Arizona Camping

The Great Outdoors | Organ Pipe Cactus National Wilderness

Tuesday, May 17, 2016S.V. CAMBRIA

We didn’t know much about Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument before we went. For example, we didn’t know it’s the only place in the U.S. where the organ pipe cactus grows . . . or what an organ pipe cactus was, for that matter. We didn’t know that’s it’s a UNESCO biosphere reserve and a Globally Important Bird Area. And we didn’t know that it was deemed the nation’s most dangerous park and was mostly closed off to the public until 18 months ago.

I’m not sure if this last fact would have dissuaded us or not but if it had, we would’ve missed out on an extraordinary camping experience.

The park is located in southern Arizona along the border with the Mexican state of Sonora. Because of tighter policing in the surrounding areas, illegal activity was inadvertently funneled through the park where security was more porous and thousands of migrants and drug smugglers used it every year to enter the U.S. In 2003, a ranger was shot and killed by fleeing Mexican cartel members, prompting the closure of most of the park to the public and measures to improve security. The nearby Ajo U.S. Border Patrol Station increased the number of agents from 30 to 500 and the Department of Homeland Security added towers and 35 miles of pedestrian and vehicle barriers. At the same time, the National Park Service tripled the number of rangers from 3 to 15 and has shifted its focus from closing areas of the park to educating visitors about the potential dangers, working closely with the Border Patrol to achieve this goal. 

The approach is working. Since the park has fully reopened day-visitors have increase by 25% and campers by 41%. But the problem of illegal migration and smuggling still exists. The Border Patrol arrests approximately 20 people a day in and around the park boundaries and park rangers discover human remains in the desert, on average, once a month. Signs warning visitors of the dangers are posted throughout the park but it’s not something that was ever a safety concern for us or other visitors – people coming into the country illegally aren’t interested in being seen.

The 516 square mile park is incredibly diverse and is home to 28 species of cacti with the greatest concentration in and around the slopes of Ajo Mountain. The mountain’s also where you'll the greatest concentration of wildlife: mountain lions, javelinas, coyotes and desert tortoises. It’s also home to the best hike (in my opinion) in the park: Bull Pasture.

The park provides several services including ranger patio talks at the visitor’s center, shuttles to trail heads, a ranger-led visit to Quitobaquito Springs (can’t really recommend that one), guided ranger hikes, ranger programs at the amphitheatre and a ranger-led Mount Ajo van tour. The 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive is a highlight of the park and not to be missed, either by the van or personal vehicle. 

The Twin Peaks Campground, at first glance, seems pretty generic. It’s basically shaped like a large bell with row after row of campsites, 208 of them (34 tent-only and 174 pull-through RV sites), and not someplace that would normally appeal to us. But it’s well thought out and incorporates the beauty of the desert in its design giving campers a front row seat to the best show in the house: the sun setting over the vast Sonoran Desert.

Do you like camping? Where do you like to camp? And where’s your favourite campground? Join the conversation below in our comments section or on our Facebook page – we love hearing from you!

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  1. I'd head of Organ Pipe, but didn't know much about it or that it had been closed. When we were at Big Bend National Park in Texas there were similar issues with illegals crossing, but I don't think issues with violence and smuggling like at Organ Pipe. I found it so strange in the border areas in the States to have to go through checkpoints.

    1. There's still an issue with smuggling but I think they've been able to take the high-speed chases out of it for the most part. We only saw individuals coming across illegally (in BP custody) -- it was difficult to see and heartbreaking.

  2. What a beautiful place. We enjoyed Big Bend National park way back in the mid-1980's when we lived on the Mexican border in Del Rio, Texas. My favorite place to go on a road/hiking trip is the 4 corners area of NM,AZ, UT, and CO. All the ancient ruins in that area are the attraction for me, and the desert scenery. Plus rock hounding. Last trip, out in the desert, I came upon a ledge that was literally littered with dinosaur bones. It was amazing. Of course, they looked like ordinary red rock, but upon closer inspection you could see that the red was surrounding a core of bone. All of this while visiting a remote ruin 10 miles off the main road. We were the only visitors. A highlight of my life, literally.

  3. Beautiful destination and photos! The more I read about Arizona... :-)

    I remember in Big Bend, it was a bit tricky as well. It was a hot day when we were there, after visiting Mexico for many months. I swam across a little stream, hanging out on the bank across, when my husband noticed what I was doing and yelled: "I think you made it back to Mexico! Better hurry over here, before you are seen as an illegal!" So, my sunbathing on the bank was very short-lived.

    1. I really wanted to get down to Big Bend but it was going to add hundreds of miles to the trip. From what I understand though, it's worth the effort!