A cactus forest brimming with biodiversity
This post is about a visit to Organ Pipe Cactus Monument in late February, 2022. It was written months later, in May 2022.
Organ Pipe National Monument is truly one of America’s treasures. It is famous for its concentration of Organ Pipe Cactus – rare in the United States, but common in the Sonora and Baja California regions of Mexico, our neighbor to the south. The cactus is named for its resemblance to the pipe organ, a musical instrument found in many churches, cathedrals, and concert halls. The last time I remember seeing a pipe organ was in the campus auditorium of my alma mater, the University of Florida. While I can appreciate its namesake, I personally associate the Organ Pipe Cactus with something more aquatic… The wavy manner in which the cactus’ arms reach to the sky remind me of something that should be underwater, like an octopus or a squid. In any case, this particular cactus is a sight to behold – it is unlike any plant you have ever seen.
I visited the National Monument after staying in Bisbee Arizona last February, almost three months ago. I have been meaning to write about this place for a while now (in my journal), so much of what I am posting here is a recollection of an amazing few nights camping in the cactus forests of Arizona. I had reserved four nights at the large Twin Peaks campground, which accommodates over one hundred people. For such a busy campground, it is a great one; if you are lucky, you might even have a Saguaro or Organ Pipe cactus in your own site (I did!). The highlight of this campground is its close proximity to some beautiful, short hiking trails. The few nights that I camped at Twin Peaks, I grabbed a beer before sunset and headed up to the Desert View Trailhead, which offers fantastic views of the Twin Peaks and surrounding area. Facing south, you are looking directly into Mexico, and can see the eyesore of a “wall” lining the artificial boundary between Mexico and the United States (more on that later).
Besides the fantastic views of the surrounding mountains, the Desert View trail offers spectacular and up-close exposure to a wide variety of cacti. In fact, the cacti you will find on these hills represent most all of the varied species you will find elsewhere in the park – all in one place. Organ Pipe line the slopes of these hills, each of them with outstretched arms rising to the sky – almost in prayer. You will even find a few Saguaro; younger in age due to their relative short height. And usually where you find a Saguaro, there will be a Palo Verde tree at its base. These trees are are quite special, as they serve as “nursery trees” to young Saguaro, providing shade for the Saguaro to successfully grow past childhood and adolescence, shielding it from the harsh heat and sunlight that would otherwise kill the plant. I love these trees for how unconventional they are. Most of the year they don’t even have leaves. When viewed from a distance, they resemble a bright green fluorescent mess, out of which the wise Saguaro shoots.
Yet probably the biggest surprise up on these hills are the clusters of Teddy Bear Cholla, which almost seem to glow during blue hour. I suppose they are named as such because, when viewed from afar, they look welcoming and fuzzy. Up close, however, that couldn’t be further from the truth. You won’t want to brush up against these, as their prickly thorns can be difficult to remove by hand. If you do accidentally get pricked and find yourself in the position of a pollinator (this is how they distribute), use a key instead of your fingers to remove the thorn. Trust me, I learned the hard way. In any case, I visited many areas of the park and did not find as dense a concentration of Teddy Bear Cholla as up on these hills.
If you decide to visit Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, I recommend the Desert View Trail around sunset; even if you don’t plan on camping at the campground. The trail is short and sweet, and can be completed in less than an hour (but I recommend taking your time, and appreciating the cacti).
one Park – two realities
Now that I’ve gotten the light-hearted stuff out of the way, we need to talk about what makes this park controversial, and even potentially dangerous. As I mentioned before, the Monument is located close to the US-Mexico border. In many areas of the park you can see the border wall snaking through the wilderness – climbing up hills and lowlands; dividing precious ecosystems into arbitrary sections. While my brother did not accompany me on this journey, he had read about this area in a book called The Devils Highway, which chronicles the journey of 26 men crossing into the US from Mexico on foot. The Monument happens to be dead center of this “highway”, and is known to be a popular crossing grounds for migrants and drug smugglers from across the border.
In some of the more remote sections of the park, you will find numerous signs warning you of the situation. “Smuggling and illegal immigration may be encountered in this area; do not travel alone!” While visitors are generally safe if they abide by this advice, there have been deadly encounters in the past. One encounter in particular is the reason for the namesake of the Kris Eggle Visitor Center, one of the first stops in the park.
Kristopher Eggle was a law enforcement park ranger who dedicated his career to cracking down on drug-related crime. During his years of service, he intercepted thousands of pounds of illegal drugs, and protected a thirty-mile stretch of the US-Mexico border. In August of 2002, he pursued a group belonging to a drug cartel, who had traveled into the United States after committing a string of murders in Mexico. Kris was shot and killed in the line of duty, while defending his country. It is because of brave people like Kris that people can continue to visit this beautiful park in safety. My eyes well as I write this; I don’t think I truly appreciated his sacrifice before. Thank you Kris for your ultimate sacrifice; you are remembered and appreciated. You can read more about the hero on the National Park Service website here: https://www.nps.gov/orpi/learn/historyculture/kris.htm
Alamo canyon campground
Let’s continue on with an experience I had in the park, during the latter half of my stay. As I mentioned before, the Twin Peaks Campground has a huge capacity of over 100 campsites. It is why I lucked out in reserving a campsite in the first place, with such short notice. Back when I was planning this trip in early February, I had read about a separate campground northeast of Twin Peaks. This campground was more primitive, non-reservable, and had a whopping total of four sites. It is also separate from the main area of the park, at the foot of a trailhead into Alamo Canyon.
Since I approached Organ Pipe from the north, Alamo Canyon was actually on the way to my campsite at Twin Peaks, those first few nights. I decided to stop here just to take a look, and to see what the campsite situation was. Unsurprisingly they were all taken, but that was okay since I already had reservations at the bigger, more developed campground. I parked my car to take a walk near the trailhead, and this is where I technically witnessed my first Organ Pipe Cactus. I was in awe standing next to this beautiful monster, its arms almost engulfing me. The sun was starting to set however, so I left for my campsite with the plans of retuning to hike the Alamo Canyon trail another time.
By my third day in the monument, I had seen almost everything I could – the Twin Peaks area and Victoria Mine, Ajo Mountain Drive and Arch Canyon, Puerto Blanco Drive, and Quitobaquito Spring. The last item on my list was Alamo Canyon, so I saved this hike for dusk. While my primary goal was to visit the canyon on a hike, I arrived to find a vacant site at the primitive campground. Brimming with excitement, I began to fantasize about the possibility of actually camping here – tonight! Those plans would have to wait though, as I had limited time to hike. I would figure out those details afterward, so I set a few things at the campsite’s picnic table, holding the spot in case others would arrive.
The trail itself was magical. Alamo Canyon is arguably the most scenic destination in all of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The canyon walls are lined with Organ Pipe and Saguaro; high on the flanks like sentinels watching over the valley. When standing in the thick of these cacti, you can feel a sort of presence in the air. It’s a protective one, as the Saguaro especially seem like wizened old creatures. To imagine what the cacti high upon the cliffs have experienced throughout the decades – centuries, even – is a remarkable feeling.
When I returned, it was getting close to sunset, and ultimately darkness. While I did not have all my camping gear, I fortunately had half of it – enough to cook dinner tonight and make coffee in the morning. I had a choice: either drive to the Twin Peaks campground to grab the rest of my stuff, or rough it out at Alamo Canyon with only half my things. Because I wanted to enjoy the sunset, I opted for choice two. Before I realized that I even had enough gear for food and coffee, I talked to a young couple staying at one of the other sites. They were very generous and offered their stove to me when I needed it. I asked where they were from, and ironically they said San Diego (ironic because this is where I was headed next, for March). They had just left the city for an extended vacation across southern Arizona. We chatted a bit more, trading tips for sights to see in both southern AZ and CA. When I found my stove, I let them know, thanking them anyways.
I’m glad I chose to stick around for sunset, leaving some of my things behind at the other campground. The mountains which form Alamo Canyon are perfectly situated facing West toward the setting sun. At dusk, the retreating sunlight washes over the rock in this beautiful blood-red glow – similar to alpenglow I have experienced high in the alpine of Colorado. Golden hour is my absolute favorite time in the desert. It’s crazy how much anticipation I have for these few hours in the morning and evening – they are moments of beauty and bliss. I stayed at Alamo Canyon for two nights, and while each sunset was spectacular, it was the first one I witnessed that was the most impressive. Maybe it was because it was my first time seeing it, or perhaps there was something about the lighting that day that painted the rocks with such a rosy red color.
During that second evening, I decided to walk out a bit into the cactus forest, out of eyeshot from the primitive campground. My intention was to take photographs, while listening to music and drinking a beer (this was a common theme this trip). On my way back to the campground after sunset, while there was twilight enough to see in front of me, I started a video recording. As I walked, I was narrating this video; commenting on each of the plants I recognized and could say something about. When I approached an Organ Pipe Cactus, something looked wrong. On one of the arms of this cactus, there was a bandana tied to it. A few cacti behind it, there was another. I immediately shut the video off, and marched quickly to my campsite. I wasn’t far from my car, but was still not in eyeshot and something about this situation just felt off. During my hasty walk back to camp, I started thinking about what I had just seen. I couldn’t be sure, but the bandanas could have been waypoints for migrants crossing over this area at night. Since I wasn’t sure, I wanted to clear out of the area just in case there was border-crossing activity occurring on that very night.
When I arrived in San Diego after my trip, I thought about this encounter. I called the National Monument and spoke with a park ranger about the experience. He told me that the bandanas likely were markings meant to guide migrants traveling into the country from Mexico, as no one at the Park Service in their right mind would attach something like that to a living plant. I happened to catch the marking on video, and so I offered it to the Park Ranger, along with the general location of where I found them. I felt conflicted after sharing this information, as if well-intending migrants were relying on those markings, then I had just made their lives more difficult. The truth of the matter is that I don’t know who those markings were intended for. They could be for migrants, or they could be for drug smugglers. In any case, interactions between border-crossers and park visitors can be a recipe for danger and disaster. My hope is that by sharing this information, I am keeping people safe – both those crossing the border and those visiting the park recreationally.
As I write this, I feel fortunate to have witnessed all that I did; unscathed except for maybe a few scratches. The crisis at the border has affected and will affect this park for years to come. Two of the roads I traveled, in fact, are currently closed for public safety. My hope is that this monument may remain open and most importantly – safe – for visitors and migrants alike. If there are two pieces of advice I could give, they would be: 1.) get out to Organ Pipe ASAP, before it may be too late and 2.) do yourself a favor and don’t come here alone. Reflecting on my visit, I should not have been in some of the more remote areas by myself. If I ever return, it will not be alone, for danger comes with solitude, and this park’s majesty deserves to be shared.