    You have certainly peeked the curiosity of your readers with your summer plans, me included. :)

    • libertatemamo says:

      The crested Organ Pipe is a very rare thing indeed, so I was super-excited to find it. Poor Paul might have felt a little shaky from all my screaming though :)


  19. Rob & Jessica says:

    The suspense is killing me!

  20. Rowanova says:

    “abnormal development of an apical meristem characterized by indeterminate proliferative growth”
    I was afraid you were attempting to tell folks you’d met me in the desert. Whew! Glad you cleared that up in the following sentence. (Haha!)
    I’ve read of this National Monument and have seen many photos of it over the years. It’s a place I plan to visit so it was a delight to see this as your post today. Thanks for sharing this with your awesome photography. It’s much enjoyed and appreciated.
    Enjoy it some more while you’re there. Hope to see and read more of your experiences while you’re there.

    • libertatemamo says:

      Haha….we do meet some interesting folks out here. No mutants that I know of although we many well have met some aliens (we DID camp for a week in Roswell NM after all). Glad you enjoyed the post!


  21. Jil says:

    Love that place…there are some “mutant Cacti” in Saguaro N. P near Benson….really wild, weird and beautiful…

    • libertatemamo says:

      Yeah, I’ve heard of quite a few crested Saguaro’s up there. Sadly that entire park (Saguaro National Park) doesn’t allow dogs on ANY of the trails so we haven’t been to explore it at all.


  22. Amanda says:

    Love that park! So glad you made it down that way and it looks like you had some nice weather for the drive. By the way, last winter we hide a Geochache near a crested Organ Pipe only a short walk from where we boondocked in Ajo. If you make it that way and want to see another Crested Beast here’s the link to the cache.

  23. TJ says:

    We signed up for the van tour of Ajo Mountain Road while camping at Organ Pipe, but the rangers canceled because the van had a flat tire and there was nobody around on a Sunday to fix it! Since we didn’t want to miss the sights on this road, we picked up the guide and I drove the motorhome; at 24′, it was at the limit of the ‘OK to go’ range. Four hours of bumpy, dusty, and super slow, but BEAUTIFUL and unusual desert scenery! Ajo Mountain Drive is a ‘don’t miss’ trip!

    • libertatemamo says:

      Holy smokes!! You drove the rig on that road!! I’m pretty impressed. I can understand why it took 4 hours to get around. What an adventure!


  24. Sherry says:

    Way to take advantage of a great place on a moment’s notice. The photos are fabulous as usual. You do such a marvelous job of highlighting nature’s beauty. Is the road doable by a low slung Honda? Can’t wait to hear about your next plans. You guys are a delight!

    • libertatemamo says:

      I would say “yes”. The road is bumpy, but not rough (if that makes sense). I can’t see any reason a regular 2WD couldn’t do it.


  25. Lynda says:

    Love that drive, though it does test one’s constitution. Did you see the arches? There’s actually a trail up to them. Looking forward to more greenery as we head to KOFA in a week.

    • libertatemamo says:

      Yup we did. Actually that’s where I took the panorama pic of Paul. Right at he base of the trail to the races.

  26. Geoff says:

    In case you missed it I put the directions to the “secret” place above on your post about missing it!!


  27. Anne H says:

    I’ll be at Organ pipe next weekend! So, your tips are more than timely (tipping my hat to you)

  28. Michael says:

    We must be cut from the same cloth. Love the desert and all those cacti. I also like that some of your pic’s are in a larger format. I’ll be adding Organ Pipe to my must see list.
    This brings up a question. Do you sometimes worry that by showing us these beautiful places, they’ll become too popular? Don’t get me wrong, I’m grateful that you do what you do. You are really good at it. It just reminds me of a line from a song by the Eagles,”call someplace paradise, kiss it goodby”.

    • libertatemamo says:

      There is always a possibility of that happening, sure. I guess it’s part of the risk I took on when I started blogging ( although I never really imagined the blog would become quite this big!). I’d hate to see these places overrun, but I can’t help sharing my enthusiasm for them too…and the visitors do keep many of these places alive. In the end I always imagine there’ll be a balance. Not everyone will love these places as much as I do, but hopefully enough will love them that we preserve them forever more.


  29. bob says:

    Sounds like you had a great adventure. One thing to keep in mind while exploring the area. Organ Pipe National Monument back around 2007 was identified as the most dangerous national park/monument in the states, mostly because of the drug trafficking that occurs in the area. This may no longer be the case so be mindful and safe.

    • libertatemamo says:

      We’ve seen sooooo many border patrol out here that I’ve felt quite safe. But I appreciate the warning. Always important to be vigilant.


  30. Brenda says:

    Wow! Gorgeous place and photographs, will have to add it to our very long list.

  31. Betty-Shea says:

    Hi! How beautiful is that place…I gotta go see it!
    Wow! Just Wow!!!!

  32. […] chose this spot as a base to explore Ajo (~10 miles away) and Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (~4 miles from entrance) and it turned out to be perfect. This is a “semi-managed” BLM […]

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