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INSIDE: How to find magnificent Organ Pipe Cactus out in the wild: take Ajo Mountain Drive in Organ Pipe National Monument-away from main roads

Dear Organ Pipe 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?

Sign at the entrance of the Ajo Mountain Drive loop road
Get out onto the Ajo Mountain Drive to see the famous organ pipe cactus

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.

The main road through organ pipe national monument-with saguaros and wildflowers, but no organ pipe cactus
The main road through the monument–where are the organ pipes???

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 . . .

exhibits about the sonoran desert at Kris Eggle visitor center

. . . 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.

organ pipe cacti growing on a rocky hillside on the ajo mountain drive
Organ pipe cacti LOVE growing on south-facing rocky hillsides

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

Ajo mountain drive-organ pipe cactus in foreground with suv on dirt road in background
One of the first organ pipe cacti you’ll see on 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

Saguaro and organ pipe cactus in the foothills of the ajo mountain drive

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.

man standing at placard of arch canyon trailhead with stone arch high up in the background

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.

field of yellow poppies amid cactus
Loads of wildflowers in Estes Canyon

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!

teddy bear cholla cactus

Continue on the Drive back to the starting point.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Map

map of organ pipe cactus national monument, with the ajo mountain drive circled in red
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Map, courtesy NPS (with my highlight of the Ajo Mountain Drive 😊)

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! 🤩

Common Questions about Organ Pipe National Monument

Is Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument safe?

According to the National Park Service, YES. While Organ Pipe National Monument is located along the Mexican border, any border crossing activity occurs away from where park visitors are. Plus, the NPS says, “Migrants don’t want to be reported, so it is highly unlikely visitors will ever encounter them as they don’t want to be seen.” We felt TOTALLY SAFE during our visit. For more information and safety tips, visit the NPS safety page.

What is the history of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument?

The monument was created when Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed it into law in 1937. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was created to preserve this special area of the Sonoran Desert. At this time the National Park Service saw the value of preserving the nation’s ecological wonders as well as it’s scenic wonders (such as Montezuma Castle.)

What is the name of the desert in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument?

The Sonoran Desert, which covers a vast area of this part of the southwestern US and northern Mexico. Organ Pipe National Monument is one section of this desert, and an International Biosphere Reserve due to its unique community of thriving plants and animals.

What is the closest town to the Organ Pipe National Monument?

Ajo, Arizona is approximately 35 miles north of the monument, an easy drive up Arizona highway 85. Ajo is a charming small town with a town square, a few motels and restaurants, and a lively arts community. It makes a terrific base for visiting Organ Pipe National Monument; read more about it in our post things to see in Ajo, Arizona.

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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2 images of organ pipe cactus along the ajo mountain drive, along with text overlay-at organ pipe national monument

Inside: Everything you need to know to visit Montezuma Well, a stunning pool of deep water with cliff dwellings nearby Montezuma Castle.

Imagine living in the desert 1,000 years ago and stumbling on this huge pool of water at the top of a hill . . . you’d probably gasp, right?

Spoiler alert: I actually gasped myself when I first saw it last year! Montezuma Well is truly a breathtaking sight.

What is Montezuma Well?

Montezuma Well is a deep pool of water that is actually a giant sinkhole perched high atop a hill. It’s one of several Arizona National Monuments dedicated to Native American culture.

View of montezuma well surrounded by limestone and fall foliage, with cliff dwellings in upper left
View of Montezuma Well from the water level. Note cliff dwellings on upper left

The “well” was created by the collapse of an underground cave thousands of years ago, and is replenished daily by underground streams. Montezuma well is about the size of a football field and maintains a steady water level year-round.

It’s like a giant pond nestled in a hilltop nest of limestone. Add in evidence of ancient peoples, such as cliff-dwellings and water-level cave rooms, and you’ve got a site that’s truly worth seeing.

And to top it all off, its absolutely FREE!

Take the Montezuma Well Hike

Follow the 1/2-mile trail, which will take you past all the discoveries at this magical place.

Ascend a gentle 80-yard rocky slope to reach the rim of the well. Roughly 100 feet below you’ll see the serene blue water snuggled amid reeds and mesquite trees in its limestone nest. Gasp! 😲 (told you!)

View 100 feet above montezuma well from edge-with iron railing
The unexpected well as you reach the top of the hill

You can walk along the edge to view the well from multiple angles. (Note: keep toddlers in check, the railings are sturdy, but they’d be easy for little ones to squirm through.)

Exploring the Cliff Dwellings and Caves

From your rim viewpoint search for clues of prior inhabitants.

Remains of rooms tucked into the stone cliffs overlooking the well (to your left) along the rim are evidence of the native peoples who have lived here. Experts believe the Sinagua, Hohokam, Hopi, Zuni and Yavapai all used the well at one time or another over the centuries. Because of their cliffside location, this is as close as you’ll be able to get.

close up view of cliff dwellings at montezuma well
Cliff dwellings: 1000-year old condo with a water view!

Keep looking. There are more clues . . .

A small sign points toward the “Swallet Ruins.” Hmmm, not sure what a “swallet” is, but “ruins” sounds promising. Looks like it goes right down to the water’s edge.

Descend a short trail of 112 stone steps. With each step the temperature drops, delivering a cooling respite from the Arizona heat. That coolness is welcome today; for indigenous peoples centuries ago (pre-A/C!) it would have been downright miraculous.

Soon you find yourself at some small rooms carved into the limestone wall right at the water’s edge. This is awesome! It’s like you’ve just discovered some centuries-old secret hideout!

You have. You’ve found the cliff dwellings down at the water’s edge. It feels pretty safe down here. These dwellings would have kept their inhabitants cool in the summer, and protected from storms in the winter.

And you’ve also found the beginning of the swallet: the point where the water leaves the well and goes out to the nearby creek.

Hang out for a bit in these cool (literally and figuratively 😎) spaces, envisioning one of the Sinagua grinding corn or washing clothes 900 years ago. There’s something serene about these simple domestic tasks in such a unique setting.

There’s one more historic surprise waiting down here, although the culture isn’t quite so ancient, and unfortunately it’s inconsiderate. See if you can spot the 200-year-old graffiti on one of the walls.

Avoid the temptation to add your “tag” here. As the nearby placard will warn, these are still sacred sites to the native peoples, and graffiti such as this is disrespectful. (Not to mention it’s now a National Monument, and you don’t want to be “that guy” who defaces federal property.)

Completing the Montezuma Well Hike

Return back to the rim of the well and continue on the path, which will take you down toward Beaver Creek before looping back to the parking lot.

You’ll be back in the high desert landscape of grasses, mesquite and prickly pear cactus.

Along the way you will see the remains of a few more stone dwellings, this time simply built out on the open grassy plain. Compared to what you’ve just seen, these remains might seem a little . . . mundane.

Man in front of Hilltop ruins on the montezuma well hike with fall foliage in background
These hilltop ruins at Montezuma Well only hint at the wonders nearby

But it’s these remains that provided an indication that there was, perhaps, a little more going on around here. Something that said, “look a little harder, explore a little more.”

Aren’t you glad you did?

If you like archaelology and Native American Culture, be sure to check out this post:

Details about visiting Montezuma Well

You can visit Montezuma Castle and Well on the same day. Montezuma Well National Monument is a short drive (roughly 10 miles) from Montezuma Castle.

  • Admission:Montezuma Well is free (unlike the Castle, which charges a small fee).
  • Opening Hours: 8am to 4:45pm, daily. (closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day) Picnic area closes at 4pm.
  • Services: Picnic Area with flush toilets, water refill station. Pit toilets on the trail.

Montezuma Castle National Monument was established in 1906 as the third National Monument devoted to Native American culture. Montezuma Well was added as an annex to the Monument in 1947. It is one of 30+ National Parks and Monuments in Arizona.

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Inside: Montezuma Castle in AZ: one of the best-preserved cliff dwellings in America. Plus TWO BONUS free ancient sites nearby. So. Very. Cool! 😎

Can you imagine living in a 5-story apartment building . . . built into a CLIFF? Oh, and it was built 900 years ago!

Thats Montezuma Castle. It’s the ruins of a five-story cliff dwelling of more than two dozen rooms burrowed into a limestone cliff in central Arizona by the Sinagua People centuries ago. Can you imagine having to climb ladders to get home? Talk about a 5-story walkup! 🪜😳

You can visit Montezuma Castle National Monument as a day-trip from Phoenix, or on your way to points north, such as Sedona or the Grand Canyon. It’s one of the truly amazing Arizona National Monuments. There are SO MANY reasons to visit . . . including getting access to TWO bonus parks for your admission fee!

1. See INCREDIBLE Architecture at Montezuma Castle

Montezuma Castle in AZ-view of cliff dwellings as seen from a distance-high up in the cliff

What, exactly, is Montezuma Castle? THIS! 👆👆👆 Pretty cool, huh?

Montezuma Castle is a 5-story, 20-room structure, built with stone and mortar. Simple enough, right? But here’s the kicker: it’s built into a cliff, nearly 100 feet above the ground. Suddenly it’s not-so-simple 🧐.

In fact, it’s pretty dang astonishing.

So, what’s the story here?

2-4. Learn about Montezuma Castle: History & People

Visiting provides incredible insight into people that lived in a prior millennium.

I mean, you can read about this stuff until your eyeballs 👀 get scratchy. But sooner or later, you just gotta see it for yourself. (And hopefully reading this blog post will make you want to do just that! 😊)

You’ll see that while in some ways the culture was primitive, in others they were remarkably sophisticated.

View of Montezuma Castle looking up through trees with fall foliage

2. Discover Who Built Montezuma Castle

Montezuma Castle was built by the Sinagua people. They established their culture in Arizona from AD 600 through AD 1450.

Experts theorize that the Sinagua settled here to be near Beaver Creek, which flows alongside the cliff. Experts theorize that the “castle” was built so high into the cliff to protect it from periodic flooding from the creek. No leaky basements for these guys!

View of Montezuma Castle from a distance perched high on a cliff from a
Approaching Montezuma Castle in AZ

3. Learn who discovered Montezuma Castle in AZ

Spanish settlers who arrived in the area 1500s gave the name Sinagua to the people that had come before them. The name means “without water.”

The Spaniards marveled at the magnificent structure they had built into the cliff, and arid landscape in which they had thrived. The Spaniards must’ve been scratching their heads, just like we all do! 🤔

4. Understand the name “Montezuma Castle”

Since “Montezuma” is the name of an Aztec emperor, Montezuma Castle in AZ must be connected the Aztecs . . . right? But the words “Montezuma Arizona” don’t exactly go together . . .

Spoiler alert! There is NO connection to the Aztecs. Early Spanish settlers misnamed the site. They assumed something so grand had to be associated with a regal figure like the emperor Montezuma. I suppose in the 1500s that sort of made sense. But it was a big leap . . . and an incorrect one.

Okay, chalk that one up to one of history’s great misnomers! 🤷‍♀️

5-10: Things to do AT Montezuma Castle in AZ

Once you’ve got your head around the basic history, here are some things you can do while visiting Montezuma Castle:

5. Take the Montezuma Castle Hike

Taking the Montezuma Castle hike gives you access to all that the site has to offer.

There are multiple sun shelters along the way, so you’ve got plenty of protection from the strong Arizona sunshine.

Best of all, the path is paved, and fully-accessible for anyone with mobility concerns! So everyone can experience the magnificence of Montezuma Castle in AZ.

Cartoon map of the walking trail at Montezuma Castle National Monument in AZ, including icons for the Castle and Cavate sights

6. Observe the Cliff Dwelling from Multiple Viewpoints

Stop periodically along the hike to view Montezuma Castle from different angles.

The sun will cast shadows on different parts of the structure, depending on where you’re standing.

This will help you get a more accurate 3-D picture of how intricate and sophisticated the structure really is.

7. Walk through the low-level Cliff Dwellings (Cavates)

You can walk through some of the ruins at the base of the cliff.

These low-level rooms, or “cavates,” are located at the western end of the hike, just before it begins to turn toward the river.

No one knows exactly how these were used, but many experts theorize they may have been storage rooms for grains and other living staples.

8. Study the Architectural Model of Montezuma Castle

At roughly the midpoint of the hike, you’ll find a model of Montezuma Castle in AZ in a glass case.

The model shows a cut-away version of what the castle looked like inside, and how the Sinagua people lived there.

Press the button at the front of the model to hear a short narration about life inside Montezuma Castle.

9. Take in the nature that inspired this ideal building location

There’s a reason the Sinagua chose this location: the beautiful valley with the water of Beaver Creek flowing by.

Take a few moments to stop and observe the tranquil setting and imagine someone 900 years ago coming to collect water.

Man reading placard overlooking river with trees-Montezuma Castle

10. View ancient artifacts at the Visitor Center Museum

Be sure to take some time to explore the small museum in the Visitor Center.

It’s not very large–you can view the whole thing in 10 minutes (if you’re quick!). There are several large posters and some examples of artifacts.

Spending a few minutes here will give you a better understanding of the Sinagua people, and help you appreciate Montezuma Castle in AZ even more!

Display of artifacts and placards at Montezuma Castle Visitor Center

11-15: Things to do NEAR Montezuma Castle in AZ

11. Visit Monetzuma Well (BONUS PARK #1 !!!): 10miles, 15 minutes

This crater-like “pond” is a shocking sight in the middle of the desert and an awesome bonus. Admission here is free.

Walk around the rim, where you can see cliff dwellings, then down to see the cavate structures near the water’s edge. (It’s really cool–literally–the temperature is about 10 degrees cooler down there! 😎)

12. Explore Sedona and the Red Rocks: 25 miles, 40 minutes

Montezuma Castle to Sedona is an easy drive. The magnificent red rocks of Sedona are a short drive up the road.

There you can hike to your heart’s content, shop til you drop, or find your inner Zen at one of the many yoga retreats.

(If you’re staying in Sedona, Montezuma Castle makes an excellent day trip.)

13. Tuzigoot National Monument (BONUS Park #2!!!): 22 miles, 35 minutes

For a sort-of parallel universe view of the Sinagua people, check out Tuzigoot.

This hilltop pueblo was built around the same time as Montezuma Caste, but has a very different look: less ladders, more sprawling.

Just as awesome.

And, like Montezuma Well, admission is included in your ticket to Montezuma Castle–BONUS! 🎉

Stone Ruins of Tuzigoot pueblo on a rise, with mountain in background

14. See more cave dwellings at Walnut Canyon: 63 miles, 56 minutes

This part of Arizona could be described as “cave dwelling” central.

The dwellings at Walnut Canyon National Monutment were also constructed by the Sinagua people around the same time as Montezuma Castle in AZ.

Take the 1-mile-long “Island Trail,” where you can explore inside the 25 dwellings built along the edge of the mountain.

View of pine trees viewed through opening of cliff dwelling at Walnut Canyon National Monument

15. Verde Valley Archaeology Center: 5 miles, 8 minutes

If you want to place the remarkable achievement of Montezuma Castle in AZ into context of the surrounding terrain, this is the museum for you!

Verde Valley Archaelogy Center & Museum has a series of exhibits that compare & contrast the many cultures that have inhabited the region over the millinnea.

Don’t miss the Space Rocks! display, showcasing meteorites that have fallen to earth in the vicinity. 🪐☄️

Visitor information for Montezuma Castle in AZ

Sign at the entrance to Montezuma Castle National Monument
  • Where is Montezuma Castle located? Montezuma Castle is located right off Interstate 17, 94 miles north of Phoenix and 53 miles south of Flagstaff.
  • What does Montezuma Castle cost to visit? Admission to Montezuma Castle is $10 per adult, which is good for 7 days. Children aged 15 and under are free. ***This fee also covers admission to Tuzigoot National Monument.
  • When is Montezuma Castle open? Montezuma Castle is open every day from 8:00am to 4:45pm. (Note: closed on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Day. Park closes at 1:45pm on Christmas Eve.)
  • When is the best time to visit Montezuma Castle? The best time to visit is spring and fall, when the weather is mild.
  • Can you go inside Montezuma Castle? No, you cannot go inside Montezuma Castle, but you can go inside the cavates at the base of the cliff, below the castle.
  • Is Monetzuma Castle worth visiting? I certainly hope you agree that the answer is YES! 👍

Want to learn more about the archaeology at Montezuma Castle? Check out this video from Arizona Project Archaeology (a state-approved educational organization). Go on . . . geek out! 🤓🤩

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INSIDE: These 8 gardens in Tucson showcase the beauty of the desert landscape. Discover vivid flowers, trees, and even a cactus with a pompadour! We’ll show you how you can find these natural wonders.

On my first visit to Tucson I expected to see lots of sand and no vegetation. But I was wrong. The landscape is oveflowing with vivid flowers, lacy shade trees, even a rare cactus that sports a pompadour! The beauty is all around you . . . if you know where to look.

Tucson sits smack-dab in the middle of a special place: The Sonoran Desert.

The word “desert” evokes images of sand–lots of sand. And nothing else. But that’s not true–plenty of stuff grows here.

The Sonoran Desert is one of the oldest cultivated areas in North America. (Seriously, people have been living here for over 4,000 years!).

It’s the home of the saguaro cactus, the most iconic symbol of the American southwest. Even the cactus emoji is a saguaro 🌵.

You’ll find stunning flowers, lacy shade trees, and a rare version of the saguaro with a frilly hairdo that would be right at home in a 50’s Do-Wop group. The “crested saguaro” is a mutation that occurs once in every 10,000 saguaros.

And it can only be found in the Sonoran Desert.

So let’s get going and explore that beautiful desert landscape. Here are 8 of our favorite gardens in Tucson that showcase the unique plant life in the Sonoran Desert . . .

. . . and we’ll even share 3 places where that rare cactus with a pompadour is hiding!

Girl with sunglasses posing in front of large cactus at gardens in tucson

1. Tucson Botanical Gardens: A former nursery grows up

Tucson Botanical Gardens has its roots (seems fitting!) in a nursery. It’s a pleasure to stroll the paths of what was once Desert Gardens Nursery. For nearly 40 years, founders Rutger and Bernice Porter taught locals to cultivate their own gardens with southwestern plants.

Bernice Porter donated the property to the city in 1968, which became Tucson Botanical Gardens a few years later.

Today Tucson Botanical Gardens is an oasis of desert beauty in the city. I love the 17 different specialty gardens which highlight native plants.

  • What we love: Succulent Garden & Butterfly Pavilion
  • Highlights: Christmas lights display; art exhibits in the old Porter House
  • Amenities: Cafe, Gift shop
  • Admission fee: Yes
  • Location: 5 miles northeast of downtown Tucson
  • Website: Tucson Botanical Gardens

2. Tohono Chul Gardens: a blend of art and nature

Okay, full disclosure here: I went to Tohono Chul because I knew they had a Crestate Saguaro somewhere on the property.

That’s right, the cactus with the Pompadour!

I did eventually find it (more on that in a minute), but I was astonished by how many other gorgeous gardens are on display here: a Spanish Colonial courtyard, a cultivators garden featuring native plants, even an area featuring the cutest little mini cacti! (Just don’t touch them–they may look cute & fuzzy, but they’re still sharp!)

Beautiful sculptures complement the plantings, and several art galleries with rotating exhibits delight your eyes.

But after all those tended gardens, head out to the South Loop Trail into native desert landscape. Here you’ll find lots (and lots!) of cacti . . . including the quirky Crested Saguaro–yep the guy with the pompadour! This one even has two bird’s nests in it, which look like a set of eyes 👀!

  • What we love: The mixture of wild and tame landscapes
  • Highlights: Crested Saguaro; rotating art exhibits
  • Amenities: Cafe, Gift shops (2), nursery selling native plants
  • Admission fee: Yes
  • Location: 9 miles north of downtown Tucson
  • Website: Tohono Chul
Crested saguaro cactus in desert landscape

3. Yume Japanese Gardens: serenity among gardens in Tucson

If all seeing all those cacti have you feeling a little, well, prickly, head over to Yume Japanese Gardens for a soothing change of pace.

Eight different garden settings display minimalist serenity, combining a balance of natural and man-made beauty.

I’m amazed at how these minimalist settings can still invoke communion with nature. Get your Zen on with trickling fountains, bamboo groves, and even a river of smooth stones–no water necessary!

Afterward, explore the mini-museum, with its stunning display of ceremonial Japanese kimonos.

And don’t forget to pick up some Japanese snacks in the gift shop 🍡.

  • What we love: The total Zen vibe
  • Highlights: Dry River garden, Tea Ceremony garden, kimono display
  • Amenities: Gift shop/Bookstore
  • Admission fee: Yes
  • Location: 9 miles northeast of downtown Tucson (2 blocks south of Tucson Botanical Gardens)
  • Website: Yume Japanese Gardens
garden scene at Yume Japanese gardens tucson

4. Agua Caliente Regional Park: a real live Desert Oasis!

There’s something so exotic about a desert oasis. And Agua Caliente Park fits the definition!

The park is named for a warm spring and pond that creates this unexpectedly lush spot in the desert. (“Agua Caliente” means hot water.)

Visiting this county park feels like stepping onto the grounds of a fancy resort–for free! Loads of palm trees ring a large pond, with a bridge (and even a few ducks–rare for Tucson 🦆).

It’s a really nice place for a picnic. The pretty setting is also popular with wedding parties-on our last visit we saw a ceremony taking place (so romantic! 💕). Hohokam peoples lived here 900 years ago; archaeologists also found evidence of human occupants from 5,500 years ago. This oasis has been around a long time! 🌴

  • What we love: Seeing naturally occurring water in the middle of the desert.
  • Highlights: Different types of palm trees, lots of shade
  • Amenities: Visitor center; rotating art exhibits
  • Admission fee: None
  • Location: 18 miles northeast of downtown Tucson
  • Website: Agua Caliente Park
Pond with palm trees reflected at Agua Caliente oasis in Tucson
Little girl examining mini cactus at gardens in Tucson

5. University of Arizona Arboretum: beauty is all around you

If you want to learn more about the desert landscape . . . go to school.

You don’t have to “enroll,” just go to the campus. The University of Arizona main campus Arboretum houses a truly unique collection of plants from arid and semi-arid climates around the world.

Before it gets too confusing, let me give you a tip: the Arboretum is all around you, not in some fenced-off section of campus. (Full disclosure, I had a hard time finding it the first time I went 🤦‍♀️.) Because it sprawls all over campus, it’s one of the more spectacular gardens in Tucson.

The “U of A” has a terrific interactive map on their website, which describes the various plantings you’ll find around campus. There are even 8 different walking tours with different themes, such as “Edible Landscapes” and “Arboretum History.”

But my favorite? None other than that pompadour-sporting Crested Saguaro . . . right near the Old Main building. Weird, wonky & utterly wonderful!

Bonus Sighting: try to find the true-to-scale outline of the battleship USS Arizona on the campus grounds. It’s a moving memorial to those who perished in the Pearl Harbor attacks.

  • What we love: The ENTIRE campus is an arboretum!
  • Highlights: Crested saguaro; multiple themed walking tours
  • Amenities: Several cafes, restaurants and shops adjacent to campus
  • Admission fee: None
  • Location: 1.5 miles northeast of downtown Tucson
  • Website: University of Arizona Arboretum
Crested saguaro cactus at Univ. of Arizona

6. The Mission Garden: celebrating 4,000 years of food

If you love to grow vegetables, or even if you just love to eat, you’ll love the Mission Garden. This garden is all about food. It is a celebration of the kitchen garden, and Tucson’s diverse agricultural heritage.

Tucson has a rich food history–people have been living here for 4,000 years! All due to, you guessed it, growing food.

This garden in Tucson is a living agricultural museum of Sonoran Desert-adapted heritage fruit trees, traditional local heirloom crops and edible native plants. I love strolling through to see the different crops people have cultivated over the centuries (well, okay, millenia). Corn, squash and beans planted by the native peoples, fruit trees and wheat brought by colonial Spaniards, and even winter melon and long beans brought by the Chinese. (I told you it was diverse!)

Perhaps the coolest part of the Mission Garden is its location: just west of downtown Tucson, at the site of a Native American village sacred to the Tohono O’odham people. The name of the village? S-cuk Son (pronounced “Chuk Shon”), which is where modern-day Tucson got its name. That’s some gardening props! 👩‍🌾

  • What we love: Discovering all the heritage crops
  • Highlights: Hohokam native garden, Spanish Colonial orchard
  • Amenities: Gift shop
  • Admission fee: No (but $5 donation suggested)
  • Website: Mission Garden
Spanish vegetable garden at Mission Garden Tucson

READ NEXT: 13 Unique Things to do in Tucson

7. Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum: the desert from every angle

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum definitely gives you a lot of value: there are 5 museums at this one location. Together they make quite a destination–and one of the Unusual Museums of Tucson Arizona. And (but wait . . .there’s more!) there’s a crested saguaro in the parking lot!

The 98-acre property looks at the Sonoran Desert from multiple angles. So while exploring you’ll see botanical gardens mixed in with natural history, local art, and even desert critters (like tarantulas and coatimundi).

There are 2 miles of trails connecting the exhibits . . . with 1,200 different types of plants on display. Whoever said the desert is just sand is totally wrong!

My favorite plant/animal combo is the hummingbird habitat: you could spend an hour looking at gorgeous desert flowers while these iridescent little fliers zip by your head!

  • What we love: Seeing how desert plants make up part of the whole ecosystem
  • Highlights: Hummingbird Haven, Desert Grasslands habitat, Crested Saguaro
  • Amenities: Cafe, Gift shop
  • Admission fee: Yes
  • Website: Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum
Close up of plants at Tucson botanical gardens

PRO TIP: Check out the crested saguaro at the entrance of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (just off the parking lot). You don’t even have to enter the museum to see it!

8. Bonus Pick: Saguaro National Park: Cactus, cactus & more cactus

two pug dogs wearing saguaro cactus costumes
I told you there were a LOT of cacti!

If you prefer plant life in a native setting, you can’t get much more local than Saguaro National Park. Obviously, the park celebrates the Saguaro cactus (remember the emoji? 🌵), but also all the other desert life you find in this ecosystem.

The park is divided into 2 sections: one just east of Tucson, the other just west. This makes it an easy visit when you’re staying in the area. Each section has an (accessible) interpretive trail which provides a great primer on the plants you’ll see while exploring the park.

Farther afield are networks of trails throughout the park for walkers and hikers of all abilities. I particularly like the trails in the East section, which take you into the Rincon Mountains.

(See our guide to Tucson Hikes for more info about trails in this park and beyond.)

  • What we love: Immersing ourselves in the Sonoran Desert.
  • Highlights: Interpretive trails, hikes through the Rincon Mountains
  • Amenities: Visitor Center, Gift shop (Western section only)
  • Admission fee: Yes
  • Website: Saguaro National Park

I am still determined to find that Crestate Saguaro Cactus somewhere in the wild. But for now I’m content to know that there are at least 3 places right in Tucson where I can see one whenever I want. 🌵

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Why was this (free) overlook near Horseshoe Bend practically deserted? It was fabulous!

Glen Canyon Dam Overlook is a must-see stop if you’re exploring this area in northern Arizona. Many people miss it because they’re racing to see the more famous Horseshoe Bend, or Glen Canyon Dam itself. But it’s worth taking a short detour to this well-maintained overlook for spectacular views and great photo ops. It’s one of our favorite things to do in Page AZ.

What is the Glen Canyon Dam Overlook?

Glen Canyon Dam Overlook is a designated spot perched 1,000 feet over a bend in the Colorado River about 3/4 mile south of Glen Canyon Dam itself. It’s important to note that this is an official vista point created by the National Park Service to provide visitors a scenic–and SAFE–way to see the Dam, the Colorado River and Glen Canyon itself.

View of glen canyon dam with bridge in front, taken 3/4 mile away at glen canyon overlook
A spectacular view of Glen Canyon Dam from the Overlook. Note the bridge just in front of the dam.

Five reasons to visit Glen Canyon Dam Overlook

  1. Terrific views of Glen Canyon Dam, plus Glen Canyon Bridge
  2. Wonderful views of the Colorado River slicing through Glen Canyon
  3. The overlook is easily accessible via a short (900-foot) hike
  4. Similar views to Horseshoe Bend, with less people
  5. Access is free

What can you see at this overlook?

The views at this “overlooked” overlook are stunning. Glen Canyon Dam Overlook provides a combination of views, ranging from natural to man-made wonders. The dam overlook is about 3.5 miles north of Horseshoe Bend, with much of the same natural scenery (only without the big hairpin turn in the river . . . or the crowds).

Looking to the north, you’ll be able to see the massive concrete engineering marvel of Glen Canyon Dam wedged into the red rocks of Glen Canyon. It’s the only place you can see the dam with the Glen Canyon Bridge superimposed over the front of it–it’s a very cool sight!

If natural scenery is more your thing, all you have to do is look south . . . or down. Looking down you’ll see the Colorado River flowing placidly over 1,000 below you. (If you’re lucky you might see either a motor boat or kayakers making their way down the river.)

Horizontal view of colorado river flowing through the vertical rocks of glen canyon
A view of the Colorado River above 1000-foot cliffs, looking south from Glen Canyon Dam Overlook

The view to the south gives you a terrific vantage point of the river splitting the red sandstone to create Glen Canyon. Since it curves off into the distance you’ll have some idea of what Horseshoe Bend looks like. One of the fascinating things to see is the greenery growing along the edge of the river. The vivid green against the red sandstone makes a nice color contrast, but it’s also soothing to the eye amidst all the reds and browns of this high desert landscape.

man with cowboy hat standing at overlook viewing glen canyon dam
Plenty of railings, plus space and shade to enjoy the view

There are railings all along the overlook, as well as a covered viewing area facing north toward the dam. As you can see from the pictures here, there are plenty of great photo ops, so there’s no need to do anything crazy (or irresponsible), such as climbing out beyond the railings. (DON’T do that!)

How to access the Glen Canyon Overlook

sign at the beginning of the glen canyon dam overlook trail
Sign at the trailhead, note the railings, and a glimpse of Glen Canyon Dam in the upper right

There is a short trail leading to the Glen Canyon Dam Overlook, accessed via the Dam Overlook Trailhead. The trail is only about 950 feet long, but you must descend a series of natural (but irregular) steps carved out of the sandstone. (Therefore, the trail is not suitable for those with mobility issues.) It’s a roughly 80-foot descent to the overlook, but the trail has railings all along the way. This comes in handy, as trying to balance a camera and water bottle as you’re scrambling down slightly angled steps of varying heights can get a little tricky.

To reach the trailhead, turn off of US Highway 89 onto Scenic View Road (which is a pretty appropriate name!), then turn west onto an unmarked, (but well-paved) road opposite the back entrances of the Baymont and Home2Suites Hotels. You’ll see Glen Canyon Dam in the distance, and the road will slope down slightly to a small parking lot (which, unlike parking at Horseshoe Dam, is free). From there you can access the trailhead.

man standing on red rocks above Glen Canyon admiring the view.
Take time to savor the views

How much time is required to see the overlook?

Visiting this little-known sight doesn’t take very long. It’s about 5 minutes each way to get from the parking lot to the Glen Canyon Dam overlook, and back again. If you’re really quick, another 5 minutes for photos and in just 15 minutes . . . BAM! you’re outta there.

But I encourage you to take a bit more time. The scenery is truly magnificent, and you’re likely to have the place almost to yourself. It’s a great place to slow down for a few minutes and absorb the beauty in front of you. Glen Canyon Dam Overlook is a pleasant surprise, and, like the Hanging Gardens Arizona, well-worth the short detour.

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INSIDE: Take a road trip to 4 Corners Monument-perfect for geography geeks! Also see Monument Valley nearby. Get tips on what to see & where to stay.

I never expected 4 Corners Monument to be the perfect road trip destination. The surrounding scenery is astounding.

This Arizona road trip to 4 Corners Monument takes you through the Navajo Nation in the northeast part of the state. You’ll see Monument Valley and many other stunning ancient sights related to Native American history and culture. For geography geeks (like us!), a trip to 4 Corners Monument is a must-see road trip destination. It’s the only place in American where you can stand in 4 states at once!

PRO TIP: 4 Corners Monument (i.e.The Navajo Nation) observes Daylight Savings Time, the State of Arizona does NOTbe sure to plan your schedule accordingly!


The 4 Corners Monument Road Trip Itinerary

Map showing route of 4 Corners Monument road trip
Route map of 4 Corners Monument Road Trip, image courtesy of Google Maps

This Arizona road trip itinerary begins near the north center of the state (Flagstaff or the Grand Canyon) and heads northeast into the Navajo Nation toward 4 Corners. Customize your journey to make it your own personal best road trip in Arizona by linking to one of our other itineraries. Along the way you’ll see some magnificent scenery, including Navajo National Monument and a historic Navajo display in an unlikely location (more on that below).

Spend a night (or two) at spectacular Monument Valley, using it as a base as you explore the area and visit 4 Corners Monument. Afterward, continue southward, stopping in to see the ancient Canyon de Chelly and historic Hubbell Trading post. Finish up near Petrified Forest National Park, where, if you’re so inclined, you can head back west on Route 66 in Arizona.

Cliff Dwellings at Navajo National Monument

Visit cliff dwellings that date back 700 years (!) at Navajo National Monument.

There are two sites within the park that are available to visit: Betatakin and Keet Seel. You can seek the Betatakin dwellings from a distance via an overlook on a self-guided trail.

If you want to see the Betatakin up-close, sign up for a ranger-guided tour, which takes 3-5 hours of rugged hiking. For a real in-country Navajo Nation experience, sign up for the 17-mile round trip hike to Keet Seel.

Sweeping view of cliff dwellings at Navajo National Monument, 4 corners monument

PRO TIP: Up-close looks at the cliff dwellings involve rugged hiking on ranger-guided tours. Sign up at ranger-guided tours at Navajo National Monument.


The Navajo Code Talkers Exhibit

After driving about 150 miles east the Grand Canyon you’ll come to the small town of Kayenta. Don’t bypass the Burger King: what appears to be a run-of-the-mill fast food outlet contains a hidden gem. Inside there’s an exhibit dedicated to the Navajo Code Talkers.

These Navajo soldiers transmitted encoded military messages in the Pacific Theater during World War II. The Japanese were unable to decipher the ancient language, helping the Allied path to victory.–a code the Japanese navy was never able to break.

PRO TIP: Interested in learning more about the Navajo Code Talkers? Seek out the 2002 movie Windtalkers, starring Nicolas Cage and Adam Beach.

On the Navajo Code Talker website you can hear fascinating interviews from actual Code Talkers who served in World war II. One display depicts a fascinating blend of cultures: a Purple Heart medal decorated with local turquoise.

mural of a WWII Navajo code talker on the side of a barn in the Arizona desert

Watch this video to learn more about the Code Talkers:


What, exactly, is 4 Corners Monument?

4 Corners: the only place in the United States where you can stand in one spot and be in four states at once. And because of that bit of geographic weirdness, naturally there’s a monument.

We’re both geography geeks so even from a tender age we used to look at maps and always wonder about that magical place where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah met. To some it’s a tad silly, but to travel nerds (and since you’re reading this you may be one, too) a road trip to 4 Corners Monument is a must-do journey.

4 Corners Monument feet straddling state borders
As geography geek photo ops go, 4 corners monument is high on the list!

The 4 Corners Monument straddles four states but it is firmly located within the Navajo Nation. The tribe controls the monument at the remote location and charges an admission fee of $5/person in winter; $10/person in summer; ages six and under are free. Given the uniqueness of the site that’s not bad.

The monument itself consists of a pink granite slab with markings showing the boundaries of the four states. They intersect at a round brass marker which designates the actual spot where they meet, stamped by the US Department of the Interior.

What about GPS? Is 4 Corners Monument in the right spot???

There’s been some talk lately that GPS technology has proved that the spot isn’t the actual corner of the four states. Some critics theorize that it could be 2 1 /2 miles away. Ray Russell of the Navajo Nation addresses this issue by saying, “In 1868, GPS technology was not available to surveyors.

According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the current location is the legal location of the Four Corners.” The local Bureaus of Land Management also agree. So when you stand on the brass plaque in the you can be confident that you are indeed standing at the 4 Corners of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah.

“In 1868, GPS technology was not available to surveyors. According to the U.S. Supreme Court, the current location is the legal location of the Four Corners.”

Ray Russell of the Navajo Nation

Here’s a cute video of a girl running in and out of four different states.

4 Corners Monument: A Breaking Bad Moment

The Four Corners Monument even made it into an episode of the TV show Breaking Bad. When Skylar White was thinking of leaving her husband Walt she drove up to the 4 Corners with baby Holly in tow. She stood near the plaque and flipped a coin at the middle to determine where she should go. Her choice is pretty telling. (Observant fans of the show will notice that Anna Gunn, the actress who plays Skylar, never actually made it to the Four Corners. Due to the magic of cinema her body double was used for the shots.)


Visiting Monument Valley on a 4 Corners Road Trip

Monument Valley

After getting your geography fix at Four Corners, head to Monument Valley to see some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, straddling the Arizona and Utah borders. The epic landscape has been featured in hundreds of old Western films, many of them starring John Wayne riding to the rescue and other star-studded fare including Forrest Gump, Thelma & Louise and even the most recent version of The Lone Ranger. (Okay, so maybe they all haven’t been hits.)

Where to stay near 4 Corners Monument & Monument Valley

We stayed in Monument Valley for a few nights. We found it was a great location a base to explore the 4 Corners Monument and the stunning rock formations at Monument Valley. There are only two hotels, but they are both winners, each offering their own unique charm:

  • Right at Monument Valley, stay at The View Hotel. It’s owned by the Navajo Nation and just like the name promises, it looks right out over Monument Valley and some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.
  • Historic Goulding’s Lodge opened in the 1920s as a trading post, eventually growing into a motel that housed John Wayne and crew when those Westerns were being filmed. The views of Monument Valley are more long distance views but still spectacular.

Canyons of Navajo Culture

Leaving Monument Valley and the 4 Corners Monument behind, turn south and visit Canyon de Chelly National Monument to see the site of 5,000 (!) years of civilization. Because this park is contained within the Navajo Nation, it is a rare National Park that has inhabitants, whose ancestors have lived there for generations.

While there you can view spectacular cliff dwellings, take a guided hike with a park ranger, or an off-road tour with a local Navajo guide.

If all this Navajo immersion has you hankering for a special souvenir, stop into the historic Hubbell Trading Post, which has been selling the work of Native American artisans for nearly 150 years. You can tour the Hubbell homestead, then watch Navajo artisans-in-residence practicing their craft. Much of this magnificent work is available for sale.

After leaving Hubbell Trading Post, head due south for about an hour to connect you with Interstate 40 and Old Route 66. From here you can head west, exploring the mid-century delights of Route 66, or continue south through Petrified Forest National Park and a Road Trip along the Mogollon Rim. Either way, you’ll have completed a unique trip through northeastern Arizona . . . somehow managing to visit 3 other states at 4 Corners Monument!

Where is Four Corners Monument?

Four Corners Monument feet straddling state borders

Four corners monument straddles 4 states: Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado & Utah, but this intersection of states is firmly located in the midst of the Navajo Nation.

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