Above: Historic view of the Organ Pipe Cactus in black and white. Right: Sunset in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Photos courtesy National Park Service.
Organ Pipe National Monument
It's on the battleground of a different type of history today, with its border with Mexico presenting both the narrative and some challenges. And yes, it has impacted visitation from its highs in the 400,000 visitors per year to today's mid 200,000, although to be fair that could always be the National Park Service propensity for some counting changes. In either case, while we acknowledge the challenges of the park's location, it doesn't take away from this one plain fact. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a hot and historic place to visit, and if you're in southern Arizona for some reason and want to see what hot history and hot nature looks like, there's not a whole lot better example than this.
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Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Then
This is an area replete with history, the most remarkable that of the Tohono O'odham (the Desert People) and Hia Ced O'odham of the Sonoran Desert. When Coronado arrived in 1540, expedition member Melichior Diaz was thought to be the first European to cross the region where the monument sits today. It would be Mexican territory, even after the Mexican American War, not ceded to the United States until the Gadsden Purchase in 1853. Mining had already begun prior to that, in the early 1850's with three mining districts established within that decade. The Victoria Mine Claim would be worked until the 1970's, well within the timeline of the park itself.
Ranching in the Park - There's thought that ranching in the area began back in Coronado's time, although the ranch sites, or their remains, that can be visited today represent the newer version, dating back to the early 1900's. Desert ranching was tough, with one square mile needed for every head of cattle. Within the monument land, there was one predominant family, the Grays, who ranched the acreage from 1919 forward. They lived in the Dos Lomitas Ranch House, but owned ranches throughout the monument land, many through acquisition. Line camps were established throughout, including Guchado, Alamo, and Poso Nuevo. The land was grazed through 1972, well past the 1937 date of the establishment of the park.
Photo above: Petroglyphs within the park. Courtesy National Park Service. Below: Ruins of the main house at Dos Lomitas Ranch. Courtesy National Park Service.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Now
In 1937, the National Park Service began its tenure as stewards of the Sonoran Desert landscape that calls Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument its home. Today you can see exhibits of that life and nature at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center, take a ranger guided tour, ply the backroads on a driving excursion, or hike, if you are able, the desert trails of the park. It's best to visit in the fall, winter, and spring, due to the stifling temperatures that summer can bring. The ranger oriented tours are winter oriented, January to March.
During other times of the year, there might be ranger programs as well as community events in the historic plaza of Ajo. Check the local calendar for any events during your time of stay.
We'd be remiss not to mention that the National Monument is the site of the border wall. Be aware of what that means, both for potential construction as well as border crossings. Also be aware, at all times, of the heat, and take the necessary precautions to have a safe trip.
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Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Things You Should Not Miss
1. If you're visiting in the winter, take one of the great ranger tours. The Ajo Mountain Van Tour is a three hour drive with a ranger. Only ten people per day and advance reservations are likely required. Another favorite are the evening programs at the Twin Peaks Campground amphitheater.
2. Stop by the Kris Eggle Visitor Center and take in the fifteen minute film about the park. It will get you oriented to the Sonoran Desert landscape and what's in store once you explore outside.
3. Take a drive. If you're not able to attend the Van Tour, you can explore the Ajo Mountain Drive on your own. It's twenty-one miles long. There's others as well; Puerto Blanco, Bates Well, Pozo Neuvo, and Camino de Los Republicas. Some are fine for regular vehicles, but others cross washes and require four wheel drive. Ask at the Visitor Center for the best excursion for your car and yourself.
Photo above: Arch Canyon. Courtesy National Park Service.
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