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Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
March 9-11, 2001
by Mike Wargel
Organ Pipe Cactus

This trip should be subtitled “The trip that almost wasn’t” as just days before, the best weather forecast called for mostly cloudy and 30% chance of rain. Several folks were ’on the fence’ about camping in the rain, especially with children. Even I would rather spend the afternoon at home than camping in a desert rain. However, just hours before the end of the day on Thursday 3/8, the forecasts all changed to partly cloudy and we decided to go for it.

On Friday 3/9, Glenn Kappel, Chuck Parsons, Angie Lien, Tom and Jeannie Van Lew, myself, Steve Shaw and his dog Julia, Tim & Cathy Faust and their son Jonathan, Kenn Wright and Kim Gibson with Allie and Andrew, headed out down the highway. As we approached Gila Bend for one last gas and pit stop, the clouds to the south did not look promising. Grey skies with occasional bursts of sunlight. Leaving Gila Bend, I found my cell phone still worked in Digital mode and found it was sprinkling in Ahwatukee. Great.

Heading down highway 85, the skies were gray, even as we pulled into the National Monument around noon. A line of cars waiting to check in at the campground, each of us were able to get a site. Thanks to the patience of the campground managers and the efforts of those at the head of the line. Through some negotiation, we managed to get 6 sites within the same area! Not bad considering this time of year the campground fills up. We all got settled into our sites and began eating lunch and enjoying a bit of peace and quiet as the sun made its way out and cleared the skies for the remainder of the day! Out came the sunglasses, put the sweatshirts away! Glad we decided to head down after all! Sunny skies and highs in the low 70s (although it felt a bit warmer in the sun).

Tom and Jeannie and a few others decided to head to the visitor center and get some documentation on the trails, maps, etc. Most of us hung out, enjoying the sunshine. Each site had their own table and we had no more than two vehicles to a site. In between each site were examples of the desert landscape, helping to make you feel as though you were camping in the desert. Upon their return, we decided to walk the loop path around the campground. Lots of great examples of Organ Pipe cactus (of course), several large saguaros, cholla, prickly pear, palo verde. As you approach the south end of the campground, you can easily see the mountains in Mexico and the town Lukeville. In between, several large saguaros, more prickly pear, and organ pipe scattered across the open desert floor. To the east, the majestic Ajo mountains. To the north several large hills and a small valley in which were the group campsites. To the west, several rolling hills and a short mountain range. To the south, wide open Sonoran desert into Mexico.

Late afternoon sun paints the saguaro forest.

The walk took only about 30 minutes. We headed back to our sites. A short time later, Joe Orman (and daughters Kelly and Heather) arrived. We decided to take the loop hike around the group sites. A short walk from the main campground, this loop is scenic with signs indicating the different types of plants and their uses in the area. The hills were covered in organ pipe, most were filled and lush as you look up the hills. Several saguaros and cholla were easily spotted. As we followed the loop to the west, we stopped to catch a very nice sunset. Several photographers in the group setup tripods to catch the Sonoran sunset. the trail has a bench to sit and enjoy the sunset from. Along this part of the trail, more cholla and saguaros lined the trail. At this point, Rudy and his friend caught up to us. They were walking the opposite direction on the loop and were heading back to catch a ranger show. Chuck, Steve, and I stuck around until just after sunset, hoping to catch the moonrise. A few other visitors were sitting on another bench, waiting for the moonrise.

Getting dark and no flashlights, we decided to head back. Chuck and I followed the loop trail around the campground to the east edge to catch the moonrise through the arms of a nice organ pipe cactus. Along the way a bit of drama was played out over the radios. Seems Joe’s daughters and Allie had wandered off on their own and became disoriented. They were later found in a nearby campsite and safely walked back to our area, to the relief of the parents. Kids will be kids, but they at least had a radio with them.

Nice grill dinner and hanging out at one of the campsites. Later that evening, Jeannie’s sister Julie and husband Dan Jacobson arrived in their RV. They joined us at dinner. A few stayed up late chatting about topics of the day. All the while the clear skies allowed us to view many stars and planets with the full moonrise to the east. Not to be outdone, the INS and border patrol to the south patrolling the borders. Busy time of year with the cooler temps. Just as we were set to retire, Loyd Cook and Mary Gessay arrived, having gotten a late start.

Arch Canyon.

Saturday morning, we awoke, had our breakfasts before heading out to the Visitor Center and a day drive. The Visitor Center has a must see 15 minute slide show that talks about the area and is narrated by two Tohono ’Odham natives. We then headed across the highway to the Ajo Loop Drive. This is a 21 mile graded, partially paved, road that winds its way through fields of saguaro and organ pipe. We stopped briefly at Diablo Wash for a great view back down the road and between the two hills we were about to drive through. The photogs were working overtime here! The Drive continues to the north and east (one way route) to the base of the Ajo Mountains and an arch in Arch canyon.

720 ft above the road, the arch is 36 feet high, 90 feet wide. A sign advises not to hike up as the soil is loose and ’unstable’. We continued on through Estes canyon were many others had stopped to enjoy day hikes through Estes canyon and Bull Pasture. As we headed back South and West, we stopped at points along the way (for the photogs) to view the beautiful cactus, blooming brittlebush, bladder pods, and Mt. Ajo (all of 4,808 ft above sea-level). Joe pointed out (in an older version of the loop drive guide book) a malformed organ pipe cactus. Several stopped to take shots of the organ pipe before catching up to the group at the campsites.

Crested Saguaro
As luck would have it, the clouds rolled in heavy and gray that afternoon. Huddled around the RV in our jackets and sweaters, rain started coming down. We headed inside as the rain came down in a heavy sprinkle for about 20 minutes (just long enough to roll up the awning of course). Within an hour, the sun was back out and not a cloud to be found.

Being the “hiking club” we decided to hike to the old Victoria Mine. 2.25 miles through desert washes and Arroyos, the trail starts at the edge of the campground. The skies turned grey but didn’t look like rain. Open desert floor, the trail winds along and dips into the washes (at least 4 and arroyos) and in between several ocotillo pairs. The trail makes a tee at 2 miles. We turned left following the tail (a jeep road at this point) to the long abandoned gold and silver mine. All that remain are several large holes (some fenced, some boarded) and the walls of what used to be a store. The curious amongst us walked through, peering into the holes, making sure none of the kids fell in, etc.

There is a sign that tells the story of the mine and how in the 1960s all claims were null and voided to mining in the new monument. The story of the mine goes as follows (From the Explorer’s Guide):

Victoria Mine is one of the oldest historic sites on the monument It had been a working mine even before Cipriano Ortega mined silver there in the 1880s. In 1899, Mikul Levy began mining there and eventually built a small store and several other buildings. He named it the Victoria Mine after the wife of Jose Leon, his storekeeper. After approximately 100 years of operation, the mine’s final production value was about $125,000.

Chuck, Joe and I tailed behind the main group shooting pix of the cacti, including what looked almost like a cacti ’graveyard’ in one wash. As we neared the campground, the skies cleared up just in time for a nice sunset. We managed to picture a cholla silhouetted by the setting sun, and a giant saguaro lit up nicely with the now passing grey clouds to the east.

Dinner was a potluck barbecue with more food than most of us knew what to do with. Specialty items included brownies, deviled eggs, and peach cobbler with whipped cream. Who says we don’t camp in style? Another night of clear skies and temps in the 40s lulled us to sleep after a busy, but fun day.

The drive home on Sunday was gray and gloomy, just as it was when we headed into the park. Other than rain for a brief period on Saturday afternoon and late in the evening on Friday, the skies were clear and sunny. Almost like a brief window of opportunity between heavy gray clouds in Phoenix. Hopefully next time there will be even more wildflowers and full and more cacti to greet us.

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updated March 31, 2020