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Deborah Wall: Organ Pipe Cactus park in Arizona embodies diversity of Sonoran Desert

A visit to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, on the U.S.-Mexico border about two hours from Phoenix or Tucson, requires some effort. The payoff, in addition to seeing unusual cactuses, is the natural beauty of the Sonoran Desert.

The Sonoran is quite different from Southen Nevada’s Mojave Desert and boasts a wider variety of plant life than any other desert in the world. At Organ Pipe, that desert is beautifully spread over a landscape of alluvial basins and mountains that range from 981 feet to 4,800 feet. Habitats include desert, woodlands/chaparral and riparian.

One of the best ways to see the diversity of the park is to take one of the two main scenic drives, both mostly along well-maintained gravel roads and suitable for passenger cars. Ajo Mountain Drive is 21 miles and Puerto Blanco Drive is 37 miles, both offering sweeping views and access to hiking trails. Park personnel recommend allowing a minimum of two and three hours, respectively, and even more time if it is wildflower season.

That season lasts from February through April. Even though Mother Nature doesn’t present a great show of color every year, something will be blooming, especially on hillsides or in washes. Flowers you might see include Mexican gold poppy, blue lupine, white Ajo lily, pink owl’s clover and orange globe mallow.

There are miles of diverse hiking trails starting from the scenic drives and campgrounds. If you are short on time, at the very minimum take the 250-yard nature trail behind the visitor center, where you will see a representational variety of the park’s flora. This trail is flat and good for just about anyone in your group, even those using wheelchairs or electric scooters.

Within the park are 28 species of cactus, including its namesake, the organ pipe, rarely seen in the United States. Though they can be seen thriving in Mexico, this park offers the best growing conditions in the U.S. Found most often on rocky, south-facing slopes, the organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi) can live more than 150 years and grow as tall as 20 feet. Its creamy colored flowers appear in May and June, and only at night, closing up before mid-morning. Pollination is mostly done by lesser long-nosed bats. The cactus fruit ripens, then splits open and falls to the ground, where seedlings may get their start.

White-tailed and mule deer live here, as do desert bighorn sheep, javelinas, mountain lions and Sonoran pronghorns. More than 270 bird species have been identified in the park, 36 of which are full-time residents, including the ferruginous pygmy owl, gilded flicker, crested caracara and vermilion flycatcher. The park is also a biosphere reserve, designated in 1976 by the United Nations, protecting the resources of the Sonoran Desert ecosystem.

There is limited lodging within an hour of the park, so camping is a good option. The Twin Peaks Campground is open year-round, and more than 200 campsites are available on a first-come, first-served basis, at $16 per night. The campground has water, showers, restrooms, grills, tables and a dump station for RVs, but no hookups. Fires are allowed in grills only. Alamo Canyon Campground has only four sites and is open to tent, car or van camping only, on a first-come, first-served basis. It is more primitive but costs only $10 per night.

The park is open 24 hours a day, and its Kris Eggle Visitor Center — named for a park ranger who was fatally shot in 2002 while pursuing Mexican drug cartel members in the monument — is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m daily. Ranger programs usually are offered daily through March.

One caveat: Because of the park’s location on the border, illegal activities, such as the smuggling of drugs and humans, sometimes occur here. Although there is a strong presence of Border Patrol in the area surrounding the park, some personal precautions are in order. Hike only during the day, on established trails only and never alone.

For more information, visit nps.gov/orpi or call 520-387-6849, Ext. 7302.

Deborah Wall is the author of “Great Hikes, A Cerca Country Guide” and “Base Camp Las Vegas: Hiking the Southwestern States,” published by Stephens Press. She can be reached at deborabus@aol.com.

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