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.

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Sun shines on the chalk grey cliffs of this area during golden hour

Smokey Mountain Road

There is a road behind the town I am staying in called Smokey Mountain Road. I have a funny relationship with this road, as it calls for me when I seem to need it most, when the challenges and stresses of the “real world” distract me from my purpose and why it is that I am staying out in the middle of nowhere. I cringe at the fact that I associate the “real world” with work and a schedule, because the true world is out there – in the wilderness. But that is a topic for another time.

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The Upper Paria River, while not as famous as its lower sibling, is just as fantastic and magical. It is an important source of sediment for the Colorado River. This canyon is only one of many that produce tributaries to the muddy waters of the Paria.

Setting out

The journey to this waterfall was one full of questions, minor missteps, and most of all – miles. I had read about these falls on a blog post, with only vague information about where to start and where to head. “Soon you will come to a junction. At this spot you will likely hear the falls to your right…” Sounds straightforward, right? While I had planned on a nine mile day, my starting at the wrong trailhead turned the day into a 16 mile one. For the majority of the hike I trod through exposed and messy terrain, with numerous river crossings and soaking cold boots.


Chinle Formation Sandstone and the Paria River

Getting close… right?

Once I reached the confluence about seven miles in, I knew I was getting close. All I had to do was follow this small tributary into the canyon that birthed it, and I would find my destination. When I made it to the aforementioned junction, all I found was a trickle dripping within a small alcove. “Surely this can’t be it?” I asked myself. “If it is, was this trek worth it?” I was utterly confused, yet decided to venture just a bit further into the canyon, as a quick sanity check. I quickly came to a second junction, and although I didn’t hear a waterfall, I could see that a lot of water was originating in this section. A few steps toward this direction and I finally heard it – water crashing onto sandstone, echoing about this large and intimate cove. Needless to say, my earlier question was answered. I took my boots off, found a rock in the sun, and marveled at this waterfall whose name I do not know, soaking up the feeling of pure adventure – and the water flowing between my toes.

Long exposure of the waterfall, showing its dynamics. The water was surprisingly loud, given how limited it was (compared to other falls high up in the alpine).