These mountains began forming some 36 million years ago when thick, dark lava ozzed to the surface. You can see bands of dark lava mixed with lighter bands showing a chaotic geological history. The gological history, and the view, at this stop is interesting.
After you enter the park, one of the first turnouts is the Ajo Mountains Wayside. This is a pretty nice view, but there is nothing to do here except look, and I wonder why Ajo Peak is on the other side of the road?
Though the Saguaro is perhaps most impressive and the Organ Pipe Cactus a formidable sight, we thought the Chain Fruit or Jumping Cholla (though our favorite name was Teddy Bear Cholla!) was the most beautiful. Though it almost looks cuddly like a teddy bear, those spines are amongst the most painful in the cactus world. These serve the cactus well to protect it from rabbits and rodents intent on eating its very tasty fruit. Their coloring was particularly pretty late in the evening or early morning when the yellow spines took on a golden hue.
The namesake Organ Pipe Cactus is found in the United States primarily within the Monument's boundaries or very nearby. Common south of the border in Mexico, the cactus is different from the Saguaro in that its many branches rise from the base rather than from higher up on the trunk. As with the Saguaro, the cacti live to around 105 years old and reproduce quite late. Also similar is their nighttime flowering and need for animals such as bats for pollination. We were too early for its flowering as this occurs in June and July with the mature fruits ready for consumption at the tail end of that period. I guess there is a reason to come to this harsh place in summer after all!
Though armed with spines, the Ocotillo is not a cactus and the ones you see while common here are the only ones found in the United States. Since they cannot store water like a cactus their fruits swell up with liquid during wet times and the planet drops them to the ground to provide moisture to its base. We were lucky as it was in full bloom when we were there in late April though hard to capture due to its delicate thinness. You even capture the flower or the tree. It's tough to do both. Enlarge photo to even see it.
Saguaros are not only huge cacti but they live a very impressive long time, some more than 150 years. They are slow growing but still have reached heights of 45 feet and ten feet around at their thickest part. The trademark “arms” of the Saguaro do not generally sprout until after 75 years and are important to the reproductive aspect of the cacti as they provide more areas to flower and spread their seeds.
The flowers of the Saguaro are night-blooming so to get a good look at them, it's best to head out very early in the morning when they are still open. Once it warms, they start to close back up. Their nocturnal openings are perfect for pollination by bats who are drawn by the nectar and make reproduction possible in the self-incompatible flowers. They bloom in late April to May so we were well timed for their display.
The National Park system is set up for different types of people. Scenic drives with pullouts provide what 90% of the visitors will experience in any given park. So, what does that tell you about hiking? Well, first off, it's a great way to escape the masses. Now, I'll be honest. In late April, when we were visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, there weren't really any crowds but nowhere was this more apparent than when hiking up to the Bull's Pasture. This small spur off the 4 mile Estes Canyon Trail provided about as much privacy as you could ever hope to find. The trail up the canyon proper was beautiful and a good way to get up close to various cacti on a maintained trail. There is a gradual incline and a bit of up and down but it's a trail suitable for people in reasonable shape. The spur up to the pasture is a bit more steep but certainly nothing to turn anyone that has made it that far away. The views up the valley are amazing and once up top you'll have no problem envisioning cattle herders enjoying life in this harsh but beautiful setting. The trail head is half-way around the gravel Ajo Mountain Drive. It's best to set off early to escape the heat as it's a fairly exposed trail with little shade and no water en route. Bring water, a hat, sunscreen, and some food. The pasture is a nice place for a bite to eat.
The Ajo Mountain Drive is a graded one-way dirt road with scenic outlooks which manages to blend in with the natural surroundings. It is rare that a road can duplicate what it's like to hike but this one sure does a good job of it. We might have been lucky or maybe it was the time of year but there was hardly anyone else on the road which added to the remote feeling the road naturally conveys. There are signed information posts and if you pick up Ajo Mountain Drive guide at the visitor center it provides ample information on the various plant life you will encounter. It's well worth a dollar but if you are not bothered by such things, just soak in the scenery. There is no explanation necessary. It's beautiful.
A 21-mile drive through one of the most scenic areas of the park. The road is mostly gravel but is passable by most passenger cars. Beautiful views of the mountains, organ pope cactus and other cactus.
I definitely recommend stopping at Point 15 on the drive. This is Estes Canyon and is one of the most beautiful parts of the park. There is a picnic area here and a hiking trail. Also along the trail are some tinajas (a natural catchment that holds rainwater) and a pasture where ranchers used to kep their cattle.
Diablo Canyon was formed by Diablo Wash. These washes are formed by the flow of rainwater from the mountains, and allow a wide variety of plants and animals to thrive in this thin ribbon of land in the desert. There are also picnic tables here at Diablo Canyon to enjoy a nice relaxing lunch.
At point 13 along the drive is Arch Canyon. Her you will see an arch that was formed by the freezing and thawing ow ice and by the forces of the wind. The arch is 36 feet high, 90 feet wide and over 720 feet above the road. You can hike up to the arch if you want too. The hike to get close to the arch is not too bad but after a certain point the trail ends and the route is very steep, slippery and is at your own risk.
The Ajo Mountain Drive winds through the bajadas, foothills and peaks of the Ajo Mountains. The Ajo were formed 15 to 25 million years ago by periods of volcanic activity. The colorful bands you may see in some of the photos are tuff which is compressed volcanic ash.
One good way to see a lot of the attractions in the park is to take the Ajo Mountain Drive. The drive is 21 miles along a graded dirt road. The road is fine for passenger cars as long as you drive carefully. There are 22 stops along the way wher you can explore further and learn more about the area. Two of the stops include the Ajo Mountain Arch and the Estes Canyon Trail. A booklet that will tell you about the stops along the drive can be purchased for $1 at the Visitor's Center. I recommend it.
Your first stop at the park should be the visitor's center where you pay the entrance fee and get brochures and other information to help you enjoy the park. The visitor's center has a nice museum, a nature trail out the back, and graet views. The memorial at the front reminds you of the dangers in the area. He was killed by drug smugglers.
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