Organ Pipe National Monument

As I’ve mentioned before, arriving to our campsite after dark isn’t one of my favorite ways to get settled.  But after our afternoon in Mexico and our usual travel pace, we arrived to our spot at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument as the sun was setting. Fortunately we had an easy, relatively flat spot. Although at some point in this trip I know we won’t be so lucky so I’ll take our small victories as we can get them.

Nikki had read the Twin Peaks Campground at Organ Pipe was ranked as the top campground amongst all of the National Parks campgrounds. When we woke up the next morning we got a feeling as to why. It was like being in the middle of a cactus garden. Each campsite was separated by its neighbor with beautiful desert greenery and most spots had their very own saguaro cactus at their site. For those of you who don’t know the saguaro species of cacti (we’re learning as we continue to spend more time in the desert) they are the huge cacti with curved arms and are probably what you would draw if someone asked your to “draw a cactus.” We have been affectionately calling them “cartoon cactus” because they remind us of the backdrop from a Roadrunner cartoon. They were everywhere. And if it wasn’t just saguaro. There were lots of other varieties including the Organ Pipe cactus, which are only native to those few square miles of the U.S. The whole surrounding landscape was filled with lush green vegetation. We were in the desert, but everything was so green. Not the green of Kentucky, but green nonetheless and much more than any of us expected. 

Our first full day, once the kids wrapped up their school work, we headed to the visitor center to plan our hikes, get park maps and check out the park movie. Our first hike was the Estes Canyon and Bull Pasture Trail. In order to get to the trailhead we had to drive about five miles on gravel roads in the middle of the desert. It was fairly slow going but we felt like we were in the middle of a cactus forest, it was so cool. The hike is a moderate 4 mile loop trail with a 1,000’ elevation gain to its namesake Bull Pasture at the middle of the trail.

When we started our hike it was cloudy and shortly after we started the sky was completely covered in clouds. It made the hike cooler and protected us from the sun, but it would have been nice to have had clearer skies. As we climbed the switchback trail to the top, we were surrounded by rocky cliffs and surprisingly an occasional cactus tucked in the cracks and crevices. The view from the top made the hike worth it. The onetime pasture sits on top of a small butte and provides an amazing view of the canyon and desert floor below. We could even see as far as Mexico, which was about five miles as the crow flies.

At night we decided to play a National Parks board game we got from Nikki’s sister and her family for Christmas. I’m not going to lie, when we first started playing it seemed like complete mayhem, with an instruction book of non-sensical instructions that reminded me of a Monty Python sketch. But once we got started and figured it out as we played, it turned out to be a really fun game. Like play-every-night-bordering-on-obsession kind of fun. Nikki is our reigning champ, but we are all determined to steal her crown (or would that be Junior Ranger badge?)

Having one good hike under our belts we decided on a longer, although much flatter, trail the following day. We set off a bit earlier than the day before and made our way to the start of the Red Tanks Tinaja which spilled into part of the Baker Mine trail which then met up to the Senata Basin for a whopping 10 mile loop in total.

All-in-all the hike was pretty flat but at the first half there was a series of rolling hills covered in loose rock that made things a bit slower going. About mid-way through we started noticing more and more rocks with light blue spots and patches on them. We later found out those piles of blue rocks are called “chalcedony” and were tailings (or useless bits of rocks) from the mining days of the Baker Mine. There were also shafts that had since been covered up but you could still see their timber-framed remains.

Blue rocks weren’t the only thing we found along the trail that day. We also noticed tall blue flags just off the trail. Stepping off the trail we discovered the flags were markers for large water coolers that had been placed there by an organization called Humane Borders. Their mission is to save the migrants who attempt to make the journey into the US across the Sonoran Desert by providing them with clean drinking water. We were obviously there during mild temperatures and it was still warm in the sun. I can’t image what it’s like trying to cross the Sonoran during the dead of summer, let alone with out water, or even worse, at night. Imagine your life being so bad that your only hope for a better life is by making that trek to southern Arizona. Yeah, we’re all pretty damn lucky to have drawn the lot in life we have.

Lady Liberty said it best, “Give me your tired, your poor. Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, temptest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” It really put things into perspective. If you’d like to help their mission, you can learn more at their site,