Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Ajo and the Desert Rain Cafe

March 9 – 17, 2019

Visitor Center

We spent a week dry camping at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it. We hadn’t either until we pulled up the National Park properties in Arizona and there it was. Arizona has a LOT of National Park properties and we plan to hit as many as we can while we wait for the snow to stop slamming everything north of us. Actually, let me correct that. We plan to hit the ones in the southern regions because the ones up north are buried in snow.

You hit the National Park sign looooong before you hit the visitor center and campground. This is because most of the organ pipe cactus plants are located closer to the border. We were amused as we finally pulled into the parking lot. Our phones lit up with a message from Verizon “Welcome to Mexico.” We weren’t in Mexico. The park visitor center is about 5 miles from the border but apparently the cell phone tower we were getting our signal from IS in Mexico. Our plan covers Canada and Mexico so we don’t have to worry about extra fees but it was still amusing to have our phone try to tell us where we were… and fail. It is also interesting that we had good signal and we were far from everything… except Mexico. A fellow hiker said they have towers everywhere in Mexico and you get better signal there than here. Hmmm.

But, once again, I digress… We LOVE Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (OPCNM). The campground is beautiful, with level, paved sites and lots of vegetation between the sites.

Our desert home

There are beautiful mountains and lots of critters as well as miles and miles of “green desert” which is the nickname for the Sonoran Desert. The Sonora gets just about the maximum amount of precipitation that it can get before it becomes not desert (if that makes sense). They’ve had about twice their usual rainfall so far this year. We had almost two days of steady rain while we were there. That was actually good for us since it forced us to sit inside and catch up on the blog. We came here thinking we would only have a day or two of activities then would blog to fill the time. Not so. If it hadn’t rained, we would have played the whole week.

But the rain helped us learn an interesting fact: CACTI HAVE A DRINKING PROBLEM!!!! They can’t control themselves. If there is water, they suck it up. They will drink and drink and drink until they literally split at the seams. They don’t know how to stop drinking. The big guys (columnar cacti) will drink until they become SO weighed down with water that they fall over and die! We saw some FAT cactus when we were there. Now, the ones that bulged out and split their seams will simply scab over and go on their way but the ones that pulled up their shallow roots and fell over will die. Some of these cacti are over 200 years old and they died due to excessive drinking. See, that’s a drinking problem. It was only water but too much of a good thing CAN hurt you.

Fishhook Barrel Cactus (top left),  Chain Fruit Cholla (top right),
Organ Pipe Cactus (bottom left), Saguaro Cactus (disguised as a Minion) (bottom right)

That picture of the Fishhook Barrel Cactus was paid for with pain. When John bent over to focus the shot, a piece of Cholla (aka jumping cholla) attached itself to the back of his thigh. I tried to carefully pull it out of his pants and skin. It broke apart leaving part in MY pants and skin as well as my hand. I told John he was on his own for any further cactus “incidents”. Rangers told us to carry a “cactus comb”. This is ANY comb that you keep in a pocket. When the cactus attaches to you, you flick them off and away with your handy comb. Just make sure nobody is in your cactus landing zone.

The park has multiple ranger programs every day. We hit quite a few and they were all terrific. Each ranger talked from experience and their passion and enthusiasm showed. We learned all kinds of neat things like:

  • Tepary beans have one of the highest protein levels among legumes and they are drought resistant.
  • Mesquite is a legume. The beans can be ground to make a type of flour (we ate some)
  • Packrats are nasty little buggers and can shoot their concentrated pee on you if you pick them up (they also like to build nests under vehicle hoods so the campground looks like a derelict car lot with all the hoods up)
  • Lots of lizards and snakes are found in the park and we learned their characteristics and how to identify many of them (too many were poisonous for us to look at live ones but the ranger passed around frozen dead road killed specimens). Her favorite lines were, “If you get bitten by one you’re going to have a bad day” and “If you don’t get to a hospital in 6 to 8 hours you’re gonna’ die.” By the way, the nearest hospital where you can get anti-venom is in Tucson or Phoenix. The park doesn’t stock it because it goes bad quickly and they would need to keep many types on hand.
  • Sidewinders hide in the gravel in the washes waiting for prey (we found ourselves watching our feet a lot)
  • If you are a Ranger and have volunteered to capture and handle seriously poisonous snakes, it is best NOT to send your mom pictures of yourself with a huge grin on your face and a large rattlesnake in your hands (with a snake tube over its upper body so it couldn’t bite)
  • Desert pupfish can survive in an environment that would be hostile to many other fish (Yes, there are fish in the desert – see pics below.)
  • Bats LOVE cactus nectar and will shove their whole bodies down into the saguaro flowers to get to it. Their fuzzy little bodies come out glistening with yellow fairy dust, I mean saguaro pollen, which they inadvertently use to pollinate the next flower they visit.
  • Potatoes are in the nightshade family because they have fruit similar to tomatoes with lots of seeds around the center (Say WHAT? – Yeah that one got us too because we all eat the root of the potato plant, not the fruit – we have no clue what potato plant flowers and fruit look like).
  • Resource Management in the park includes setting traps for snakes and lizards and bats and such, capturing them, taking their “stats”, marking them for future identification then releasing them. It also includes “cactus hunts” for a rare, endangered cactus that is really small so the interns spend hours bent over examining every inch of their territory to find them. Interns get all the best jobs!
  • Pollinators are everywhere but they are in trouble. Fewer pollinators, less plant germination, fewer plants, less food, more hungry people. Besides, bugs are cool.
  • The arms of the Saguaro cactus “droop” if they get too cold. As the ranger explained it: arms up, happy saguaro; arms down, cold saguaro. As long as those arms aren’t too badly damaged, they will continue to grow and the tip will start to angle back up to the sun.

The ranger programs and hiker shuttles were free but we paid $5.00 each for a 3-4 hour ranger led van tour along Ajo Mountain Drive. It was EXCELLENT! We were lucky to jump into a cancellation spot as these tours fill up a week in advance. If you are on your way to the monument, be sure to call ahead to reserve a spot. The rest of the days we were there we hiked, hung out, toured the visitor center, hiked some more, took two morning hiker shuttles to get dropped off so we could hike even more but from farther away. All in all, we had an excellent time AND got caught up on the blog. When we booked a full week here, we thought “Well, there won’t be much to do so we can get our blogging done because we’ll be stuck in place far from anything.” We only got our blogging done because it rained for two days and we typed our fingers off during that time. The rest of the time we played and there was enough cool stuff to learn and do that we could have played right through those other two days as well.


  • Our two toughest hikes were in the Senita Basin. The park offers a free scheduled shuttle to the trailheads. All you have to do is register but space is limited and they do fill up. The “Red Tanks” trailhead (6.7 miles) started a few miles from the visitor center along North Puerto Blanco Drive, an alternately paved and dirt road. The tinajas don’t look too impressive but they are literally life savers for the desert animals in search of water.

    The “Senita Basin” trailhead (5.2 miles including a detour to the Victoria Mine) took a bit longer to get to. We travelled from the visitor center about 4½ miles south on Route 85, turned right onto South Puerto Blanco Drive, then right again onto a dirt road. The trailhead was four miles down that road. Both days started out chilly and windy so we had to wear our heavier jackets. But the sun was out and it didn’t take long to warm up enough that we had to shed our coats.

Panoramic view of Senita Basin

Red Tanks Tinajas

Ruins at Victoria Mine

  • Our easy hike was the Palo Verde Trail that led from the campground to the visitor center (2.6 miles roundtrip). It was on this trail that we spotted a cactus wren building his nest in a chain fruit cholla. He looked over and was aware of us but went on about his business. We learned at another park that the male builds several nests in his territory. He courts a female and she picks a nest. After she has laid and hatched her eggs, the male takes over their care and she picks another of his nests and lays eggs again. That’s darned efficient.

Cactus Wren

Cactus Wren nest in Chain Fruit Cholla

  • One short but scenic hike was the Desert View Nature Trail (1.2 miles) whose trailhead was at the group campground, an easy walk from the family campground. We spotted two lizards, one biting the tail of the other who did not appear to be enjoying it. When the “bitee” ran from us, it dragged the other one behind, still clamped on. We later learned from a ranger that these two lizards were “dating”.

Two lizards a courtin’

  • There is also a one mile campground loop that we walked a few times just to stretch our legs.

We drove to the end of South Puerto Blanco Drive to Quitobaquito, a manmade pond where several endangered species live.

Quitobaquito Pond

The rutted, washboard dirt road follows the border with Mexico. The only thing separating “us” from “them” was a vehicle barrier. At Quitobaquito we managed to spot two endangered mud turtles hiding in the muck.

Endangered mud turtle at Quitobaquito

We didn’t see any endangered pupfish in the pond but saw hundreds of them in the concrete “spillway” collecting water from the natural springs and bringing it to the pond. We were told that during the right season, baby turtles can be found in the spillway also.

Endangered pupfish in spillway leading to Quitobaquito Pond

We also saw something else that was unexpected: a solitary grave. Jose Lorenzo Sestier, from Brest, France, died and was buried here in 1900. He has not been forgotten because there were many tokens left at the gravesite such as small rocks, a bracelet, and coins.

The one thing this desert wasn’t was hot. It was cold, blustery, rainy, and sunny – not all at the same time. It got cold enough at night that we had to kick on our heat a few times in the morning to thaw ourselves out. The sun was strong so we seldom felt cold during the day but it was nippy in the morning and as soon as the sun went down at night.

We took one day trip out of the monument – to Ajo. This was a mining town but the mines shut down over 35 years ago. Route 85 runs straight through Ajo but most people just blow on through. We recommend you stop and enjoy what Ajo has to offer. The town lets the high school students paint some of the walls in the town. Some of the paintings are quite good and the words heartfelt and elegant.

Ajo wall art

Ajo also has a beautiful plaza. The day we went they had a dozen or so vendors selling their wares.

Ajo Plaza

Desert Rain Café – this simple restaurant is in Ajo and was recommended by someone at the park because they use many native foods in their cooking… and it’s GOOD! We enjoyed their Desert Rain Sampler which had three dips: Desert Hummus, Cholla Pico de Gallo, and Tepary Bean Dip. We enjoyed it so much that we ordered another sampler to go so we could have it for dinner. John had an excellent Chicken Sandwich made topped with a prickly pear and chile sauce and Holly, sadly, had a really good hamburger. It’s sad because she wanted the Desert Rain Quesadilla but knew she wouldn’t be able to handle the onions that were already mixed in… but not so sad either because it was a really good burger.

John & Holly

This entry was posted in Campgrounds, Hiking, National Park, Nature Notes, Restaurants, Scenic Drives, Science and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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