Tag Archives: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

How to Save Money While Visiting Tourist Attractions

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If you live nomadically, you have more freedom to visit tourist attractions across the U.S.A. From Arcadia National Park on the coast of Maine to Disneyland in Southern California, nomads can spend their days basking in natural beauty and having fun in amusement parks and at roadside attractions. Since fun often comes at a price, and nomads aren’t the only people on a tight budget, today I offer tips on saving money while visiting tourist attractions. The tips are aimed at nomads, but will be helpful for anyone trying to save money while on vacation.

#1 Visit in the off-season, Peak tourist season is usually Memorial Day Weekend through Labor Day Weekend  when lots of kids are out of school, but some places (I’m looking at you, Southern Arizona!) have the opposite peak season because of the ultra-hot summers and the mild winters. Some places (like Taos, NM) have two peak seasons—one during family vacation season in the summer and another during ski season in the winter. Do some research on the places you want to visit to find out when they’re less likely to be busy.

Not only are attractions less busy in the off-season, you may find nearby accommodations and activities deeply discounted.  Some amusement and theme parks offer better deals on admission during slow times.

#2 Sleep cheap. Find free or super cheap camping near the places you want to visit. You can save a bundle by camping instead of staying in a hotel or motel. I’ve found free camping close to several national parks (Arches, Canyonlands, Carlsbad Caverns) using the Free Campsites  and Campendium websites. On occasions when I couldn’t find a free campsite, I’ve found campgrounds listed on those sites (like the Super Bowl campground right outside the Needles District of Canyonlands) with a nightly fee under $10.

If you want to splurge on a night out of your rig, but don’t want to spend a wad of cash, look into staying at a hostel. Available in both mega cities (several in  NYC, three in San Francisco, and the Phoenix Hostel and Cultural Center in Phoenix, just to name a few) and in smaller towns near ski areas (the Lazy Lizard in Moab, UT; the SnowMansion northeast of Taos, NM; the Santa Fe International Hostel in Santa Fe, NM) hostels offer budget rates on a place to get a shower and a bed for the night. Cheapest accommodations are usually in dorms, but some hostels offer private rooms with private baths and cabins.

#3 Keep your food cost down. Bring your own snacks and drinks into the attraction if you can. Most national parks and monuments allow visitors to bring in food and beverages, so stock up before you arrive and don’t pay gift shop prices for granola bars and trail mix. Many amusement and theme parks do allow visitors to bring in a limited number of bottles of water, small snacks, and medically necessary food.

If possible, cook for yourself instead of eating out. If you’re boondocking or staying in a campground, cooking for yourself will probably be part of your normal rubber tramp routine. If you’re sleeping in a hostel, use of a community kitchen is often included in the nightly fee. If you do stay in a hotel or motel and the room includes a microwave, take advantage of it to make a simple meal. Also take advantage of any free breakfast the hotel/motel offers, as well as any free coffee or tea available to start your day.

Remember: food will usually cost less in supermarkets than in convenience stores or small grocery stores, so stock up on food before you hit the road or you might end up spending a lot of money on food in a remote location.

#4 Buy all your gear before you head to a tourist attraction. Similarly, supplies are going to cost more in remote locations. Avoid paying gift shop and small town prices for sunscreen, insect repellent, propane, fire starter, and batteries by planning ahead. Save money by getting supplies before you leave civilization.

You may also find better prices on fuel for your rig if you buy it in a place where several gas stations compete for business. If you can even find fuel in the middle of nowhere, you’re going to pay more for it. Top off your tank before you leave civilization.

#5 If you’re going to visit several attractions in one area, look for a bundle pass that offers access to multiple places for a one-time price.

When my host family visited Utah in the summer of 2017, they planned to visit Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Natural Bridges National Monument. Admission to each park costs $15 to $30 per vehicle, but the Southeast Utah Parks Pass was only $55 and allowed unlimited access to the three attractions the family wanted to visit, plus Hovenweep National Monument. Because the pass was valid for 12 months, The Lady of the House used it again in April 2018 to get us into those places during our epic Arizona-Utah road trip.

#6 If the price of admission allows you to enter the attraction for multiple days, take advantage of this option. Most national parks are expensive to visit, usually $25 to $35 per vehicle (and probably more in some places), but most national parks I’ve visited have allowed visitors to enter for five days to a week after paying the admission fee. Spending $35 to visit an attraction seven days in a row is a much better deal than spending $35 to stay in the place for just a few hours. Especially if you have a free or cheap camping spot nearby, slow down and get your money’s worth by exploring a place for as many days as your admission fee allows.

#7 Find out if the place you want to visit offers birthday discounts or freebies. Out of Africa wildlife park in Camp Verde, AZ charges between $18.95 (for kids 3-12) and $33.95 (for adults, with discounts for seniors and active duty members of the military and veterans) for admission, but offers folks free visits any day during their birth month. While such birthday gifts may not be typical, it’s worth checking into at privately owned attractions.

#8 If you’re eligible for a federal senior pass or access pass, get it! The access pass is available for free to U.S. citizens or permanent residents who are legally blind or permanently disabled. The senior pass is available to U.S. citizens or permanent residents 62 years or age or older. The senior pass now costs $80, but that’s a one-time fee, and the pass is valid for the pass holder’s lifetime.

Both of these passes admit the pass holder and passengers (in a private, noncommercial vehicle) to national parks and other federally managed lands. These passes also provide 50% off camping fees in many campgrounds on public land. Even at $80, the senior pass could pay for itself after only a couple of visits to national parks or a few nights in a campground.

#9 Participate in activities included in the price of admission. When my friend and I visited Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Southern Arizona, we found ranger-led van tours were included in the cost of admission. We rode in a passenger van driven by a ranger while another ranger told us about the desert scenes we saw through the windows. On another day we returned to the monument and went on a hike led by a ranger. The ranger drove a group of us to the trailhead and we hiked together while the expert shared information about the plants and animals we saw.

The visitor centers at most national parks and monuments—and at some state parks too—have educational exhibits and movies. These exhibits and movies are offered at no extra charge and allow visitors to learn about the area at their own pace.

The visitor center should also have information about upcoming ranger talks or ranger-led activities. The last time I was at Sequoia National Park, I attended a free ranger talk about woodpeckers. It lasted about half an hour and was fun and informative.

#10 If you must have souvenirs, buy small, less expensive items. At only 51 cents each, pressed pennies come for a price that’s hard to beat. At the Utah national parks and monument gift shops I visited, quarter-sized tokens depicting famous landmarks were going for 99 cents each. I also found strips of six postcards at the same gift shops for $1.99 and individual postcards for about the same cost per card at a supermarket in Moab. Not only were these items the least expensive souvenirs, they take up very little of the limited space in my van.

If you’re attracted to larger (and usually overpriced) souvenirs like sweatshirts, water bottles, and coffee table books, ask yourself these questions before you buy: Do I need it? Where am I going to put it? Will I really use it? Can I really afford it? What will I have to give up in order to bring this into my life?

#11 If you’re visiting with kids, set spending limits before you walk into a gift shop or step up to the snack shack.  Offer options within the set price range, such as You can spend $5 on lunch, which means you can have a slice of pizza or a hot dog and fries. or You can spend $10 on a souvenir. Do you want the flashlight or the Smokey Bear compass?

If you and the kids are visiting national parks, collect all the Junior Rangers freebies available and do your best to convince the children the free stuff is better than anything for sale in the gift shop.

Being on a budget does not have to stop you from having fun. By planning ahead and using skills you already have as a rubber tramp (such as knowing how to find free camping and cooking for yourself) you can have fun and see gorgeous places without breaking the bank.

Blaize Sun has been a rubber tramp for almost a decade, but has been a tightwad for a lot longer than that. Blaize comes from a long line of tightwads, including a grandma who could squeeze a nickel so tight the buffalo would groan. Blaize knows how to have a good time on the cheap and firmly believes if she can do it, you can too!

I took all the photos in this post.

Quitobaquito Pupfish

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I haven’t made it to Quitobaquito (yet), but I have seen the Quitobaquito pupfish twice. I saw it first in a pond at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and a second time at the Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center.

According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sonoyta_pupfish, the

Quitobaquito pupfish (Cyprinodon eremus) [also known as the Sonoyta pupfish] is one of the most distinct species in its genus. This pupfish ( Cyprinodon – Genus ) is restricted to the Rio Sonoyta Basin in Sonora, Mexico and south-central Arizona, named the Quitobaquito Springs. The Quitobaquito pupfish is the last remaining major population of fish at the springs. Originally, it was considered to be one of three subspecies of C. macularius, including the nominal desert pupfish (Cyprinodon macularius macularius), and the undescribed Monkey Spring pupfish (Cyprinodon sp.), but it has since been reclassified as a distinct species.[1][2]

Due to habitat changes, predation and/or competition with nonnative fishes, and possible wind drift of harmful chemicals from nearby Sonora, Mexico, the Quitobaquito pupfish population is severely reduced in other areas; however, the population at the Quitobaquito Springs remains stable…Conservation efforts for this species includes maintenance of habitats by keeping them free of nonnative aquatic species, and observing population health frequently.

According to an article in Wildlife Views from August 1995 (available as a pdf at http://www.azgfd.gov/i_e/ee/resources/field_notes/fish/quitobaquito_pupfish.pdf),

This pupfish is included on the Department’s 1988 list Threatened Native Wildlife in Arizona as an endangered species. It is also listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as endangered. Reasons for listing include habitat destruction and desiccation (including water table drawdown in Sonora, Mexico) and the potential for poisoning by wind-drifting pesticides.

Because the Quitobquito pupfish is endangered, the additional populations have been started at the visitors centers.

I definitely saw some of the pupfish at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center. I was able to get pretty close to IMG_6115that pond and see fish swimming around in there. It was more difficult to see the fish at the Cabeza Prieta Visitor Center. That pond is fenced, and there’s a fairly wide strip of land between the fence and the pond. I couldn’t get close enough to the water to say with 100% certainty that I saw a fish. But I think I did. I feel lucky to even be able to see a pond these pupfish are living in.

The aforementioned Wikipedia page says,

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This is a photo of a photo of Quitobaquito pupfish on an informational board, not a photo of actual Quitobaquito pupfish.

The Quitobaquito pupfish has a thick, chubby body with a superior mouth filled with tricuspid teeth. The scales have spine-like projections. The body colors of males and females vary. Females (and juveniles) have narrow, vertical dark bands on the sides of the body, with a disjoined lateral band. Although females (and juveniles) have silver bodies, the fins are generally colorless, with the exception of an ocellate spot on the dorsal fin, and sometimes, a dark spot on the anal fin. Mature, breeding males, however, have darker fins, attached to a light to sky-blue body. The posterior part of their caudal peduncle (tailside) is yellow or orange, and sometimes, an intense orange-red.[3]

These pupfish can handle various fluctuations of water temperatures as well; including salinity levels three times that of seawater and temperatures exceeding 95 F (35 C).[5]

The Quitobaquito pupfish are omnivores, consuming all types of aquatic insects, crustaceans, and plants.

I’m not a fish fanatic, but I am glad I’ve been able to learn about these rare creatures.

A Few Things I Know About Cacti

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I took this photo on the BLM land near Saddle Mountain in Arizona.

I didn’t grow up in the desert, but after two guided tours at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and a couple of hours at the Desert Botanical Garden, I’ve learned a few things about cacti and other desert plants.

For example, what makes a plant a cactus? I first contemplated this question when Ranger Mark told me during a restroom break on the Ajo Mountain Drive tour that the ocatillo is not a cactus. When I asked him what makes a plant a cactus, he admitted he didn’t know. Low and behold, at the Desert Botanical Garden, I found the answer. All cacti have areoles. If there’s no areole, the plant is not a cactus.

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All cacti have areoles. If there’s no areole, the plant is not a cactus. This photo was taken at the Desert Botanical Garden.

 

So just what is the areole of a cactus? According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica (http://www.britannica.com/science/areole),

Cacti can be distinguished from other succulent plants by the presence of areoles, small cushionlike structures with hairs and, in almost all species, spines or barbed bristles (glochids). Areoles are modified branches, from which flowers, more branches, and leaves (when present) may grow.

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It is easy to see the areoles on the Straight-spined Barrel Cactus in this photo. The areoles are the dark areas from which the spines are growing. Notice that several spines grow from each areole. I took this photo at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix

The Encyclopaedia Britannica (http://www.britannica.com/plant/Caryophyllales#ref594853) elaborates,

 Areoles are universal in the cactus family (at least in the juvenile phase)…Almost all species of cactus have tufts of spines that develop from the areoles. These spines are of two basic types, stiff central spines located in the middle of the areole or radial spines that grow out laterally from the edges of the areole; the former are probably protective or when brightly coloured attract pollinators, while the latter are often white and reflect sunlight, providing shade and protecting the plant body from solar radiation. In addition, these spines may be variously modified, depending on the species; for example, they may be curved, hooked, feathery, bristly, flattened, sheathed, or needlelike.

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I took this photo of an ocatillo on BLM land adjacent to the Ajo Scenic Loop in Arizona . While I was visiting, I saw no ocatillo with leaves or flowers.

So if an ocatillo isn’t a cactus, what is it?  According to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum plant fact sheet (https://www.desertmuseum.org/kids/oz/long-fact-sheets/Ocotillo.php),

Ocotillo (Fouquieria splendens)…are…large shrub[s] with long cane-like unbranched spiny stems that grow from a short trunk.

I’ve recently learned many things about the saguaro cactus, most importantly, it is found only in the Sonoran Desert. Although the saguaro may be the cactus that really represents the desert for for a lot of people, if you see a saguaro representing the desert in New Mexico or Utah, or Nevada, well, that’s just wrong. According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saguaro,

[The saguaro] is native to the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, the Mexican State of Sonora, and the Whipple Mountains and Imperial County areas of California.

I also learned saguaros often grow with the help of a nurse plant. According to a brochure I got at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument,

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This photo shows a saguaro cactus growing within the protection of its nurse plant. I took this photo on the Red Tanks Tinaja hike in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

[a]lmost any plant can become a nurse plant. Shade from the nurse plant protects the delicate cactus seedling from temperature extremes and sunburn. Shaded soil holds moisture longer. Slowly decaying leaf litter adds nutrients. Leaf litter hides the tender young plant from hungry birds or animals…

A nurse plant is not mandatory for the growth and health of a saguaro, but as the brochure says,

The saguaro cactus seedling grows best in this protected, humid environment and enriched soil beneath its nurse plant.

Finally, I learned that saguaro cacti grow very slowly. It takes about 10 years for saguaros to grow one inch! Saguaros will have grown about one foot tall after 30 years and about three feet tall after 50 years. Saguaros get their first flowers after about 70 years, when they are approximately 6 and 1/2 fee tall. They get their first arm at 15 to 16 feet tall, after about 95 to 100 years, and they reach their full height of about 43 feet when they are around 200 years old. (All of the information in the preceding paragraph is from the brochure mentioned earlier.)

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I took this photo of an organ pipe cactus on the BLM land adjacent to the Ajo Scenic Loop in Arizona.

According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stenocereus_thurberi,

Stenocereus thurberi, the organpipe [sic] cactus…is found mostly in Mexico, mainly in Sonora and southern Baja California. It is also known to the United States, but is much rarer, with the notable exception of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The plant is predominantly found on rocky hillsides up to 3,000 feet (910 m) in elevation. It is sensitive to frost, so the species is rare in low desert areas, which can be more susceptible to frost.

Unlike saguaros organ pipe cactus don’t rely on nurse plants for early help. The brochure says,

Most organ pipe cactus grow out in the open in totally unprotected settings.

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This photo of a cholla cactus was taken on the BLM land adjacent to the Ajo Scenic Loop in Arizona.

And then there’s cholla cactus. According to the Desert USA website (http://www.desertusa.com/cactus/cholla-cactus.html),

Cholla cactus represent more than 20 species of the Opuntia genus (Family Cactacea) in the North American deserts. Cholla is a term applied to various shrubby cacti of this genus with cylindrical stems composed of segmented joints. These stems are actually modified branches that serve several functions — water storage, photosynthesis and flower production.

[C]hollas are the only cactus with papery sheaths covering their spines. These sheaths are often bright and colorful, providing the cactus with its distinctive appearance.

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I took this photo of a chain fruit cholla cactus on the Red Tanks Tinaja Trail.

Opuntia are unique because of their clusters of fine, tiny, barbed spines called glochids. Found just above the cluster of regular spines, glochids are yellow or red in color and detach easily from…stems. Glochids are often difficult to see and more difficult to remove, once lodged in the skin.

Before this year, I’d never given much thought to cactus and had no idea how varied and fascinating they are. Now I’m excited to learn more about them.

 

 

 

 

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Seguaro and the moon. I took this photo from my camping spot on the BLM land adjacent to the Ajo Scenic Loop.

I took all of the photos in this post.

Red Tanks Tinaja Hike

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As soon as I found the Ajo Plaza, I went into the thrift store on the corner. I shop primarily at thrift stores, and even if I don’t buy anything, I like to see what different stores have for sell. I hadn’t been there very long when I started chatting with the two women in the store. They were talking about Hatch, New Mexico, and I told them what I knew about the area. When it was determined that I was visiting Ajo, one of the women told me I needed to visit Quitobaquito.

She said Quitobaquito was in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. She said it was an oasis in the desert, but warned me not take the route given on the tourist information. She said that was the long way around, then gave me some quick directions I didn’t understand, referring to roads I’d never heard of. I assured her I’d make it there if I could. I meant it too, because the place sounded interesting and exotic.

When I asked my friend Coyote Sue–who lives down the road in Why, AZ–about Quitobaquito, she said she’d never heard of it, so she wasn’t able to give me directions.

While planning my visit to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, I found the following listing under ranger programs (http://www.nps.gov/orpi/planyourvisit/ranger-programs.htm):

Location Talk- Quitobaquito Spring: Monday, Wednesday, Friday at 10:30am
Join a ranger at this gorgeous desert oasis and learn about the animals and its rich cultural history. Meet the ranger at Quitobaquito or contact the visitor center to reserve a spot on the van.

I asked Miss M if she wanted to attend this talk. She said yes. Good ol’ Miss M, she’s up for most anything. So I called the visitor center and signed us up for the van ride. (There was no extra charge for the van ride and talk. All of the ranger programs are included in the $12-per-car, good-for-seven-days, admission to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Because Miss M had the federal land pass for seniors, neither of us had to pay a dime.)

On the morning of the tour, we hit the road plenty early to get to the pick-up spot at the visitor center in time, but when we got out to the highway, we saw a state police roadblock. Oh no.

A female officer approached Miss M’s car. She told us the border was closed. When Miss M asked why the border was closed, she said they had no information. Miss M told her we weren’t planning to cross the border or even go near it. When Miss M said we were headed to the National Monument, the officer said no problem, and the cops let us through. At that point, both Miss M and I knew we probably weren’t going to be able to visit Quitobaquito that day.

See, Quitobaquito is close the the Mexican border…really close. According to https://organpipehistory.com/orpi-a-z/quitobaquito-springs-2/, Quitobaquito Springs is located

a mere two hundred yards from the U.S.-Mexican border.

No way was the National Park Service going to let a small group of tourists traipse around so close to the border while some sort of incident was occurring.

When we arrived at the visitor center and told the ranger about the roadblock and the closed border, he told us he hadn’t heard anything about it. However, over the next half hour, the ranger got word that the border was closed, it had been closed by Mexico, and there would be no location talk at Quitobaquito that day. He offered instead to lead a short hike (about a mile and half round trip) to the Red Tanks Tinaja.

I was disappointed. I’d been really excited to see Quitobaquito. But I knew Miss M wasn’t going to drive out there while an international incident was possibly in progress, and I wasn’t going to go get my van to drive out there on my own, so Red Tanks Tinaja it was.

(I wasn’t the only one disappointed by the cancellation of the Quitobaquito location talk. When the ranger stopped the van at the campground to pick up the other folks who’d signed up for the ride and talk, one woman was obviously angry.  Because Miss M and I were in the van with all of the doors and windows closed, we couldn’t hear anything she said, but her body language announced her displeasure.)

This is what Trails.com (https://www.trails.com/tcatalog_trail.aspx?trailid=HGS226-086) says about the Red Tanks Tinaja hike:

The trail begins as a narrow footpath, but soon merges with an old two-rut wagon trail. The wagon road runs southwest across desert flats studded with tall saguaros. Far to the east, the Ajo Range towers beyond the lesser crags of the Diablo Mountains. The cloud-rending spire of Pinkley Peak crowns conical hills to the north, while the crest of Twin Peaks rises above foothills to the south.

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This is the trail after it merged with the old two-rut wagon road. Several saguaros as well as teddy bear cholla are visible on either side of the trail. The short bushes with green leaves are creosote bushes. I have no idea what direction I was facing when I took this photo.

Never heard of a tinaja? I hadn’t either until I went on this hike. According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tinaja

Tinaja is a term originating in the American Southwest for surface pockets (depressions) formed in bedrock that occur below waterfalls, are carved out by spring flow or seepage,[1] or are caused by sand and gravel scouring in intermittent streams (arroyos).[2][3] Tinajas are an important source of surface water storage in arid environments.[2][4] These relatively rare landforms are important ecologically because they support unique plant communities and provide important services to terrestrial wildlife.

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This is the tinaja we hiked to. Our ranger guide was pleased to see the water in the tinaja.

While I was sorry to have missed out on Quitobaquito, I did enjoy this hike very much. Again, the IMG_4854ranger was knowledgeable and informative. I would have enjoyed being out in the desert and seeing new places and plant life, but I found it much better to make the journey with an experienced guide who could explain what I was seeing.

I took all of the photos in this post.

Ajo Mountain Tour

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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.

This is organ pipe cactus as seen on the Ajo Mountain van tour.

This is organ pipe cactus as seen on the Ajo Mountain van tour.

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.

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This photo shows a prickly pear cactus, and Arch Canyon in the distance.

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. IMG_4821The 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

This photo shows saguaro cacti growing near Estes Canyon picnic area.

This photo shows saguaro cacti growing near Estes Canyon picnic area.

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.

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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.

 

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I took all of the photos in this post.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

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Note: To make my writing life a little easier, I will sometimes refer to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument as the OPCNM. This photo shows the Kris Eggle Visitor Center with the monument’s namesake growing in front.

It’s thirty-three miles from the Ajo Plaza to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument’s Kris Eggle Visitor Center. That’s why Ajo is sometimes referred to as “the gateway to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.” Visiting the National Monument was definitely on my list of things I wanted to do while I was in the area.

This is one of the organ pipe cacti that give the national monument its name.

This is one of the organ pipe cacti that give the national monument its name.

According to http://www.nps.gov/orpi/learn/historyculture/index.htm,

…President Franklin D. Roosevelt created Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument on April 13, 1937. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was created as a way to preserve a representative area of the Sonoran Desert. The new monument was part of a movement in the National Parks to protect not just scenic wonders but also the ecological wonders of the country.

The entrance fee to the OPCNM is $12, but that includes all occupants of a vehicle, and is good for seven days. I was quite fortunate to be in Ajo at the same time as the Divine Miss M. She has the federal land pass for seniors and was gracious enough to offer that we take her vehicle. I didn’t have to pay an admission fee! Thanks, Miss M!

One could easily visit the OPCNM seven days in a row.

There’s lots to do before leaving the Kris Eggle Visitor Center. According to the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Cactus Chronicle (http://www.nps.gov/orpi/learn/upload/2016-web-version.pdf),

The Kris Eggle Visitor Center is open 8:00 am – 5:00 pm. Stop by for an informative slide presentation, a 1/10 mile stroll on the handicapped-accessible nature trail, the nature and museum exhibit room, bookstore, and answers from a park ranger or volunteer at the information counter.

The slide presentation is informative. Miss M and I caught it at the end of our second visit. It’s basically an overview of the weather patterns and the plant and animal life in the OPCNM, so I would recommend watching it before you go out on a hike or a ranger-led tour.

The visitor center is also your best bet for using the restroom and filling your water bottle before heading off into the wilderness.

If one likes educational programs or guided tours, there are many available in the monument. Any of these programs are included in the monument admission fee. According to http://www.nps.gov/orpi/planyourvisit/ranger-programs.htm, 15 minute “patio talks” are given three times a day (at 11am, 2pm, and 3pm) on the back patio of the Kris Eggle Visitor Center. In addition, there are a variety of ranger-led tours and hikes held throughout the week, including

Desert View Hike (Explore the desert ecosystem and see desert plants up close. A 1.5 mile easy loop trail with great views awaits.)

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.)

Location Talk- Quitobaquito Spring (Join a ranger at this gorgeous desert oasis and learn about the animals and its rich cultural history.)

Location Talk- Gachado Line Camp (Join a ranger at this historic cowboy line camp and explore the hard work it took to ranch the Sonoran Desert.)

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This photo shows saguaro cacti and the rugged mountains of the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

Miss M and I went on a van tour and a hike; I’ll devote individual posts to those adventures.

For folks who’d rather go it alone, there are several scenic drives to take. (Find the drives  listed here: http://www.nps.gov/orpi/planyourvisit/driving-and-biking.htm). Also,

bikes are allowed on all roads open to vehicle traffic.

Of course, there’s plenty of hiking in OPCNM for folks who are into that sort of thing. According to http://www.nps.gov/orpi/planyourvisit/hiking.htm,

There are miles and miles of trails laced around Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Some are easy, others are strenuous, most of them fall somewhere in between. Some of the best hiking is off the beaten trails and out in the canyons with a map and compass to guide you.

The above mentioned webpage lists over a dozen hikes and which drive to take to get to them.

I had a great time at the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Two visits was not nearly enough to see everything there is to see and do everything there is to do.

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I took all of the photos in this post.

Ajo Scenic Loop and BLM Land

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Afternoon sunlight on the Ajo Scenic Loop

When Coyote Sue told me about Ajo, I was excited to hear there was plenty of free camping on BLM land right outside of town. Between what Sue told me about Darby Well Road and the brief write up on the Free Campsites website, I found the BLM land with little problem.

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Beyond these two saguaros, one can see the giant wall of earth. Beyond the wall of earth is the New Cornelia Mine.

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“Property of Freeport Minerals Corporation–No Trespassing”

Freeport-McMoRan owns the land across from the BLM land.  Freeport-McMoRan’s land is fenced off, with “no trespassing” signs affixed to the fence. Beyond the fence, are massive walls of earth. Beyond the walls of earth is the New Cornelia Mine.

Later, when I read the brochure for the Ajo Scenic Loop, I realized that Darby Well Road is part of that picturesque 10 mile drive.

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This photo shows the view I had when I opened the side doors of the van.

The first couple of nights I stayed in the area, I kept my camp fairly close to Highway 85. On the third day, I drove the whole Scenic Loop and saw how much public land was available for camping. From that night on, I parked the van in a spot where I was surrounded by nature.

IMG_4591At the intersection of Darby Well Road and Scenic Loop Road is a sign warning people that smuggling and illegal immigration may happen in the area. I didn’t see anything that even vaguely resembled smuggling or illegal immigration, although I did see Border Patrol trucks zooming way too fast down Darby Well Road. The only other people I saw were boondocking on the BLM land.

Like on most BLM land, there is a 14 day camping limit here. However, there was no camp host in the area, and no IMG_4646permit was required for camping. I did not see any BLM employee during the time I  spent in there.

Camping in the Darby Well/Scenic Loop area is definitely primitive. There’s no running water, no drinking water, no picnic tables, no shade structures, no trash cans, no dumpsters, no showers, and no pit toilets. Nothing is provided and anything packed-in certainly needs to be packed-out.

This was the view from the other side of my van.

This was the view from the other side of my van.

What I liked best about camping on this BLM land is that even though Ajo is just a couple of miles away, I couldn’t hear the low roar of vehicular traffic in the distance. I couldn’t see the lights of the town. The only signs of civilization I saw were the RVs belonging to the other folks camping out and the occasional automobile tooling along Scenic Loop Road.

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This organ pipe cactus is visible from the Ajo Scenic Loop.

There is a lot of organ pipe cactus, as well as other varieties of cacti on the Ajo Scenic Loop. A brochure from the Ajo Historical Society Museum states,

Essentially all Sonoran Desert plants, for this elevation, are readily spotted on this easy self guided tour. Many say there are more Organ Pipe Cacti here than in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Saguaro, Organ Pipe, Hedgehog, Barrel, Prickly Pear and Cholla Cacti, Ocotillo and Jojoba, Mesquite, Iron Wood, Palo Verde and Elephant Trees, Fairy Duster and Brittlebush all are well represented or in abundance as are many more desert varieties.

[The overzealous capitalization in the above quote is thanks to the writer of the brochure and not to me.]

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Cholla–pronounced \ˈchȯi-yə\–cactus.

Saguaro in the afternoon light.

Saguaro in the afternoon light.

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The BLM land on the Ajo Scenic Loop is definitely one of my favorite places to boondock. It’s quiet, it’s dark at night, and the scenery is fantastic! IMG_4641

Ajo, Arizona

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This “Welcome to Ajo” tile mosaic is on Highway 85, just south of the Olsens Market Place grocery/hardware combo store. I don’t know who created this mosaic, but I like it a lot.

My friend Coyote Sue spends part of her year in Arizona, around the towns of Ajo and Why. She invited me to visit the next time I was in the area. When I left the 2016 RTR (the Rubber Tramp Rendezvous–read more about it here: http://www.rubbertrampartist.com/2016/01/23/report-on-the-2016-rubber-tramp-rendezvous/), I decided to drive down to Ajo to visit Coyote Sue and do a bit of exploring.

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This is “A” Mountain–official name, Camelback Mountain–in Ajo, AZ. The elevation of this mountain is 2,573 feet. I believe I was on Indian Village Road when I took this photo. I was definitely on my way to the history museum when I took it.

According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ajo,_Arizona, Ajo

 …is a census-designated place (CDP) in Pima County, Arizona… The population was 3,705 at the 2000 census. Ajo is located on State Route 85 just 43 miles (69 km) from the Mexican border. It is the closest community to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

If you thought, as I did, that Ajo was named for the Spanish word for garlic, you would be, as I was, wrong. Although the DesertUSA website (http://www.desertusa.com/cities/az/ajo.html)–which doesn’t site any sources–says,

In Spanish, ajo means “garlic.”  Wild garlic plants (the Ajo lily or desert lily – an onion-like plant) that grew in the surrounding hills were responsible for the naming of the community…

I’m more inclined to believe the explanation on the Ajo Chamber of Commerce history webpage (http://www.ajochamber.com/explore/history-of-ajo/).

Before the community of Ajo was settled, the Tohono O’odham [the local indigenous people] used water from a series of potholes in the area they called Mu’i Wawhia or Moivavi (many wells). Mexican miners later called the site Ajo, perhaps influenced by another O’odham name for the area –-au-auho—for the pigment they obtained from the ore-rich rocks.

Ajo exists because of mining. The aforementioned Chamber of Commerce history webpage details the history of Ajo and mining. I’ll cover that information when I write about my visit to the New Cornelia Open Pit Mine Lookout.

Ajo has a lovely town plaza.

IMG_4704According to http://www.ajochamber.com/attractions/local-attractions/, the plaza

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This photo shows the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, which is west of the Ajo plaza.

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This photo shows the Ajo Federated Church, which is west of the Ajo plaza.

was built in 1917 under the direction of John Greenway’s wife Isabella. The Spanish Colonial Revival style town square features a center park surrounded by retail shops, a post office and restaurants accented with two mission-style churches. The [Immaculate Conception] Catholic Church was built in 1924 and the Federated Church in 1926…The plaza was purchased by the International Sonoran Desert Alliance in 2008 and is in the midst of a multi-year process of restoration and revitalization.

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This photo shows Immaculate Conception Catholic Church and mountains. I appreciate the crisp whiteness of the churches against the starkness of the mountains.

According to http://www.desertusa.com/cities/az/ajo.html, the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church

was designed by George Washington Smith, a Santa Barbara, California architect…The Protestant church [the Ajo Federated Church] was built in 1927 and influenced by the same architect. He died however before it was built and does not get full credit for it.

The Curley School is another historic building in Ajo. The Ajo Chamber of Commerce (http://www.ajochamber.com/attractions/local-attractions/) has the following to say about the Curley School:

Easily visible from the town plaza, Ajo’s Curley School is an architectural masterpiece of Spanish Colonial Revival style that harmonizes seamlessly with the rest of the historic downtown. The main building on the seven acre campus was built in 1919 with additional buildings added in 1926 and 1937. The Curley School has been renovated by the International Sonoran Desert Alliance into 30 affordable live/work rentals for artists…

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This is the Curley School, named, according to http://www.cunews.info/curley.html, for Michael (“Mike”) Curley, first mine manager of the New Cornelia mine in Ajo. Mike Curley died in 1945.

A good place to start a visit to Ajo is the visitor center in the Ajo train depot, on the plaza. I found information about IMG_4680the New Cornelia mine and the Ajo Scenic Loop, as well as a map for a self-guided walking tour, all in that one spot.

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This photo shows the building housing the Ajo Historical Society Museum. The building was originally St. Catherine’s Indian Mission.

Another place to learn about Ajo’s past is the Ajo Historical Society Museum, housed in the former St. Catherine’s Indian Mission. According to http://www.ajochamber.com/attractions/local-attractions/,

the museum houses many artifacts and mementos from Ajo’s past. The displays include a complete blacksmith shop, a dentist’s office and an early print shop.

I visited the Ajo Historical Society museum. No admission fee is charged, but donations are accepted. The first few displays, including the print shop, the dentist’s office, and blacksmith shop, are well organized and clearly labeled. However, the further back I went in the museum, the more the displays took on an elementary school social studies fair feel. Many of the displays seemed cluttered with items that were certainly old (by the standards of the Southwest) but didn’t seem necessarily significant.

Overall, I enjoyed my time in Ajo and would be pleased to visit again in the winter, when the weather in the desert is perfect.

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I took all of the photos in this post.

I Have a 4th Grader

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Last summer when I worked collecting parking fees across the street from a popular trail in a National Forest, many visitors tried to avoid paying to park their cars. I heard many reasons why people thought they shouldn’t have to fork over $5 to park, including I’m disabled, I’m a veteran, I’m a disabled veteran, I pay taxes, I have an America the Beautiful pass, I’m a senior citizen, I’m a local, and I paid to camp.

Some time after Labor Day when I thought I’d heard it all, in response to my request for $5, the woman driving said, I have a 4th grader.

I suppressed the urge to say, What the fuck’s that got to do with anything? and looked at her blankly (which wasn’t difficult since I honestly had no idea what she was talking about) until she handed over the cash.

When I told my coworkers about the woman and her 4th grader, they were as perplexed as I was. A 4th grader? So what?

Four months later, the Divine Miss M and I visited the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (http://www.nps.gov/orpi/index.htm). We were on a van tour of the Ajo Mountain Drive, and our driver was a lovely young ranger named Anna. As she made chit chat with us and the couple sitting int he first bench seat, Anna told us she wanted to make a career of working with kids on public (federal) land. She mentioned a program called Every Kid in a Park, and explained this program waived admission fees to public land for every fourth grader in the United States.

In an instant all became clear. The woman with the 4th grader thought she shouldn’t have to pay the parking fee because of the Every Kid in the Park program.

(According to http://www.nps.gov/orpi/index.htm,

To help engage and create our next generation of park visitors, supporters and advocates, the White House, in partnership with the Federal Land Management agencies, launched the Every Kid in a Park initiative. The immediate goal is to provide an opportunity for each and every 4th grade student across the country to experience their federal public lands and waters in person throughout the 2015-2016 school year.

Beginning September 1st all kids in the fourth grade have access to their own Every Kid in a Park pass at www.everykidinapark.gov. This pass provides free access to national parks, national forests, national wildlife refuges, and more!)

Far down the list of official rules for the Every Kid in a Park pass (found at https://www.everykidinapark.gov/rules/), it says

Also, some sites are managed by private operators. They may not honor the pass. Check with the site ahead of time to find out.

If the lady with the 4th grader had checked ahead of time, she would have found the parking lot I worked in was indeed managed by a private operator and did not honor the pass.

As Anna explained the Every Kid in a Park program, I wondered–if I lived long enough, would I eventually understand the reason for everything I experienced?