The forecast for today called for light, scattered rain, and so we thought road trip would be good to do. We checked the forecast for Organ Pipe National Monument, and it was a bit better forecast, but still for light scattered rain. It’s a 2.5 hr drive there from Tucson so we quickly packed a lunch and got on the road.
Hwy 86 takes you west to the park, and it’s almost entirely a straight road, through a reservation, with a few curves and even fewer people and towns. A lot of nothing except land with scrubby grasses, bushes and of course cacti! Not too far out of Tucson, however, we saw some pretty menacing clouds form and we were a bit concerned when we started passing signs that said “Flash Flood Danger, next 10 miles”. However the heavens did not open fully, just a bit, and we made it safely to the park. We were treated to many views of large fields of saguaro cacti, all varying heights, shapes and degree of health, along the way.
This park is just miles from the Mexican border, and the signs about illegal immigration, and the honorary plaque for park rangers killed in the line of duty in gunfights with people trying to cross the border, was a bit sobering.
On the advice of the Visitor Center staff, we decided to drive the scenic Ajo Mountain drive, a 34 km road winding up and down through the Ajo Range foothills, and through some stunning desert landscapes and stands of many different types of cacti. As we stopped at each information point, the accompanying information booklet gave us tons of information about the plants, animals and how people lived in these parts.
The park is named for the organ pipe cactus, rarely found north of the US-Mexico border, but has adapted to this ecosystem. They favour south-facing slopes to soak up the warmth of the sun and are kept from freezing during the night by the warmth of the surrounding rock. They flower in June/July so we did not see any flowers (just too darn cold right now!). But we learned that they flower only at night, closing during the day to preserve moisture, which was a fascinating tidbit of information.
Even though there was a lot of cloud cover and a bit of spitting rain, the views were spectacular, and being up close and personal with so many different types of cacti, was really interesting. The mountains towering above us created a beautiful backdrop as well. Once we gained some altitude, we had some very expansive views. The various shades of green of the grasses, shrubs and cacti contrasted against the mountain sides and darker clouds made it very memorable for us.
By the time we were about 2/3 along the drive, it had stopped raining and we got out for a short 2.5 km walk along the base of the mountains, up a valley. Towering cliffs with caves and arches were spectacular, and the many different plants were fun to see. We loved the walk, especially since it was not raining! See some of the great pictures in this video.
Every part of the drive had beautiful vistas and the weather improved as the afternoon went on. We did another short walk from the campground and it was almost like walking through a desert garden. We gained a bit of altitude so we had some expansive views, even into Mexico.
We loved the day and the experiences we had, and what we learned about this different land. Even though it was a lot of driving, it was so worth it. We did have to drive through some pretty heavy rain during the last 75 km towards Tucson, and we noticed that some of the low lying roads in the city had already collected some large pools of water. Rain is supposed to continue tomorrow, so we are not sure what we will do; maybe we will go see if the dry river beds have water flowing in them!