SUMMARY: How to find magnificent Organ Pipe Cactus out in the wild: take Ajo Mountain Drive in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument-away from main roads!
Dear Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument:
Where are all the organ pipe cacti??? I only saw one at the entrance!
We arrived at the entrance to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and dutifully took a photo of the sign . . . with its (natch) organ pipe cactus right alongside.
Eager to see the only place in the US where this cactus grows natively, we forged on 15 miles to the Visitor Center.
As we drove we saw . . . no Organ Pipes. Not. A. One. Plenty of Saguaros 🌵 and Arizona Wildflowers, which were lovely. But none of the cacti the national monument is named for.
What was going on here? Where were all the famous Organ Pipe cacti?
Spoiler Alert: we did find them eventually. The trick was taking the Ajo Mountain Drive . . .
What is the Ajo Mountain Drive?
Arguably the the best way to get a representative view of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the Ajo Mountain Drive is a 21-mile scenic drive into, you guessed it, the Ajo Mountains, located within the park’s boundaries.
Sometimes called the Ajo Mountain Loop Road, this drive takes visitors on a journey through rugged mountains while offering breathtaking views of the surrounding desert. And, yes, on this drive you’ll see plenty of Organ Pipe cacti!
The winding road is perfect for a leisurely drive, allowing you to take in the sights and sounds of the desert at your own pace. Along the way there are trailheads for those looking to hike a bit deeper into the desert, as well as a few designated picnic stops.
But before you forge ahead, we suggest you stop at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center first. After we did, we understood why we hadn’t seen any Organ Pipes . . . yet.
Kris Eggle Visitor Center
The Kris Eggle Visitor Center is located more or less in the center of the park’s boundaries, right along AZ State Route 85, in a valley between two mountain ranges (this will become significant in a moment!)
The Visitor Center provides a great introduction to the park–and to the unique Biosphere Reserve that the park encompasses. There’s a small (and accessible!) 0.1-mile walk planted with various cacti (including an organ pipe), wildflowers, and other plants you’ll see in the park.
A small exhibit area provides displays on the unique plant and animal life here at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. We love these mini museums–it helps us get an idea of what we’re actually looking at when we’re out out there exploring!
Helpful park rangers are on hand to provide suggestions, based on your interests. This is how we learned about the Ajo Mountain Drive . . .
. . . and how to find the Organ Pipe Cactus.
Read Next: 17 Things to do in Ajo AZ
Where to Find the Organ Pipe Cactus
The organ pipe cactus (Lemaireocereus) is one of the most unique cacti in the world. It’s native to the Sonoran Desert of the southwest Arizona and northwestern Mexico. The area around Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is the ONLY place in the United States where you’ll see it growing naturally. That’s why this park is so special!
The organ pipe cactus has an impressive and distinctive look to it–as you can tell by the name, it looks like a giant pipe organ and a saguaro had a baby. 🌵👶🏻 And these things are BIG–they can grow to almost 30 feet tall!
But . . . the organ pipe cactus doesn’t really like cold weather, which is why you only find it in extreme southwestern Arizona. And even then, Arizona can have some chilly nights. So . . .
Organ pipe cactus like to grow on south-facing crags and hillsides, where the sun warms up the rocky soil during the day. That warmth is enough to keep the cacti cosy at night, kind of like a big ol’ desert blanket.
Which means . . . its unlikely organ pipe cacti in valleys . . . like the one you drive through to reach the Visitor Center. AHA moment! 💡To see the famous organ pipe cactus, we’d need to get into the rocky hillsides.
Hence, the Ajo Mountain Drive.
What to See and Do on the Ajo Mountain Drive
The drive offers plenty of opportunities for wildlife sightings, so keep your eyes peeled for bighorn sheep and other desert animals. You’ll also encounter numerous pullouts along the way, allowing you to take in the stunning vistas and snap some memorable photos.
There are 2 picnic areas, but keep in mind that there is no water available on the drive, so you must bring your own (and bring plenty–it’s the desert after all!)
The drive also provides access to a few short/medium-length hikes, which is a great way to get a little deeper into the beautiful scenery.
Allow about 1.5-2 hours to complete the drive; longer if you plan to do any hiking and/or stop for a picnic lunch.
First, be sure to pick up an Ajo Mountain Drive Guide at the visitor center. (Or, if you have the NPS App, you can access it there.) There are 18 designated pull-outs along the drive, focused on nature. The guide lists the location of each one and provides descriptions for each of them.
PRO TIP: There are minimal placards along the Ajo Mountain Drive. To ensure you’re getting the most out of your experience, pick up an Ajo Mountain Drive Guide at the Visitor Center.
Some of the pull-outs are focused on specific sights you’ll see right there, while others are more general stops describing the plants and animals of the Sonoran Desert.
We found some of the pull-outs more “stop-worthy” than others, but it really depends on your familiarity with the Sonoran Desert landscape. (Or just how much of a “completist” you are 😊.)
Highlights of the Ajo Mountain Drive
The 21-mile drive begins in the flat valley opposite the visitor center (so not many organ pipe cacti-yet). It gradually winds into the base of the Ajo mountains before looping back to the valley.
Here’s a list of what we found to be the most interesting stops along the drive. Designated stops are based on their distance from the pay-station kiosk at the beginning of the drive.
Stop 4: Mile 3.9
One of the first of the namesake organ pipe cactus you’ll see along the drive. (We’re still in the valley here.) But I was so excited to finally see one in the wild I naturally had to stop and take a gazillion photos. 🤦♀️
Stop 6: Mile 5.5
A stop with a picnic ramada along Diablo Wash. This wash is one of the many canyons within the park that was inhabited by people as far back as 12,000 years ago (!). The wash is dry most of the year, but fills up during the monsoon rains in August/September.
Stop 7: Mile 6.0
This spot is on a small ridge, just above the Diablo Wash. Great views to the west of the park, including Twin Peaks (so named because of its double summit). Also a panoramic view of Mexico’s Cubabi Mountains to the south.
There’s a picnic table here as well (although no ramada covering).
*At this point in the drive you’ll be getting into the foothills of the Ajo mountains. Keep your eyes peeled for some south- and west-facing rocky ridges: organ pipe cacti will start popping up sporadically.
**Also, as you look upward into the upcoming mountains you’ll see a cool rock arch up ahead. Resist the urge to try and photo it from here–you’ll have your chance in a moment.
Arch Canyon Trailhead: Mile 8.9
The Arch Canyon Trailhead isn’t listed as a pullout stop in the Ajo Mountain Drive Guide; it’s a landmark on its own. There’s a small parking area, along with a picnic tables (no ramadas). Placards explaining a bit about the geology of the area–including how arches are formed–are posted as well.
This is a great spot to stop take photos. There are actually two arches, 600 feet up there at the top of the rock cliff. . . look closely to to see the second (smaller) one.
It’s hard to believe it from here, but that main arch is 90 feet wide!
For a short hike, the Arch Canyon Trail is short (about .6 mi each way), and takes you a bit closer to the base of the cliff beneath the arches. Be sure to take water if you decide to hike the trail! 💧💧
More intrepid hikers can continue on a short–but very steep–hike up to the Arch itself. This portion of the trail isn’t maintained by the monument, but is pretty well marked by fellow hikers.
The views are fantastic, but it’s a strenuous hike (and only recommended for experienced trekkers).
Estes Canyon: Mile 11.0
Estes Canyon is the midpoint of the Ajo Mountain Drive.
You can do 2 things at Estes Canyon: take a rest, or take a hike.
This canyon stop offers a serene and peaceful setting, perfect for a picnic lunch. Ramadas provide ample shade from the sun, making it a refreshing escape on a hot day. There are also (basic) restroom facilities here, which can come in handy.
If hiking is your thing, consider the Estes Canyon and Bull Pasture Trails. Combine these trails for a moderate-level loop (~3 miles) through the canyon.
Or, if you’re really into climbing, add on the strenuous trail spur to Bull Pasture. It climbs 800 feet in just 1/2 mile, but the views are magnificent.
One of the highlights of Estes Canyon is the many bird species that call it home. Keep an eye out for the colorful vermilion flycatcher or the striking black-throated sparrow. With over 300 bird species in the park, Estes Canyon is definitely a top spot for birdwatching.
After Estes Canyon you’ll begin looping back to the beginning of the trail. By this time you should be pretty adept at spotting organ pipe cactus!
You’ll be heading south, so you may have to pull over occasionally and look over your shoulder to see them on the south-facing hillsides. In the spring this area is chock-full of Arizona wildflowers.
Stop 15: Mile 13.1
At this stop you’ll see an nice sampling of something that is NOT a cactus: the ocatillo. These plants have a desert beauty all their own, looking like a giant bouquet of sticks (winter) or fluffy green-leafed plumes (summer). In late spring they sport lovely red flowers at the branch tips, which are popular with hummingbirds.
Stop 17: Mile 16.9
This area, known as “Teddy Bear Pass,” is a dense thicket of teddy bear cholla cactus. These cacti are beautiful with the sun shining through them-they look fluffy & cuddly (hence the name)!
Resist the temptation to give them a hug–they may look soft and fuzzy, but they are sharp!
Continue on the Drive back to the starting point.
Now you’ve completed the 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive. Hopefully you’ve seen your fair share of organ pipe cacti . . .along with all sorts of other desert vegetation!
If you’re like me, this drive gave you a new appreciation for Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument–and the organ pipe cactus! 🤩
PRO TIP: Visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the Ajo Mountain Drive can be part of a nice Southwest Arizona road trip. See our Arizona Roadtrip Planner for more information.
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