Arizona has 26 National Parks, technically Arizona has 3 National Parks, the Grand Canyon, Saguaro and the Petrified Forest. The remaining 23 are categorized as National Monuments, Memorials, Historic Sites, Recreation Areas, Historical Parks, Historical Trails and Heritage Areas, but can all be found on the National Park Service website. I have been to 9 of the parks but do intend to visit them all.
Our most recent National Park visit was to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The name of this park is somewhat misleading, at least it is for me. When I think of a monument I think of an actual structure, perhaps even something with a plaque attached telling its history or significance. There is no such structure at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. So I did some internet searching, made easy by the ever friendly and helpful Google, and this is how the National Park Service explains the difference between a park and a monument in the National Parks Portfolio, edited here for easy reading: The two classes of reservations comprising the national-park and national-monument system differ primarily in the reasons for which they are established. National parks are for the use of the people of the United States generally, because of some outstanding scenic feature or natural phenomena. The principal qualities considered in studying areas for park purposes are their inspirational, educational, and recreational values. National monuments, on the other hand, are areas reserved by the National Government because they contain objects of historic, prehistoric, or scientific interest. I’m still not sure why Organ Pipe is a monument and not a park.
Organ Pipe is 153 miles southwest of Phoenix on the Arizona/Mexico border. There is no gas or food available in the park. Why is the closest town to the north of the park and has gas stations, restaurants and convenience stores but I’m not sure any of these where open when we drove through. To be safe I would make all your last-minute stops in Ajo, which is 34 miles to the north of the park and though a very small town as well, it at least had open facilities.
Prior to going to any National Park I always look at the website for tips and any need to know information. The first place I always go is the Things to Know Before You Come section. I go there first to see how pet friendly the park is since we’ve added a dog to our travel adventures. Sadly, National Parks are not as pet friendly as they’d like you to believe. Typically pets are allowed in all the parks, but they are very limited as to where they can go, Organ Pipe was no different in this respect.
From there I usually just scan the rest of the information, this particular time and I’m not sure why, I looked more carefully at the Your Safety information and this is what I learned: illegal border crossings and activities, including drug smuggling, occur daily. It is unlikely that you will encounter any illegal border activity but you should be aware that such a situation is possible. The joys of living in a border state. I can happily report that no illegal activities were witnessed on this trip. Other than one older couple at the visitor center we didn’t see any other people during our time in the park, which was quite nice actually. Of course going to a National Park in Arizona during the last weekend in May is probably not on most people’s agenda.
There are some people I’m sure, that would not have made the 5 hour round trip drive, knowing they were limited to two short hiking trails and two scenic drives, but I was able to quench my travel thirst making it well worth the drive.
Other than paying my fee and obtaining a map, I do not usually spend much time inside the visitor center. Visitor center’s are full of wonderful information and the ranger’s are always very friendly, but they are inside and what I want to see is outside.
So we’ve driven 2 ½ hours, we’ve got our map, the dog has been watered and her hiking shoes are on, we are ready to go! We walked around the short paved path behind the visitor center and started on the Palo Verde trail, a 2 ½ mile hike to the campground and back, when the husband announced he was not feeling well. UGH. Not wanting to risk a medical situation we headed back to the car cranked the air conditioning, hydrated him, and fed him to get his blood sugar up and decided it was a perfect day for scenic drives.
The North Puerto Blanco Drive is 5 miles in and back. The Ajo Mountain Drive is a 21 mile one way loop. Both drives are on dirt roads, but they are well-managed and no problem to drive. The Ajo Mountain Drive was far superior to the North Puerto Blanco Drive, if for no other reason than its distance and it being a loop. The visitor center recommends to plan on 1-2 hours for the Ajo Mountain Drive which was fairly accurate, it took us about 2 hours. I drove about 20 mph and we stopped multiple times to take photos and just take in the scenery.
According to the National Park Service website, there are 640 different plant species within the park. Wildlife sighting could include venomous snakes, scorpions, spiders, centipedes, javelinas, skunks, coyotes, squirrels, ravens, and other mammals, including mountain lions and birds. Much like all our other adventures into nature, all we saw were birds, chipmunks and an occasional small lizard. The husband believes he saw a gila monster but despite jumping out of the car and running up a rock pile no photo evidence was acquired.
Upon leaving the National Park we thought our adventure for the day was over, but not quite. Living in a border state we are accustomed to stopping at border crossing stations. My border crossing stops have always been uneventful, until this time. The second border crossing station we approached was staffed with not only border crossing guards but also a guard dog. As we pulled up to the stop the guard dog went crazy, according to the husband, the dog did a flip in the air and almost pulled its handler out of his chair. I can only assume that the border agents must have thought they scored a big bust. As the agent on my side of the car approached, I rolled the window down and our dog stuck her nose out the window. At the sight of her nose the agents face dropped and he said “Oh, you have a dog. Have a great day folks” and waved us through.
More photos from this trip are at Perfectly Damaged Photography