Sunday we decided we would take off on another road trip. This time our destination was Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. This trip would be another 600 mile round trip road trip. We packed the car with tent camping gear on Saturday evening so we would be ready to go first thing in the morning. Not only were we looking at a 5-6 hour ride, but we would be turning our clocks forward to mountain time. We were planning on camping at Twin Peaks campground right in the National Monument. They are a first come, first serve park. We had called ahead and the ranger said there should be room. The ride was easy east across the 10 and then south just before Phoenix, and all the way to the Mexico border. The landscape became much more vegetated as we drove south into the Sonoran Desert. I later read that this desert is nicknamed “the green desert” because of this vegetation. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument literally sits on the border with Mexico. In fact there are several places in the park where you can see the fence separating our two countries. The whole area is filled with border patrol and signs warning you to look out for illegal immigration and smuggling.
We arrived at the campground around 2pm. This is perhaps one of the nicest campgrounds I have ever been to. The first 1/2 is for RV’s and all of the sites are paved. They can accommodate a few 40 foot RVs but mostly 35 feet and under. The second 1/2 of the campground is split between RV sites that do not allow generator use and tent sites. The sites are well spaced with plenty of privacy and lots of desert vegetation. The sites have all kinds of cactuses and trees. We found a great campsite with a couple of palo verde trees for shade. The shade was a blessing since the temperature was predicted to be in the 90’s. The El Nino this year has caused February to be the 2nd hottest February on record for the Palm Springs area. We got set up in enough time to check out the visitors center and go for an sunset drive on the “Ajo Mountain Drive”. This is a 21 mile mostly dirt road that takes you through some of the most scenic spots in the park. The sunset was fantastic, casting beautiful shades of yellow, orange, pink and purple on the mountains and cactuses.
We got back to the campground just as the sun was fully going down and ended up cooking supper in the dark. We had a propane lantern and headlamps which worked to light up the area but also attracted the most moths I have ever seen. I am pretty sure John and I ate quite a few of these moths with our meal. Once dinner was over we turned out the lights, the moths flew off and we sat back and enjoyed watching the stars come out. It was truly amazing how many stars you can see out in the dark desert sky. I think we sat there 2-hours before calling it a night. Unfortunately we missed the ranger talk that night at the campground (we hadn’t read the program schedule yet). It was a talk about the night sky and what you could see. Of course the only night they don’t do talks is on Mondays, so we didn’t get to attend one of these.
The next morning we were up early to enjoy the sunrise. The wide open sky at night allows for radiational cooling and the overnight temps dipped into the low 50’s. We were thankful we had brought along our “propane fire pit” to take the edge off the coolness as we sat with coffee and enjoyed the sun coming up and watching the birds playing in all the vegetation.
The heat had caused most of our ice to melt and we were told there was a small town right on the border where we might be able to get some more. We drove the 5 miles to Lukesville which is literally at the border crossing. We filled up on gas for $1.99/gallon and got a 10 pound bag of ice for $1.79, I thought this was a bargain since there was nothing else around. The border crossing was busy and we watched as several RV’s left the US for Mexico, not something I would do!
The plan for the day was to drive the 2-way sections of the Puerto Blanco Drive (the one way sections are for high clearance vehicles) and then to redo the Ajo Mountain Drive. The Puerto Blanco drive was OK, but not nearly as scenic as the Ajo Mountain Drive. The South section of the Puerto Blanco drive borders Mexico and there are several hiking routes off of this road. We were not planning on hiking. The main reason was because of the 90+ degree heat, the other was because dogs are not allowed on the trails. I would not take Gizmo on these trails even if they were allowed as there are too many creepy crawly things (snakes, scorpions…) and prickly things.
We spent the bulk of our day back on the Ajo Mountain Drive. The visitors center gave us two brochures, the Ajo Mountain Drive guide and The Desert Ranger Guide. The Ajo Mountain Drive Guide lists 18 marked spots on the drive and tells you about the vegetation, and history of the park. The Desert Ranger Guide (for not so junior rangers) has a section about finding cristates and arches. I did not even know what a cristate was before this trip. A cristate (or crest) is an abnormal growth pattern on a cactus. We had a blast with this guide. It is a challenge to locate some of these and binoculars are required for some. It took us about 3-4 hours to complete this drive on the 2nd day. This included time for stop at one of the picnic areas along the way. I could spend days driving through the Sonoran Desert just looking at the saguaro cactuses. They are all different, and I swear some of them look like they could come to life.
We made sure to return to the campground earlier this day. We wanted to cook supper before dark, and we wanted to get a shower in. The campground has 3 bathrooms with solar showers. We wanted to get to one of these after the sun had heated up the water and before the warm water was gone. This was a good plan. The water was plenty warm and with pretty good pressure. I was very pleased to get a free shower in a national park campground. This is not the norm. I would definitely return to this campground again. I would even consider bringing the RV along. There are no hook ups but there is a location to get fresh water and to dump. This is the kind of place where you could spend the day relaxing in the shade, reading a book and watching the birds play.
The park is one I would return to as well. We have found that the national monuments in our national park system have been some of the highlights on our trip. I hope no one overlooks these gems as they go to see the national parks, some of these monuments are better than some of the national parks I have been to.