Arizona: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

If you want to get “off the beaten path” and “away from the maddening crowd” then Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona may be just the place. Located in south-central Arizona on the Mexican border, this 517 square-mile area of the Sonoran Desert was created by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1937 to preserve and protect a unique ecosystem and the culture and history of the people who have inhabited it. Living things that exist here must be able to tolerate extreme temperatures and intense sun with little rainfall.

The most notable resident is the Monument’s namesake; the Organ Pipe Cactus is a large, multi-armed, columnar cactus that is rarely found in the U.S. and this monument protects most of its range. This cactus thrives in the hot, dry climate here but grows slowly, taking 35 years to produce its first bloom and up to 80 years to reach its full height of 15 feet. The Organ Pipe shares its harsh wilderness environment with 27 other cactus species and a surprising number of birds and animals. Recognizing its significance, the United Nations designated the monument as an International Biosphere Reserve in 1976.

When To Go

The monument is open everyday of the year. The best time to visit is between October and April when temperatures will average between a high of 87 and a low of 39. The park is busiest between December and March. If there is adequate rain over the winter, the monument will be blanketed with colorful wildflowers in the spring.

High temperatures begin to approach 100 degrees in May, with very low humidity. Summer air temperatures can reach 118 degrees with ground temperatures up to 175! The monsoon arrives in July and August, when temperatures dip into the 90s but the higher humidity triggers ferocious afternoon thunderstorms with dangerous lightning. Muddy conditions can close the scenic drives; check at the Visitor Center or call 520-387-6849, ext. 7302.

Getting Here

Organ Pipe National Monument is a remote area located on Arizona Highway 85, 20 miles south of Ajo, 130 miles west of Tucson, 130 miles southwest of Phoenix, 175 miles east of Yuma, and 5 Miles north of Lukeville on the U.S. border with Mexico (see map).

The closest commercial airports are located at Phoenix and Tucson. There is no public transportation to the monument. From the north, follow Arizona Highway 85 south through Ajo and Why. From the west, follow Interstate 8 to Gila Bend or Interstate 10 to Buckeye; both intersect with Arizona Highway 85 south. From the east, take Arizona Highway 86 west to Why and then turn south on Arizona Highway 85.

Things To Do

When you arrive, stop at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center to pay the entrance fee (collected per vehicle, good for 7 days, Access Passes accepted). The Visitor Center is open daily 8:30-4:30, except Thanksgiving and Christmas. There is handicapped parking and the building’s lobby, auditorium, exhibits and bookstore are accessible. There are some tactile exhibits for those with vision impairments. Drinking fountains (outside) are accessible. The restrooms are in a separate building nearby and are accessible, though some may need assistance. Behind the visitor center there is a hard-surface nature trail suitable for wheelchairs that is about 100 yards long.

There are two scenic drives in the monument that allow access to the wilderness. Ajo Mountain Drive Loop is 21 miles and Puerto Blanco Drive is 37 miles. Both are graded dirt and gravel roads with interpretive pullouts. These are suitable for passenger cars although high-clearance is recommended on Puerto Blanco past Pinkley Peak. A guidebook is available for Ajo Mountain Drive.

At its half-way point, Estes Canyon Picnic Area offers an “accessible with assistance” picnic table and pit toilet. On Puerto Blanco Drive, an accessible picnic area with pit toilets is located at the five mile point. There are also three other dirt roads that are rough and more rugged; high clearance and/or 4×4 is strongly recommended for Bates Well Road, Pozo Nuevo Road, and Camino de Dos Republicas.

Where To Stay

Because of its remote location, Organ Pipe is popular with star-gazers. If you’d like to sleep under the open sky, Twin Peaks Campground is located 1.5 miles from the Visitor Center. Four camp sites have picnic tables designed for wheelchair or scooter use and are located nearest the restrooms; however some of these also have raised tent pads which may be problematic. All of the restrooms and drinking water facilities in the campground are accessible. The campground’s amphitheater where evening program and special events are held is at the end of a 300-foot trail that is paved, but steep enough that some people may need assistance.

There are not many motels in the area. There are a few choices about 20 miles away at Ajo, but they are smaller, older, non-chain properties so accessibility is questionable. The best option may be the Best Western Space Age Lodge about an hour away at Gila Bend, AZ; they advertise accessible features on their website.

Important Things To Know

The climate here can be treacherous! Carry and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration (at least one gallon a day per person is recommended). Avoid caffeine and alcohol.  There is no food service at the monument although the Visitor Center may offer small packaged snacks. The sun will be intense any time of year; apply sunscreen (even under clothing), wear a hat and sunglasses.

It is safe to visit the monument but due to the proximity of the border, illegal activities such as border crossings and drug smuggling do occur in this area. If you see suspicious activity, do not make contact. Report it to a ranger or call 911 if possible (cellular service may be unreliable). Thorns will be an issue in this environment. If you use a wheelchair with pneumatic tires, bring a patch kit and pump. Arizona does not observe daylight savings time; use Mountain Standard year-round.

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