When I was doing my research about the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (OPCNM), I found a list of ranger programs at http://www.nps.gov/orpi/planyourvisit/ranger-programs.htm. One that looked promising (and fit into my schedule and that of the Divine Miss M) was
Ajo Mountain Van Tours
Take the opportunity to spend 3 hours with a ranger on a drive through one of the monument’s most beautiful areas.
During the time we visited, the tour went out every day at 9am and space was limited to 10 people. Since reservations were needed, I called the Kris Eggle Visitor Center and got Miss M and myself on the list.
On the appointed day, at the appointed time, Miss M and I met our driver, Ranger Anna (the young woman who cleared up the mystery of 4th graders for me; read about that here: http://www.rubbertrampartist.com/2016/02/16/i-have-a-4th-grader/), and Ranger Mark, the actual guide who did the talking. After a brief stop at the campground to pick up the other folks who were going on the tour, we were on our way.
The OPCNM website (http://www.nps.gov/orpi/planyourvisit/driving-and-biking.htm) describes the Ajo Mountain Drive as
the most popular scenic drive in the monument. It is a 21 mile, mostly gravel road usually passable by normal passenger car. RVs over 24 feet are prohibited, due to the twisting and dipping nature of the road.
The American Southwest website (http://www.americansouthwest.net/arizona/organ_pipe/ajo-mountain-drive.html) gives a great description of this drive and of the road itself, and I will quote extensively from that page.
…the main backcountry scenic route in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is..the Ajo Mountain Drive, a mostly unpaved loop that heads towards the foothills of the Ajo Range, the high, rocky ridge which forms the eastern boundary of the preserve. Although only 21 miles in length the drive still takes around 90 minutes (without stops) since the road is often narrow and very bumpy – so is not recommended for RVs…, but the scenery is magnificent, comprising extensive cactus plains separated by imposing volcanic mountains also covered with many and varied desert plants, all with no sign of civilisation. Two trails start along the way; the Bull Pasture/Estes Canyon loop, perhaps the best hike in the national monument, and a one mile path up a short side canyon to a natural arch.
The drive starts along AZ 85 opposite the [Kris Eggle] visitor center, and is two-way for a few miles then narrows and changes to one-way (clockwise) at the start of the loop section. The surface is bumpy but not too bad at first, as the road crosses a flat plain filled with countless saguaro and rather fewer organ pipes. It climbs gradually towards Diablo Canyon at the edge of the Diablo Mountains, and becomes paved for a couple of miles to ease passage over a series of short, steep, up-and-down sections across dry washes. There is one picnic area in the mountains, and another a couple of miles further at the mouth of Arch Canyon, from where begins the short path to the eponymous arch. The Ajo Mountains approach to the east as the road turns due south, passes over a low ridge and reaches a third picnic area, next to Estes Canyon. The excellent loop path up to Bull Pasture begins opposite, while the remainder of the Ajo Mountain Drive follows the widening canyon further south, curves round the southern edge of the Diablo Mountains and traverses a vast plain (Sonoyta Valley) back to the start of the two-way section. This part of the route is rather rougher and more bumpy than the first half, despite being mainly straight and relatively level. The desert plain is covered by
densely-growing saguaro, some particularly large, and the road has excellent views south for many miles, as far as the Cubabi Mountains in Mexico.
I learned a lot on this van tour, such as the difference between an organ pipe cactus and a senita cactus, the role of nurse plants, and the proper pronunciation of “saguaro” [Sa – WAH – ro]. I would have enjoyed myself had I just driven around in the desert alone or with Miss M, but having a knowledgeable guide really made the drive much more interesting, educational, and entertaining.
I would absolutely recommend this tour for anyone visiting the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. There is no additional cost for the tour; it is included with the $12 pass which allows access to the OPCNM for seven days.
If I am ever back in the area, I might make the Ajo Mountain Drive on my own with the Ajo Mountain Road Guidebook (available free in the Kris Eggle Visitor Center, according to http://www.nps.gov/orpi/planyourvisit/driving-and-biking.htm) by my side. I think the van would make it just fine if I took the drive slow and easy.
I would like to hike up to the arch in Arch Canyon and spend time looking more closely at the plants and landscape and taking more photos. But if I never get back to the Ajo Mountain Drive, I won’t be disappointed, because the tour I went on was so good.
I took all of the photos in this post.