Arizona’s Organ Pipe Cactus National Park

Share the stark splendor of an exotic desert world—and some tasty cowboy coffee at Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Park.

Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Park

Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Park

Saguaro and cholla cactus catch the sun's last rays in the Ajo Mountains.

Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Park

Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Park

Brilliant Mexican poppies carpet the Sonoran desert floor.

Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Park

Arizona's Organ Pipe Cactus National Park

Spring rains coax the Sonoran Desert into glorious bloom.

    By Mary Liz Austin

    My husband, Terry, and I have been driving for three days, straight south from the Pacific Northwest. We love snow, but it’s time to search for signs of spring and feel sun on our faces.

    Our destination is remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast Sonoran Desert. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals, including its namesake.

    This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, so it’s a rare species in the U.S. With its multiple stems, the cactus resembles an old-fashioned pipe organ, and with a little imagination you can almost hear them serenading the desert. An organ pipe cactus can have up to 100 arms, reach 25 feet in height and live for a century. The cacti bloom from May through June with 3-inch flowers that are pollinated at night by bats and moths.

    We start searching for photo locations as soon as we arrive, because it usually takes a few days of persistent scouting to locate the best spots and capture them with best lighting conditions. Driving down Highway 85, the main road into the national monument, we begin to see swaths of blooming brittlebush. It’s thrilling to see these 4-foot-tall shrubs covered with bright yellow blossoms.

    We pull into a very tight sandy turnout and hike out into the desert in search of good flowering specimens and dramatic views. Soon we lose sight of our truck and are absorbed in the beauty of the spring desert. I’m lost in thought when a gruff voice snaps me out of my reverie.

    A patrolling park ranger noticed our truck squeezed into its spot, which is apparently an unauthorized pullout. We’re a stone’s throw from the Mexican border, and he wonders what we’re doing here. After we assure him that we’re searching for wildflowers, not people, he warms up considerably. We talk about the park, his job and our travels. Before he leaves, our new friend, Ranger Steve, invites us to his house in the morning for some cowboy coffee.

    Still, we decide to stick to the main roads after that. Highway 85 cuts through the monument from north to south. From the visitor center you can take two drives. Both are unpaved but well graded.

    The Puerto Blanco drive west of the visitor center is a quick 5 miles to the wildlife-rich potholes of Red Tanks Tinaja and Pinkley Peaks picnic area. Toward the east is the Ajo Mountain loop drive, a beautiful 21-mile desert tour. It’s a one-way road with no amenities, so stock up on fuel, water, food and sun protection before you begin. The loop offers amazing views of barrel, saguaro and organ pipe cacti. And in the spring, the desert floor can be filled with such wildflowers as orange poppies and purple lupine. If you keep a keen eye out, you also might also see desert bighorn sheep, deer, coyotes and javelina.

    The next morning, after photographing the sunrise, we head to Ranger Steve’s house, where a blue enamel coffeepot is boiling on the stove. I have to admit I’m skeptical as I watch him add coffee grounds, two egg shells and a cinnamon stick to the water.

    After it has brewed, he hands me a mug, and I consider dumping this crazy concoction into a potted cactus. But after one sip I’m hooked. The flavor—like our experience in this extraordinary desert—is exotic, inviting and utterly unforgettable.

    Photography by Terry Donnelly

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    Jessica June 18, 2013 at 9:26 pm

    Great article, what a beautiful shot of the desert. Did you photograph that yourself? I live in Arizona and can’t get enough of the Saguaro cactus. I even went as far as to looking into getting one in my backyard. Most of my yard is covered with Arizona sod, the local guys over at Evergreen Turf installed it for me (, but I wanted a cactus too! I guess it’s not possible because the Saguaro is protected. So I’ll just have to photograph them in the wild like you.


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