A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about an Arizona national park that features a cactus as it’s namesake, the Saguaro National Park in Tucson. This week I’ll take you to another National Park Service site based on a cactus, the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. It’s located about 120 miles directly west of the Tucson area but there isn’t much between the two locations except a few small towns and a lot of desert!
During our visit, we stayed at a Tohono O’Odham Nation reservation campground near the town of Why, Arizona. This nice and reasonably priced campground was run by a very friendly and helpful manager. As a bonus, there was a small casino located about a quarter of mile away that we chose to while away an hour or two one evening. Why is an interesting name for a town and yes, since there wasn’t much to it, we asked our selves, Why?!! With a population of just over 100 people, Why gets it’s name from the meeting of two state highways, 85 and 86, that once formed a Y intersection where they met. It’s as good of an idea as any, I guess.
The nearest town with services to this National Monument is Ajo, Arizona. Our first full day in the area was one of those chilly, windy days in the desert that was threatening either snow showers or light drizzle, it did a little of both. So we decided to make a visit to Ajo to purchase some supplies at the town’s only grocery and hardware store, the IGA and do a little exploration of this town of around 3500 people. Ajo (the Spanish word for garlic) appears to be making an effort to attract more visitors and residents through the continuing development of the town plaza. It was very attractive looking with it’s pure white buildings but there wasn’t much going on the day of our visit. Yes there were a few stores, only a couple were open and a restaurant or two. About a block away, we were delighted to find a used book store that also doubled as the town office supply and stationary shop. And across the street was the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and since it was Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday) we tried to figure out when services would be held but to no avail.
Just off the plaza, we noticed this worker doing some clean up work with the intricate mural in the background.
A little further down the street from the plaza, we found what we considered the gem of the city, Artist’s Alley. From what we learned, local citizens and artists under the stewardship of a mural painter, helped to create these large murals on the side of two old brick buildings, many with immigration and borderlands themes. Here’s what we saw.
The following photos are some closer up views of the individual murals. We found some of the messages very thoughtful and inspiring.
After our visit to Ajo, we traveled back to the campground to stash the purchased supplies and rest up for a full day in the park. The next morning our first stop in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was at a wayside to take a few photos of the nearby Ajo Mountain Range rising to about 5000 feet above sea level.
As we pulled into the wayside, we noticed a couple of pickup trucks with four wheelers being loaded on them by armed Border Patrol agents, obvious by their jackets that stated as such! As we looked across the beautiful, harsh and unforgiving landscape, we wondered how anyone (legal or otherwise) could survive crossing the barren desert without any assistance. More about that later in this post.
Our next stop was the Visitor Center along Highway 85 about 5 miles before reaching the US/Mexico border. We learned that this National Monument covers about 330,000 acres or 517 square miles. Over 260,000 people visited in 2017, a good number considering it’s fairly remote. The land for this Monument was donated to the federal government by the State of Arizona during prohibition because they knew the government would improve the road thus making it easier to import (do we dare say smuggle!) alcohol in from Mexico! This is the only place that the large organ pipe cactus is found in the US although it is very common across the border in Mexico.
As is our practice, we checked out the exhibits and chatted with the park rangers who recommended a couple of drives to see the organ pipe cacti and enjoy the desert scenery. After getting our National Parks Passport stamped, we headed out to the parking lot where a ranger was about to give a presentation on the security of the Monument. This ranger was partnered with a German shepherd dog and said his job was to protect the people from the environment, the environment from the people and the people from each other! You see this National Monument was considered one of the most dangerous sites in the National Park system due to drug and human trafficking. Much of the park was off limits from 2003 until 2014 when it reopened again fully to the public. This is due to great border enforcement, the increased staffing by border patrol agents and increased security staffing by the National Park service. Anyway, the ranger gave a demonstration of how he and his partner work together and answered a lot of questions from curious visitors.
At the visitor center, we purchased a booklet that served as our guide on the 21 miles Ajo Mountain Drive that starts just east of the Visitor Center. We got to see some healthy and a few not so healthy specimens of organ pipe cacti.
There’s also plenty of saguaro and other cacti in this Monument.
The scenery on this drive was beautiful and included a double arch. Can you see it?
This drive took about 1 1/2 hours along a gravelly, dusty road. We had lots of daylight left so we decided to tackle the 41 mile Puerto Blanco Drive. The rangers at the Visitor Center said this drive takes 3-4 hours to complete, well that’s about what it took. The first 6-7 miles are two way so visitors can turn around if they decide they’ve had enough of the rugged terrain. Thanks to a 4 wheel drive, high clearance F-150, we continued after the two way ended thus committing ourselves making the complete route. Again, the scenery was majestic with tall mesas between wide spans of rolling desert.
There was a little oasis on this drive called Bonita Well, a watering hole created by the desert ranchers who raised and grazed cattle in this area for over 70 years.
The last part of this drive took us within a few hundred feet of the US/Mexico border separated by a fence on each side. The road you see is for patrols only, I parked and walked several feet from the public road to take this photo. Note that there aren’t many tracks, this road is dragged on a regular basis to help Border agents detect footprints in the dirt.
It was near here that an event with the most impact happened to us. We were close to the end of the drive, it was approaching 5 PM and the sun was starting to set (February 13), we came over a little rise in the terrain and saw two small groups of people on either side of the road. On my side, was a family of five; the father, mother, and three kids ages estimated to be 10, 8, and 6. They all had backpacks on their back and were standing looking towards Mexico. On my traveling partners side of the truck, there was a little larger group of people maybe 7 or 8 also including young children that looked to be resting or waiting for something. While they watched us drive by, we waved to them and they waved back, they seemed relaxed and happy. In our imaginations, we speculated they were making an attempt to cross into the US, likely to make a better life for themselves and especially for their children. Maybe they were waiting for someone to pick them up at this prearranged spot or just maybe they were waiting for the Border Patrol to come along so they could seek asylum in the US. Or maybe they were local residents just ending their family hike and outing. Regardless, we often think of them and wonder about their story. If they were detained, we hope they (and anyone else) were treated with respect and compassion, deep down, we hope they made it to their destination where ever it might be. For if they were trying to walk through the desert and mountains to safety, we fear they might have perished in their attempt for a better life. It’s been three months to the day since this chance encounter and we continue to think about them.
Next week, join me for a stop at Joshua Tree National Park.
Until then, travel safe.