The Sonoran Desert puts on its finest show in this remote area of Arizona. Some desert plants, such as the senita cactus and elephant tree, grow only here and in Mexico. The name of Arizona's largest national monument honors the giant organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi), which thrives in this area. In appearance it's similar to the saguaro, though the organ pipe's many branches all radiate from the base.
Animals adapt to the heat by hiding out during the hottest part of the day. They're most active in the morning, evening, and night. Wildlife you might see includes lizards, birds, kangaroo rats, kit foxes, bobcats, javelina, bighorn sheep, and pronghorn. The six species of rattlesnakes are nocturnal during hot weather—a good reason to use a flashlight at night. About 40 species of birds stay year-round; more than 230 others drop in while migrating. Quitobaquito Oasis offers prime birding (see Puerto Blanco Scenic Drive, below).
If you're lucky enough to arrive in March or April after a wet winter, you'll see the desert ablaze with flowers in yellow, blue, red, and violet. Annual plants bloom first, as they must quickly germinate and produce seeds before the onslaught of the summer heat. The smaller cacti, such as cholla and prickly pear, come next. And lastly, the big saguaro and organ pipe blossoms appear, peaking in May or June. Summer is the quiet season at the monument, as daytime highs commonly hit 95-105ºF. Thunderstorms arrive in late summer, bringing about half the annual 9.5 inches or so of rain. Winters run cool to warm, with occasional gentle rains.
Kris Eggle Visitor Center
For an introduction to the highly adaptable plants and wildlife that live here, start at the visitor center (22 miles south of Why, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, 520/387-6849, www.nps.gov/orpi, $5/vehicle). A video presentation gives an overview of the area. Exhibits show plants and animals of the region and the effects of humans on the desert. Just outside, a short paved nature trail identifies common plants and provides more information on the desert environment.
Note: Before planning a trip, be sure to check with the visitor center staff to find out the status of roads and trails in the monument. Rangers can answer your questions and issue camping permits. Staff sell books, prints, and topo maps. Naturalists offer programs during the cooler months at the visitor center, on trails, and at the campground. Tohono O'odham Day takes place Saturday on the third weekend in March with craft demonstrations, food, and programs.
Puerto Blanco Scenic Drive
Only the first five miles (two-way) are currently open. Mountain bikers can ride this too.
Ajo Mountain Drive
Heading into the more rugged country of the eastern part of the monument, this drive skirts the base of 4,808-foot Mt. Ajo with many spectacular views. Most of the 21-mile gravel loop road is one-way; pick up a pamphlet describing the drive at the visitor center or at the start of the loop, just across the highway from the visitor center; allow at least two hours. Mountain bikers enjoy the loop, which they can ride in either direction.
Estes Canyon-Bull Pasture Trail, off Ajo Mountain Dr., is the most spectacular established trail. The Estes Canyon segment follows the canyon; the Bull Pasture part climbs a ridge. The trails meet and then continue to Bull Pasture, where ranchers once grazed cattle. The entire loop, including the spur trail to Bull Pasture, is 4.1 miles roundtrip with some steep sections and loose rock; carry water.
Three easy hiking trails begin from the year-round developed Twin Peaks Campground, 1.5 miles from Kris Eggle Visitor Center: Palo Verde Trail, an easy 1.5 mile path, connects Twin Peaks Campground with the visitor center and is pet friendly; Desert View Nature Trail, a 1.2-mile loop, goes through a wash and up a ridge for views; and the 4.2-mile round-trip Victoria Mine Trail leads to a historic silver mine.
The 208-site campground near the visitor center is open all year, with room for trailers to 35 feet. There's drinking water but no hookups or showers; sites cost $10 per night. It can fill during the busy season after Christmas to early April, when campers should try to arrive by 11 a.m.
Tenters can leave the asphalt and flush toilets behind to stay at Alamo Canyon Primitive Campground, 12.5 miles away near the Ajo Range. This pretty spot also makes a good base for day hikes. You'll need to register first at the visitor center, pay a $6 fee, and bring water. No trailers or RVs permitted.
For motels, stores, gas stations, and restaurants you must leave the monument. Nearest services are at Lukeville, Arizona (five miles south); Sonoita, Mexico (two miles farther); and Why (22 miles north).
Just a wide spot on the road next to the Mexican border, Lukeville honors WW I flying ace Frank Luke. Turn left at the sign for Gringo Pass Motel and Trailer Park (602/254-9284 Phoenix, $56 s, $65 d room, $11 tent, $15 RV w/hookups) has showers and laundry; call in summer. Across the highway are a gas station, supermarket, cafe (American and Mexican food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner daily), laundromat, post office, Mexican insurance office, and money exchange. Sonoita's restaurants and shops lie two miles southwest of the Mexican border. Beaches, fishing, and seafood lure many visitors 63 more miles to Puerto Peñasco on the Sea of Cortez. There you'll find seaside motels, restaurants, and trailer parks. A permit is required for travel beyond Sonoita. You can buy Mexican auto insurance on both sides of the border, in Why, and in Ajo.
Why Why? Because motorists used to call it "the Y." The tiny community centers on the junction of AZ Highways 85 and 86 north of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The Why Not Travel Store downtown offers gas, snacks, groceries, Mexican insurance, and a post office. Why 85 Deli next door serves light meals. A gas station across the street provides snacks, groceries, and Mexican insurance.
Coyote Howls II (520/387-5933, $17 RV w/hookups) is just west of the junction. On the east side of town, Coyote Howls RV Park (520/387-5209, $8.50) offers simple sites without hookups, but guests have senior activities, coin showers, water, and a dump station. To camp free of charge, you might ask people at Why for suggestions. RVs and tenters use BLM land (no facilities) at Gunsight Wash; it's 1.8 miles south of Why on AZ 85 near Milepost 55; turn right just after the bridge.
THE GILA MONSTER
On to Ajo and Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge