January 6, Friday
Julie and I arrive at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument at about 10 am, we need to get some hiking done! Two days ago when we visited we ended up driving a long one-way road which was really pretty, but there was little time to hike.
Many parks and monuments have this program where if you hike five miles inside the park you get a free pin, and the one for Organ Pipe is pretty cool so we decide to go for it.
Our adventure starts on Ajo Mountain Drive, another one-way dirt track, but this one is rated for all vehicles. The turnoff is on the east side of 85, right across from the visitor center. There are a few hiking trails along it.
Arch Canyon is 1.2 miles round-trip, and starts with a view of a neat arch high above the canyon floor. It’s actually two arches stacked on top of each other, but the one on top is very small when you look at pictures and hard to see. We bring our lunch with us, expecting to eat at the end of the trail before turning back.
The canyon is beautiful. The trail rises steadily along the bottom, offering great cliff views on either side.
After a while, a sign warns “Caution, steep rocky route ahead”. Beyond the sign, an enticing track traces it’s way up slabs of rock. We don’t have the park map with us (d’oh), and are not sure what this is. Is it a viewpoint off of the main trail? Or possibly an entirely separate trail? We have no way of knowing how long it is or how far it goes, but as the hike up to this point has been pretty easy and we still have plenty of energy, we go for it.
They weren’t kidding about steep and rocky. Cairns mark a narrow and challenging trail littered with a lot of loose rock and very sharp inclines. Large boulders in the way require using your arms to help pull yourself up. In places, steep drop-offs could lead to major injury if you placed a foot wrong, The view is worth it though.
Near the top the terrain levels out and the going gets easier, but finding the correct path becomes harder. Cairns dot the landscape, where the heck are we suppose to go?
We end up in a sort of saddle between two peaks, the view facing west goes on forever. As it’s now past 2 pm (getting to the top took a long time) we’re overdue for lunch.
While we’re eating, an older lady hiking alone arrives at the saddle and offers to take a picture of Julie and I together. She just came from the peak to the south, apparently there are little trails all over up here.
As the sun will be going down before too much longer, it seems prudent to start heading back down. We start picking our way carefully down the steep hillside and I lift my head from the treacherous ground to see the arch below us. I was wondering where that was, how did we miss seeing it on the way up?
The answer of course is that we didn’t, we’ve somehow gotten on the wrong trail. This trail takes us right inside the arch, through it the parking lot is visible far below.
I look up.
Then Julie and I take turns taking a picture of each other inside it. It’s going to be a real pain climbing back up and finding the correct trail down, but this was a worthy detour.
By the time we make it down, the sun is getting low in the sky, turning the desert golden.
Despite the late lunch, we’re both starving by the time we get back to Ajo. Rather than all the effort of cooking, we drive into town and get Mexican food at Marcela’s Cafe and Bakery. The place is packed and we grab the last table, many of the patrons are locals so that bodes well for the food. We also take a look at the maps and discover that the hike we did up to the arch is not official (as in, it’s not on the maps at all), no wonder it wasn’t marked well.
I get a chicken chimichanga (not authentic Mexican, I know) and it is excellent. Julie and I stumble home and sleep well.
January 7, Saturday
Yesterday’s hike was strenuous and challenging, but not long enough to get our five miles. So it’s back to the park we go.
Also along Ajo Mountain Drive, Bull Pasture can be an out-and back trail, or a longer loop if you combine it with Estes Canyon. We’re going to make a loop of it, but take the shorter (and more difficult) Bull Pasture trail in.
Quickly we’re climbing up into hills. We pass a spot where teddy-bear Cholla grow right next to the trail. They’re really cool looking, but painful if you get too close. Please keep arms and legs inside the trail limits at all times.
Higher up, the view opens to pretty vistas. Today we’ve done our research and know that at the end of Bull Pasture, another unofficial trail goes to the top of Mt. Ajo, the highest peak in the park at 4808 feet. We are not going to do it, the view is great even from here.
There are a lot of Organ Pipe cactus growing around here, literature says they love southward facing slopes to soak up the most sun.
A few tenacious Juniper trees cling to life at higher elevations. Most of the park gets too hot for them so they aren’t common here.
Hidden among grass and moss is a cactus that is easy to overlook. Pincushions are small, the ones I see here grow little taller than the length of my thumb.
I suppose this trail could be considered strenuous, but it has nothing on the trek up to the arch yesterday. We reach a spot where the trail becomes less defined, is this it? The view is nice up here.
At the end of the flat area the trail resumes. I’m feeling pretty mistrustful after being led up the side of a mountain by accident yesterday, but on the off chance we haven’t reached the end of the official trail yet, we continue.
Ah-hah! A sign marks the official end point a while later. It’s a good thing they labeled it. Julie and I eat lunch and enjoy the view.
On the way back down, I try to capture the face of this really neat rock. It’s rippled and even has a small arch, but as it’s in shadow the pictures don’t turn out well.
Estes Canyon trail is a lot greener, which makes sense as it follows the bottom of the canyon where water collects. This is a chain-fruit Cholla, which has less dense spines than it’s relative the Teddy-bear and a drooping appearance. It grows tall, many are twice my height.
To the reader who asked for a good picture of a Organ Pipe, this one’s for you! This is one of the largest and healthiest individuals I see in the park. It matches the logo almost perfectly.
Julie and I drive back home in the afternoon to hang out with Rayn and JJ again, who are back from their RV repairs in Phoenix and boondocking not far from us. It’s Rayn’s birthday, and we’re having ice cream sundaes to celebrate. We sit outside and chat while the sun sets, and after dark two shapes can be seen in the bright moonlight scurrying between bushes right outside camp. They look about cat-sized and JJ runs to grab a flashlight. They aren’t cats, they’re kit foxes! If you’ve never seen one before (I hadn’t), they’re adorable. JJ turns off the flashlight to let them hunt for rodents in peace.
Tomorrow I’ll be dropping Julie back off at the airport in the morning which is kind of sad, but it was great to have one last evening together!
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