Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

January 3, Tuesday

It’s another gray day in the desert. The tank status also dictates that it’s moving day.

I pack up camp at Buckeye Hills Recreation Area and before long Julie and I are cruising down 85 to Gila Bend, AZ where I dump tanks at a Love’s Travel stop and take on water at a nearby KOA.

We keep going south. 85 drops to two lanes and my cell phone signal becomes spotty. The desert scenery of shrubs and cacti stretches on for miles with little variation and it feels as though we might be reaching the end of the world – in a way, we are. It isn’t far now to the Mexican border and I imagine it’s like a whole different world over there. I slow Bertha and Cas as a border patrol checkpoint appears on the horizon. I’ll have to stop when I come back north later.

The hill at our latest camp

Beyond that lies the town of Ajo (pronounced Aho), which sprang into being to support copper mining efforts. During Ajo’s heydey, the large open-pit mine near town boasted over 1,000 employees, but the mine closed back in 1985. The town has shrunk since then, but the little square downtown is kept up well and cute.

There are two RV parks in town, but I continue south out of town to Darby Well Road for boondocking. The main road in is wide and well maintained, in fact it gets graded while we’re camping here. There are a few spots along Darby Well proper, but farther in little spur roads split off every which way, and many of these have (more private) boondocking sites as well. One tip though: the farther in you go, the weaker the cell signal gets, in general. Julie and I find a spot about two miles in where Bates Well Road meets Scenic Loop. Scenic Loop seems to get little traffic (no border patrol vehicles driving past at all hours) and I get a solid three bars of LTE (Verizon) without a booster. It also has a good view of the hills to the southeast.

Saguaro at our campsite, score

On a walk that evening I spot my first organ pipe cactus, how cool! It’s too dark for photos, but there should be plenty of opportunities in the coming days…

January 4, Wednesday

Julie and I get back on 85 late in the morning (sans RV) for a trip to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. A seven day pass costs $12, but as an Interagency Annual Pass holder I don’t need to pay this fee. There is dry camping for RVs available for $16 a night (some sites fit RVs up to 45 feet), but I’d prefer to boondock without neighbors if I don’t get hookups. I don’t get a chance to tour the campground (you need to go through the pay station and there was a line the one time I drove to go look) but reviews are good.

The first order of business is stopping at the Visitor Center, which is a good 15 miles or so from the entrance. We pick up maps and brochures of hikes in the park. Hmm, where to start? Dripping Springs Mine Trail sounds interesting, and I always enjoy seeing consistent water sources in the desert where they’re so rare. But it’s down Puerto Blanco Drive, a one-way dirt road that requires 4-wheel drive according to one of the brochures. Darn.

The little paved trail at the visitor center has signs identifying the park flora

We continue past the Visitor Center to the start of Puerto Blanco anyway as it’s the closest picnic area and it’s now lunch time.

I’ve never seen so many Saguaro cactus! They’re all over the place out here. I enjoy the view as we eat our sandwiches.

I can’t help but inspect the Puerto Blanco road sign after eating. This sign says a different story – the road requires high clearance but not 4-wheel drive. Hmmmmm. If I’d been traveling alone I wouldn’t have tried it, but having another person along mitigates some of the risk (plus, Julie is a bad influence). I point Bertha’s nose onto the dirt track and cross my fingers. The estimated drive time is four hours, it’s a long road that goes way out into the back country of the park.

The hardest part are the washes. On two separate occasions Bertha slips ever-so-slightly on loose gravel climbing out of them and I worry about about losing forward momentum. Putting on speed for the uphill part makes it easier. It’s bumpy, rutted, and extremely remote, but there are emergency call stations located at regular intervals (cell signal is nonexistent – although if you’ve enabled international roaming you might be able to catch towers in Mexico, I disabled it on my phone to avoid fees).

You also wouldn’t want to drive this with worn tires, plenty of sharp rocks

We park at Dripping Springs and take a short hike out to the hillside where the spring resides. We haven’t seen a soul since getting on the one-way road.

Bertha Butt in her natural habitat – the middle of nowhere

Gosh it’s pretty out here.

Like, really pretty. People who say the desert is barren and boring haven’t been to Organ Pipe.

Dripping Springs lives up to it’s name. Water drips from the ceiling of a small cave to a pool below. The water is gray and murky, there are signs posted to avoid drinking from it. Historically though, this water source was important to human habitation in the area.

Remember the Saguaro-arm contest? Well, Julie and I have found our winner! This behemoth located at the Bonita Well picnic area has an impressive 21(!) arms, 16 of which are visible in this photo. And not only that, it appears to be in excellent health. Maybe next time I come through it’ll have even more.

And the blue ribbon goes to…

Puerto Blanco Drive becomes two-way again at the south end of the park, where it parallels the Mexican border for a few miles. I can’t help but be amused that we’re bouncing along on a bumpy dirt lane on the American side when just across the boarder traffic zooms by on what appears to be a well-maintained highway (it’s labeled as 2 on maps).

Julie dips a toe into Mexico and points to the nice highway fenced in white

There’s also a spring-fed pond called Quitobaquito along the border, which can be hiked around. There are a few Coot out on the water, making frequent dives under the surface.

Eventually Puerto Blanco Drive meets back up with 85, and not a moment too soon. The sun is setting on the hills as we approach the highway, a coyote darts across the road in the deepening twilight.

I pull out at a waystop on the way back to camp to get this sunset picture.

* * *

Blogging time is running behind real time again. In real time (the 9th) I’ll be arriving at Quartzsite tomorrow. I have rough plans to attend the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous the first week and the Xscapers Convergence the second week, although I may bounce back and forth in my truck some too. For those attending, I’ll be seeing you soon!

* * *

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At IO I teach people how to ditch the status quo and travel full-time before retirement, and share stories of my adventures (and misadventures) to inspire future nomads and armchair travelers alike. Included at no additional charge: seizing your dreams, living boldly, and making a difference.


  1. Fiberscope.Net on February 4, 2018 at 12:08 pm

    Great story and nice photos. Unfortunately, it’s a long way from MA, so we can only enjoy this beauty here

  2. Kit Frost on January 13, 2017 at 10:32 am

    Hi Becky, I’m so glad to see you and Julie out there hiking. Did you get awarded the “pin”? Years ago I visited organ pipe for a week of photography and liked it lots. I’m heading south to Quartzsite on Wednesday and I like the cactus at the Kofa Wildlife preserve as well as the hiking trails there. Quartszite can be pretty austere looking so I plan to head to the preserve for photography and boon docking.

    • Becky on January 13, 2017 at 12:49 pm

      Got the pin and lost it within a day, I’m sure I’ll find it again months from now, lol.

      I’ve seen pics of Kofa, it does seem like a great photography location. have fun!

  3. John on January 12, 2017 at 5:06 pm

    Thanks for another great post. I now want to make it to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. It is amazing how many great locations there are in the USA.

    Thanks for the details on boondocking and cell reception. Those are very useful details to include.
    John recently posted..Guadalupe Peak Trail, Guadalupe Mountains National ParkMy Profile

    • Becky on January 13, 2017 at 12:47 pm

      You’re welcome John, glad you enjoyed this.

  4. Doug on January 12, 2017 at 1:03 pm

    Nice post Becky. All of the pictures are making me miss the desert even more. I’d planned on going to RTR again (we met briefly last year) but one of my sons needed knee surgery so I’m sitting in Fargo helping him for a few days. Enjoying the high today of -2, Not!

    Please say hi to Bob and the crew and enjoy your time there. I here it’s even more crowded than last year, but you had a good spot away from the crowds. I hope you get the same spot and some quiet time.

    • Becky on January 13, 2017 at 12:47 pm

      Sorry you missed it this year and I hope your son is recovering well.

      Weather has been pretty good here and I’m enjoying the RTR, always such a neat group of people. It does seem larger than last year but I don’t have numbers.

  5. Emily on January 11, 2017 at 9:41 am

    Were you able to see any of the “crested” type organ pipe or saguaro cactus? When I was a youngster that became a game with my family when we explored the SW deserts.

    • Becky on January 11, 2017 at 3:56 pm

      Saw one organ pipe in the distance pointed out by a sign that was crested, and one crested saguaro back at the Buckeye Hills camp. They are really neat looking!

  6. Jodee Gravel on January 10, 2017 at 7:44 pm

    Great pics of one of my favorite places. Glad you took the drive – so much beauty to see there.
    Jodee Gravel recently posted..ArcadianaMy Profile

    • Becky on January 11, 2017 at 3:54 pm

      It sure is a special place Jodee.

  7. Cheryl Kline on January 10, 2017 at 10:29 am

    Really love the pictures. The desert offers so much beauty. Thanks for sharing. Safe travels!

    • Becky on January 11, 2017 at 3:53 pm

      You’re welcome Cheryl!

  8. Wendy on January 10, 2017 at 12:31 am

    This national park is on my itinerary for Feb/Mar. Thanks for showing the boondocking possibilities. But where are the organ pipe cacti? Is that one by the entrance sign?

    • Becky on January 10, 2017 at 8:59 am

      This part of the park didn’t have too many of them Wendy, they can’t tolerate freezing temps at all which is why they’re so rare in the US. There’s one to the right of the entrance sign and a couple in the hillside photo with the fun lighting. There will be close-up pics of them in the next post.

  9. Park Kitchings on January 9, 2017 at 11:25 pm

    Becky….over the years I’ve found that most times when our govt agencies state that four wheel drive is required……it’s not. Amazing to me how they tend to err so far on the side of safety. I’ve got four wheel drive and have done quite a bit of off road stuff over the years. My findings are that most of the time, something they classify as “four wheel drive required” can be done in any standard pick-up. In the future I wouldn’t pass something up based on their recommendations. Of course, there are always exceptions to this rule, but it’s something to keep in mind. Enjoy your blog, thanks for posting.

    Park Kitchings recently posted..Quick Autumn TripMy Profile

    • Becky on January 10, 2017 at 8:56 am

      And those exceptions are what will keep me off these roads, because traveling alone I don’t have a helper who can push on the truck while I hit the gas and getting a tow truck out on a primitive road costs a lot of money. Just a comfort level thing. 🙂

      Glad you enjoyed this, take care!

  10. Kevin in CO on January 9, 2017 at 10:45 pm

    Nice photos and review of your Puerto Blanco trip, especially that cactus. We drove this road last year, and really enjoyed the flora and views. Especially the stretch that climbs up the ridge. We did not hike to the spring, but maybe we will next time.

    • Becky on January 10, 2017 at 8:51 am

      Glad you enjoyed this Kevin. Yes, the spring hike is worth it in my opinion.

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