You got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there.
Wednesday, February 25, 2015: Up early to clear sunny skies and warm temperatures. After a leisurely breakfast and some time on the computers, Kit and I are back on the road heading easterly. Not sure where we are going today or where we will stay the night…..normally we would head straight into Tucson and visit Dewey and Bea but they are still on an RV adventure of their own. So a quick discussion and vote amongst the members of the Bill and Kit Adventure Team brought a unanimous decision to visit organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (OPCNM).
Pulling onto I-8 we drove east for a few hours until we left the boring ribbon of asphalt and headed south toward the tiny town of Ajo by way of US-85.
But, alas…..the long lonely stretch of desert two-lane was just way too exciting for Kit.
If you’ll notice her reflection in the truck window, that book she is holding is a US Atlas. Kit refers to it frequently in order to tell me where to go……which is surprising to me as I didn’t know Hades was even listed in a US Atlas?!?!
Just as Kit was coming back to life we entered the National Monument and she informed me that there was a stop sign ahead at the park gate.
Good thing she woke up…..I might have run that poor US Park Ranger plum over!
Our first stop was at the nicely maintained and managed Visitors Center where we enjoyed a short film on the area, picked up some maps and information, then toured the museum where I found the home of one of my childhood pets.
Yep, when I was younger, my Uncle Dewey visited us and brought me a Desert Tortoise from his home state of Arizona. Back in those days there were not that many unusual pets in our San Diego neighborhood, so a turtle was the height of cooldum! Unfortunately, Speedy Gonzales, as I named him, was speedier than I thought and he wandered away from my backyard never to be seen again.
Leaving the visitors center and pulling into the sparsely populated campground, we were able to select a very nice site with incredible views.
Kit and I have known about Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument for years, but it never seemed to be worth the detour to visit…..boy, were we wrong!
This incredible park is named after the unique cactus that populates the Sonoran Desert in extreme Southern Arizona.
Being at the northern range of its region, this is the only place in America where the Organ Pipe Cactus grows naturally. The unusual name was given by early settlers because they thought the branches resembled the pipes of a church organ. They were a pious bunch since almost everything here could hurt them badly, including the native folks that had been peacefully living on this harsh land for decades. Speaking of which, the Tohono O’odham call this succulent, “Pitaya Dulce”…..a much more melodic word than Organ Pipe!
The land for OPCNM was donated by the Arizona state legislature to the federal government during prohibition. The wily desert politician’s knew that the feds would improve the only road into the area which would then make contraband alcohol easier to import from Mexico.
Kit and I had originally planned to just stay the night, but the area intrigued us. It is so serene and peaceful here we decided to extended our visit.
Thursday, February 26 through Saturday, February 28, 2015: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (OPCNM): The campground is large and very well designed…..there are many sites that provide privacy and nice views. Since there are no hookups, we are totally dependent on our camper systems for water, electricity and waste water. This will mark our first experience dry camping with the new camper.
One device we’ve acquired since last year is an external battery pack that is capable of charging a depleted cell phone battery up to five times.
You may remember last year in the piney woods of Flagstaff, Arizona I was using my iPhone as a Geocache GPS and the battery wore down before I could ascertain my way back to the campsite? Fortunately a Good Samaritan happened along with a functioning GPS and set me on the right course. I vowed to never let that happen again!
A pleasant surprise awaited Kit and I as we took a walk around the neighborhood. After many month of seeing many RV’s from many other states but Maine…..we happen to be camped right next door to a couple from our home state!
Tom and Sharon are Yarmouth residents but active in Brunswick town doings. Tom, a retired Bowdoin College professor, is very involved in the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust and owns a farm that raises the unique Katahdin Sheep. Tom and Sharon are knowledgeable on many topics…..it was very enjoyable to meet them and hear about their lives.
If one thinks that the desert southwest is devoid of color…..one would be wrong. During the spring rains and warm temperatures, many species of flowers, shrubbery (no Monty Python intended), and cacti exhibit their finest……such as this flowering Jojoba
Even the ubiquitous Saguaro Cactus gets in the act with the spring growth at its head displaying a reddish hue.
And, not to be outdone, the colorfully (no pun intended) named Pink Featherduster gets into the act!
Even the soft green flesh and ivory colored spines of the Cholla possess a beauty all their own.
And as a punctuation point, Mother Nature frequently provides a colorful display each evening.
So, what’s the difference between a National Park and a National Monument? Actually, very little as they are both managed by the National Park Service and have the same basic charter. However, National Parks can only be created by an act of congress whereas the US President can designate an area for protection by declaring it a National Monument. I’m guessing, due to the dysfunctional nature of the US Congress, we may never see another National Park created again.
OPCNM features a number of “jeep trails” that allow the visitor to reach the far corner of the park with suitably equipped vehicles. Anxious to test the new truck on some of these unimproved roads, Kit and I set off.
The 21 mile Ajo Mountain Loop took us deep into the desert and across many dry creek beds known as arroyo, or washes……these vulnerable crossings were hardened with concrete to prevent excessive erosion.
During spring rains and summer monsoons, the natural swales in desert terrain fill rapidly with runoff from the mountains. Many times during wet weather the entire roadway in these areas will be under a few feet of water!
The road led to many interesting features including this natural bridge made by the forces of nature on the softer underlying strata.
Other than a few washboards, and the occasional rut, the Ajo Mountain loop trail was easy to drive……even for a big one-ton truck!
However, Kit and I came across these folks who were doing the trip under their own power.
Jeff and Ann are from the tiny town of Yellow Pine, Idaho. They travel in a small class B motorhome and use their very capable mountain bikes for alternative transportation. Jeff is a retired ranger from the US Forest Service and Ann a former nurse….in addition she was a multiyear National Champion in the unique sport of Supermoto, which is motorcycle racing on pavement and dirt.
There are many hiking trails that crisscross the 517 square miles of the monument, most lead to an area of historical significance or to ruins from earlier inhabitants. Early one morning, I set off on the Victoria Mine Trail into the foothills of the Puerto Blanco Mountains.
The well-marked hiking path meandered through the cool early morning desert and crossed many dry washes along the way.
The hike affords an opportunity to immerse oneself into the desert environment. However, getting up close and personal to the iconic Saguaro Cactus is a bit intimidating!
These giants of the desert can reach seventy feet in height and 150 years of age! The Saguaro’s image is frequently used as a symbol of the southwest, even though the cactus only grows natively in a relatively small region of Arizona and California. Historically, the native peoples of the Sonoran Desert used many parts of the Saguaro Cactus…..however this threatened cactus is now protected by Arizona and California State Law.
Also growing in profusion on the Sonoran Desert is the Ocotillo, which is not a cactus but a spiny bush.
For much of the year, the Ocotillo appears to have died off…..however during the wet season the spindly branches of the plant sprouts bright green leaves tipped by brilliant red-orange blossoms.
The Ocotillo plant reaches skyward and sways in the warm desert breeze while waiting for hummingbirds to perpetuate the plants survival. Early settlers used the stalks of the Ocotillo as fencing where they often took root forming a living structure.
As a youngster visiting the desert southwest I was intrigued by the Cholla.
For two reasons, actually…..one is that I was always told by my Uncle Dewey, the original “Desert Rat”, that the cactus was called Jumping Cholla and that I needed to steer clear. The second being that I loved to harvest the “bones” of dead Cholla because I thought they looked so cool.
I still have some examples of Cholla Bones in my woodshop back home! Not sure I’ll ever do anything with them but they are fun to have around.
Many birds that migrate here for the winter (the original snowbirds) make their nest in the protective arms of cactus.
It is a rare predator that would go after a meal protected by the cactus.
At the trail intersection that led to Victoria Mine I came upon this unsettling image.
Looking about, I was the only gringo for miles. Reaching for my cell phone showed low signal strength with a message that read…..“Welcome to Mexico! International calling fees will apply, please contact Verizon for additional information or to modify your plan”. Fortunately I was only a quarter mile from the mine so I decided to “keep calm and hike on”. In about fifteen minutes I came to the Victoria Mine site.
The prospectors that claimed this area were looking for Copper, Silver and Gold in the ancient granite hills.
The stone cottage that housed the miner and his family was a great place to relax and enjoy a trail snack before heading back to camp.
The builders were diligent about sighting their home to maximize heating and cooling while enjoying some incredible views.
The hike back to the campground was uneventful as I retraced my steps. I did see a number of hikers heading up the trail however…..my getting an early start was beneficial as I had the trail to myself for most of the morning!
In addition to hiking, Organ Pipe is a great biking venue as well. However none of the trails were open to bicycles so I had to stay on the park roads.
Most of the roads off the main park drive were lightly travelled and the rolling hillside made for a fun afternoon bike ride.
While out and about on my bike, I came across this sign that, for some reason, I could relate too.
Um…..not sure just why?
The southern border of OPCNM is, well…..the border. An agreement of reciprocity amongst the US and Mexican critters affords them free and unencumbered travel back and forth across this heavily patrolled area.
Where most of the International Border is blocked by a 21 foot high steel fence, the border along Organ Pipe’s southern flank is nothing more than a vehicle barrier.
The trucks you see in the background are on Mexico Highway 2…..a major east-west thoroughfare. Also in the photo is El Pinacate………..the sister park of OPCNM. The US and Mexican park service work across political boundaries to monitor wildlife migration and control the impact of humans in both parks.
There is a road on the US side as well…..The South Puerto Blanco Drive that we took to see what there was to see.
As it turned out…..not much, the only thing we saw were scads of Border Patrol folks hiding in the bushes.
Apparently, Kit and I didn’t match the profile of a Mexican Cartel gang member so they just gave us a casual glance as we rumbled by.
The final evening in OPCNM we were treated to a spectacular display of the setting sun illuminating the distant mountains…
…as Kit and I took one last stroll around the campground.
Well, tomorrow we continue our trip easterly. What awaits our bungling sojourner’s? Stay tuned!
Kit’s Bit’s: Much to my surprise, I thoroughly enjoyed our stay at Organ Pipe! Bill had talked about it for years and I couldn’t imagine I would have any interest in it. So glad we took the time to check it out and I would love to go back again. Talking about the Cholla cactus, many years ago, while visiting with Nana and Uncle Dewey, we all took a walk in the desert and lo and behold, Kimber was attacked by a jumping cactus! Naturally, at about 9 years old, she was frightened. Nana got all the stickers out of her pants and calmed her down. I think she still remembers this incident. Also, we still have in our cellar specimens of Cholla bones. We used to encourage the kids to take them for “show and tell” at school. When they were younger, they would but, as they got a little older, they said “no way”! In addition, we have some bleached cow bones, which were found by Bill many years ago in the desert. These made their rounds at “show and tell” too. Bill has such a knack for picking up the sweetest things to share with us. First, it was the desert tortoise, which I thought was a bouquet of flowers, then all these bones. All my hints about flowers and See’s Candies fell on deaf ears! What can I say, ya gotta love his high style!