View from the Top

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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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. Nate on February 16, 2017 at 4:15 am

    It really a nice view from the top, nice capture. The canyon is so amazing.

    • Becky on February 16, 2017 at 8:44 am

      Sure is!

  2. Peggy Hope on January 15, 2017 at 9:11 am

    Hi, Becky!
    You are living my dream! I do hope to buy a Casita and hit the road myself this year or next. I am wondering about wildlife in Arizona this time of year, especially snakes! Are they out and about or do they lay low during the winter? (I realize I have a lot to learn before hitting the road, LOL). Thanks!

    • Becky on January 15, 2017 at 12:22 pm

      Heya Peggy! Best of luck and I hope your transition to full-timing goes smoothly.

      Snakes like heat, so on warm winter afternoons I suppose it’s possible, but I haven’t seen a single snake out in the desert since I started full-timing. Doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen of course, but I don’t think they’re as prevalent as people make them out to be. Stay on cleared trails, avoid walking or putting your hands in crevices you can’t see, and keep an eye on your surroundings.

  3. Norm H. on January 14, 2017 at 12:41 pm

    You just pushed Organ Pipe up a couple of notches on our bucket list! Beautiful photos, too. Enjoy Q and continue to stay cholla-free. lol

    • Becky on January 15, 2017 at 12:19 pm

      It’s so much prettier than I was expecting Norm! If you come after rainfall everything is so green, just loved it. Thanks and take care.

  4. Pamelab on January 13, 2017 at 11:37 pm

    Hi, Becky –
    Great photos and the banner shot, too. It’s nice you had a chance to catch up with your good friend. I look forward to visiting with my good friends in Michigan when I get up that way. Good for the soul.
    Happy trails. I’ll be at Lajitas for a Casita rally and hope to learn some more about Casitas. Thanks for your blog 😃

    • Becky on January 15, 2017 at 12:18 pm

      Casita rallies are a lot of fun Pamela, enjoy yourself! Yes it’s been good to get some real “people” time in, Amazon doesn’t allow for much of that. Glad you enjoyed this post and the new banner. You’re welcome and take care!

  5. Matt on January 13, 2017 at 9:36 pm

    Enjoyed reading about your adventures very much. Thank you for taking us along

    • Becky on January 15, 2017 at 12:16 pm

      You’re welcome Matt!

  6. Vanholio! on January 13, 2017 at 5:13 pm

    Wow! I never even heard of this place before! Thanks for this post and the other. It’s a definite must-see when I pass by.
    Vanholio! recently posted..How to Make Money While Traveling in a Van – Part 6My Profile

    • Becky on January 15, 2017 at 12:15 pm

      Yep, definitely worth it.

  7. Dale on January 13, 2017 at 5:09 pm

    Hey Becky – It has been great following your blog this past year. You are a gifted writer and I look forward to new posts of all your adventures this year.

    We seem to end up in a lot of the same places. I asked Bob if you were giving a talk at the RTR this year on working at Amazon and he didn’t even know you were here. I know how sometimes we just want to relax for a while, so don’t feel any pressure. Enjoy your time here in Q!

    • Becky on January 15, 2017 at 12:15 pm

      Poor Bob, seems like he’s been really busy lately. He’d e-mailed me in October of 2015 asking if I’d come to last year’s RTR to give the talk and I’d agreed. Since he never contacted me about this year’s RTR I figured he already had speakers lined up. I’ll see if I can locate him in the next couple days (may be a challenge) and see what the deal is.

      Hopefully our paths will cross, it sure seems like there are more people this year than last year and I know I have friends here that I haven’t seen yet. Take care!

  8. Mndreamer on January 13, 2017 at 11:42 am

    I ooooh’d and aaaaah’d all the way through this post! Thank you, Becky, for the beautiful photos and fun and articulate descriptions!

    • Becky on January 13, 2017 at 1:03 pm

      You’re welcome Mn, glad you enjoyed this!

  9. Rob on January 13, 2017 at 7:52 am

    Those teddy bear cactus? I needed pliers to get the barbs out of my leg.
    Carrying a Leatherman all the time can be a great think!

    • Becky on January 13, 2017 at 1:03 pm

      Yeah I hear you Rob, ouch. I had that same problem stepping on a prickly-pear cactus paddle. Cactus spines are no joke.

  10. Dan on January 13, 2017 at 6:02 am

    Wow! I felt that I was along for every step of your hike through the park! Beautiful scenery! Who says that the desert is drab and colorless!
    With all of the trails, official and not official how do you keep from getting lost without a map? Do they have a system of registration/permit like at the Grand Canyon where they know you are in the park, where you are headed and when to expect your return?

    • Becky on January 13, 2017 at 1:01 pm

      At the start of the longer trails are ledgers where you check in and out on paper Dan. I imagine the rangers go over them at the end of the day to make sure everyone made it out. Only works if you sign in though.

      This place is rather out of the way and they don’t see the visitation that places like the Grand Canyon do, only the one visitor center and I’m pretty sure they don’t have back-country permits. In fact they might discourage people from venturing too far in the back-country given the drug dealing that happens in the park, it being right on the border and all.

  11. Sylvia Jones on January 13, 2017 at 4:51 am

    Fantastic trip. Thanks for taking me along (with your beautiful pics & excellent descriptions). Glad you & Julie had a great time. Super memory made!

    • Becky on January 13, 2017 at 12:55 pm

      You’re welcome Sylvia and glad you enjoyed this. Yep, this turned out to be an excellent place to visit for her vacation.

  12. Diane Silverstein on January 13, 2017 at 2:18 am

    Terrific narrative and photos!

    • Becky on January 13, 2017 at 12:54 pm

      Thanks Diane!

  13. Rene Kipp on January 12, 2017 at 8:08 pm

    What is the determining factor so that the ranger knows you’ve hiked the 5 miles total? You captured so many gorgeous photos on this outing. My husband likes the photos from his phone much better than the photos from his point and shoot camera. Good that you found your way down the mountain without a trail map 🙂
    Rene Kipp recently posted..Time Flies When You’re…My Profile

    • Becky on January 13, 2017 at 12:54 pm

      You get a selfie of yourself at the end of the trail(s) as proof. The arch and the Bull Pasture sign in this case.

      Yes there were so many neat things to capture here, the next few posts won’t be as photo intense because the scenery at Q isn’t as varied.

  14. RGupnorth on January 12, 2017 at 5:21 pm

    So how about a picture of the pin?

    • Becky on January 13, 2017 at 12:52 pm

      Can’t, lost it! Lol. I’m sure it’ll turn up somewhere random in a few months.

  15. Jose on January 12, 2017 at 5:10 pm

    Wow, this place looks amazing. Where did you camp?

  16. Wendy on January 12, 2017 at 4:45 pm

    Thank you, Becky! What a great photo! What a great blog post!

    • Becky on January 13, 2017 at 12:50 pm

      You’re welcome Wendy. 25 pictures in this monster, the next few won’t be as photo intense since the scenery at Quartzsite isn’t as varied.

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