A day trip from Tucson to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument wasn’t going to happen – it was a three hour drive in each direction, which wouldn’t leave sufficient time for exploring. We pretty well gave up on visiting this remote treasure upon learning that all rooms in Ajo – the only nearby town with lodging – were booked. For the entire month of February.
But we added our name to the waiting list in case there was a cancellation, and voilà! We got lucky when there was an unexpected vacancy at the Sonoran Desert Inn, so we packed a few things for the trip and took off. I’m very excited to tell you about our visit and share photos!
Organ Pipe was set aside as a national monument in 1937 for its unique vegetation – the organ pipe cactus and the closely related senita cactus. Both are common in northern Mexico but can’t survive in the wild except in the far southern areas of Arizona.
Unlike the single trunk saguaro, an organ pipe cactus sends up multiple stalks from below ground. Lifespan is comparable to the saguaro – around 150 years.
The multi-trunk senita cactus looks much like the organ pipe but has fewer pleats on its arms and features shaggy, gray bristles on the tips of the stems.
In addition to its large size (517 square miles) and remote location, Organ Pipe Cactus NM is 95% wilderness, so there are few roads or amenities . . . or visitors.
That’s enough background information – let’s move on. We arrived at the park around noon, and after picking up ideas (and a map) at the visitor center and refueling with a picnic lunch, we embarked on a self-guided driving tour of the 21-mile Ajo Mountain Scenic Drive.
Along the way, we did two hikes. The first was a short trail to an arch that apparently has no name.
The trail winds around the back side of the arch, where we attempted without success to scramble up to the base.
The second hike was the Bull Pasture Trail, and it was a beautiful but steep, rocky and slippery trek. The views on this blue sky day, however, were terrific.
After we finished hiking and driving the rest of the loop, we headed straight to our hotel in Ajo to check in and find dinner. According to the town’s Chamber of Commerce website, this small unincorporated community is a delightful place to live, with historic architecture, enjoyable living, natural wonders, clear skies, outdoor recreation, culture and art, and a mining history. It’s also a fine place to spend a night, maybe even two, as long as you don’t need to eat. Let’s just say that restaurant options were limited.
We headed back to Organ Pipe Cactus early the next morning (after finding the breakfast place in nearby Why) to explore the Senita Basin section of the park.
This was the scene along the U.S.-Mexico border:
The new fence was built in 2019 and 2020, and it was a depressing sight. In addition to being just plain ugly, there can be no doubt the barrier has cut off critical wildlife corridors with no evidence (that I could find) of decreasing unauthorized pedestrian traffic.
On a lighter note, the border remains easily penetrated by cell towers. Our phones welcomed us to Mexico, and my bill subsequently reflected that I had somehow slipped through the steel fencing. 😎
Our hiking destination for the morning was the Milton Mine, which operated in the early to mid-1900s and produced small quantities of gold and copper. Not much to see these days.
Very different from the Bull Pasture hike the previous day, the nearly flat Milton Mine trail traveled through wide open spaces, so the views didn’t change much along the way. To be sure, the vistas were pleasant but not spectacular.
So we turned our attention to nearby sights and objects and discovered a few small treasures.
I think that might be one of the secrets to hiking in the desert – remembering to look down so you don’t miss the little things.
One more stop at the picnic area for lunch before heading back to Tucson.
It was a short but memorable visit – so glad we went. But a word to the wise – plan ahead if you need lodging!
Mt. Lemmon Scenic Byway
We were on the fence about whether or not to do this mountain drive that begins on the outskirts of Tucson. After all, we were trying to escape cold weather – why would we purposely seek it out?
Well, we wound up going anyhow, and it was in fact a cold and blustery February day. Traveling the 45 miles on the Mt. Lemmon Scenic Byway from downtown Tucson (elevation 2,389′) to the base of the ski resort (elevation 8,200′) takes about 1.5 hours with no stops, which of course isn’t our style.
The drive took us five hours, which likely would have been longer with better weather for wandering about at the many pullouts.
The drive begins in a desert life zone and ends in a mixed conifer forest, passing through four additional zones along the way: semi-desert grasslands, oak woodland/chaparral, pine-oak woodland and ponderosa pine forest. Take a look at the changing landscape as we ascended.
We did two things at the top – took a quick look at the southern-most downhill ski resort in the U.S.
With 200 acres and three ski lifts, it’s pretty small, and you can see from the photo above that there wasn’t much snow, at least at the base.
The second ‘to do’ item was to visit the Cookie Cabin in the nearby community of Summerhill for a fresh, plate-sized “Rachel” cookie (oats, coconut and butterscotch) served warm with vanilla ice cream. Yes, it tasted as good as it sounds.
We only stopped once on the drive back to town, to capture a lovely view just as the sky was starting to change color in the late afternoon.
Even in the cold, winter months, the drive from Tucson on the Mt. Lemmon Scenic Byway is well worth your time, but do watch the weather forecast and avoid snow days. Unless, of course, you’re headed to the ski area, where snow days with fresh powder are the best.
I’ll end this post with a few more photos from the Mt. Lemmon drive. And there’s more to come from our visit to the Tucson area!