From the Tucson area we headed up I-10 and our next stop was Picacho Peak SP (formed in 1968). The peak is literally right beside the Interstate and the campsites were extremely large but hard to get a reservation. That evening (since we had mobile Internet access) Sharon started reading about the hike to the top of Picacho Peak and they used phrases like, it’s extremely difficult, only expert climbers should do it, and “the hike brought me to tears several times!”, so needless to say we both didn’t sleep thinking about the next day’s hike. The next day we decided we would try it and just turn around if it was too difficult for us.
The peak is believed to be about 22 Million years old which is 4 times older than the Grand Canyon. The peak was a lava flow interlaid with a thin layer of sedimentary rock that faulted and tilted steeply towards the Northeast. The interesting thing is that the Geologists cannot determine where the volcano was that produced the lava. We took the trail adjacent to the road until we reached the Hunter Trail Head and then started the steep climb up to the saddle. Some of the sections had steel guide wires to help you pull yourself up and luckily we had read that it was good to wear gloves so we had each brought along a pair. It was almost 1000’ of elevation gain to reach the saddle where we had a snack and enjoyed the views out both sides of the mountain. From there the hiking became much more difficult even though we only had another 500’ of elevation gain to go! The first part was steep decent down the far side of the mountain and you had to use both hands on the steel wire to keep from slipping down the rocks. Then we followed a series of switch backs that got progressively harder until we reached the sections where they had guy wires on two sides and you literally pulled yourself up the rock faces! We also traversed two bridge type sections along the rock faces and you really had to pray that the engineers had cross checked all the support points! Eventually we both successfully made it to the top of Picacho Peak and I’ll let the photos give you a further idea of how challenging, exhilarating and how scary this hike was but the view was worth the effort. Of course then you also had to get back down the harrowing sections that we had climbed;-)
For the way back we decided to drop down the far side so we wouldn’t have to return over the saddle although that actually lead to the longest steel wire section we had to traverse. Eventually we followed the Sunset Vista Trail with fabulous views of the desert and the back side of the mountain ridge. When we reached the trailhead we followed the trail by the road back to the campground. Our total for this hike was about 13 KMS since we started and ended at our campsite. This was a very difficult but extremely rewarding hike! However our leg and arm muscles were completely shot for two days after the hike;-)
Our next destination was Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument so we drove through the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation to get there. There is a bid dispute going on right now as the Tohono O’odham people do not want a wall built on the southern boundary of their lands at the Mexico border. As we drove through the reservation we saw lots of border patrol activity. We saw one large plane flying very low, two drone airplanes flying in formation very quickly, two security check points including one that had a fire truck and an ambulance that just arrived, and at least 20 patrol vehicles! Something was going on for sure! The scenery with the various mountain ranges and the Saguaro valleys made it a nice drive. On the way we stopped in the town called Why and were greeted by the Texaco Coyotes;-) Apparently they hang out in the parking lot hoping to be fed. We had a great Mexican lunch at Granny’s Kitchen and because it was Valentine’s Day they even gave us cupcakes, strawberries you could dip in a chocolate fountain and marshmallow skewers.
Organ Pipe Cactus NM was established in 1937 to protect the northern most area where the Organ Pipe Cactus grow within the Sonoran Desert. In 1976 it was named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve (similar to our home location of the Bruce Peninsula). The definition of a desert is an area where the evaporation is greater than the received precipitation. There are 4 deserts in North America, Great Basin, Mojave, Chihuahuan (which we saw last year) and the Sonoran. The Sonoran desert in Organ Pipe is considered a wet or green desert as they do get Monsoon rains in the summer but it still only totals 8.5” per year. When we arrived we booked for the hiking shuttle for the two following days (without really knowing all about the hikes) and we were glad that we could get a campsite (they use first come first serve for their 210 sites). The sites are primitive with no electricity or water except at the filling station but that worked fine for us. We just needed the generator a couple of times during our 5 days there so we could use the microwave.
The hiking shuttle on the first day was going to Red Tanks and we actually woke up to rain which was the first time they had rain since November (rare for winter). We thought the rain might scare off some hikers but the shuttle was almost full. The initial plan was to do about 11 KMS but we added 7 more (total 18 KMS, 27,000 steps) in order to see the Victoria Mine and the Lost Cabin and mine. The rain was light throughout the day but as the temperature rose we had to peel off layers. This was the first time we had used our rain pants on this trip. The trail was relatively flat (with the exception of going to the Lost Cabin) which was good because our muscles were still sore from Picacho Peak. The rain was an advantage in one way, as the rocks, especially at Red Tanks Tinaja, were more colourful (since they were wet). There were signs everywhere warning you about smugglers and illegals but we didn’t see any. We really enjoyed walking through the wash area south from Red Tanks although we did see lots of black water jugs split open that had been brought across the border with the illegals (the black doesn’t reflect so harder for border patrol to see). At one point in the wash there were concrete barriers that had moved with the monsoon water but we don’t know where they came from. We assume they were used to block anyone from driving up the wash. The rain also gave us some good opportunities to see the plants lap up the water. Since you all start out together from the hiking shuttle we did spend part of the walk with another couple and he was a gemologist so he showed us the quartz deposits used as an indication of an area for a copper, lead or gold mine. All the mines we saw were covered up and had barb wired fences around them so people would not get hurt but the openings were big enough that the Long Nosed Bats could still get in when they migrate. This was extremely important as the bats carry the pollen from the Organ Pipe Cactus flowers to help the species survive.
The next day’s hiker shuttle was going to the end of Senita Basin road (which was a 15 KM dirt extremely wash boarded road) but that location led to hiking we had already done so instead we had the volunteer drop us at the Milton Mine trailhead after everyone else got out. Along the road she showed us the other columnar cacti called Senita and it only grows in this one small area of the park. Our plan was to go to Milton Mine first, then Baker Mine and then return through the Red Tanks wash area we had done the day before. The total for these trails would be just under 19 KMS (over 27,000 steps according to Sharon’s step counter). At the entrance of the trailhead they had an emergency station so if an illegal (or anyone else) was in need of assistance they could press the button and the border patrol agents would come to help. The Milton Mine area was by far the largest we saw in the park. It was really cool to see all the tailing piles and the green colour of the copper in the rocks. As we progressed towards Baker Mine the trail became much more difficult with lots of rocks and ascents into the mountains. The funniest thing when we reached one saddle was that we ran into a hiker going the other way and we had hiked with him at Patagonia Lake SP just over a month ago! When we got to Baker Mine there was a somewhat suspicious looking individual with camouflage clothes on so we didn’t stay around that mine for very long. As we hiked out of that valley we had great views of the distant mountains before returning past Red Tanks Tinaja. By the time we got back to the campsite we were very exhausted after doing 37 KMS in two days! However we got a treat when a rainbow appeared over our RV even though we did not have any rain that day and we had a gorgeous sunset.
The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast since we weren’t catching the hiker shuttle. We did a short walk to the Visitor Centre (4.5 KMS round trip) to view the displays and catch some of the afternoon ranger “Patio Talks” and to get email on the park Wi-Fi since we didn’t have cell phone connections. The first talk was on birds of the area and the second one was on termites. Some cool facts we learned:
- The vulture has black wings so after he devours his meat he can spread his wings in the sun and let the black feathers absorb the heat of the sun to sterilize them.
- Owls are raptors since they hunt for prey and their flight is more silent than other raptors because they have little ridges on the edges of their feathers.
- The Gila Woodpecker will make its nest in the Saguaro cactus and the cactus will seal off the hole area to protect itself making what they call the Saguaro boot. This woodpecker has a tongue that can be 3 times the length of its beak so in order to retract it there is a cavity circling its brain where the tongue can go!
- After the Gila Woodpecker moves out an Elf Owl could move in and use the boot for its nest. Owls have hollow bones so their weight will be less so they can fly easier. The little Elf Owl only weighs as much as 15 pennies!
- Termites are very important to the park as they eat the cacti wood remains and their droppings give nitrogen back to the soil which the plants need.
- There are 5 job functions in a termite community, Queen, King, Worker, Soldier and Flying Mater. The Queen and King are responsible for the eggs in the nest. The workers are the ones who eat the wood and bring food to the nest. The Soldiers have attack jaws so they can fend off ants and in some cases their body shape is used to block a path to the nest. The Flying Mater has wings and will go to a new location to start a new community.
We chatted with another couple about their experiences camping in Mexico along the Sea of Cortez before reviewing the display boards in the visitor centre and picking up our Hike for Health pin for this park. We only had to hike 8 KMS for the pin and we had done almost 42, over achievers! That evening we went to a ranger talk in the Amphitheatre about Cacti and believe it or not actually learned several new things about Cacti including that 31% are on the brink of extinction!
For our last full day at Organ Pipe we decided to ride our Mountain Bikes around the Ajo Mountain Drive loop. The loop was a 34 KM mostly dirt road and then we had another 4 KMS to and from the campground for a total of 38 KMS (our longest ride yet). It doesn’t sound like much for road bikers but the dirt road had lots of large rocks and was wash boarded from the rain so it was quite physical. Luckily the ranger had told us it was better to ride it counter clockwise and this was great advice! The traffic (as minimal as it was) was going clockwise (road was one way) so we could see when a car was coming and stop until they went by and it meant that we were looking towards the mountains for about 20 KMS of the ride so the views were more spectacular. In addition we got to take a gradual slope up to the mountains and then have the really steep sections as downhill on the way back;-) This loop road had a detailed booklet guide with 18 stops to make explaining each area and also giving you distances to travel so that made for great rest stops along the ride. We had our lunch stop in Estes Canyon and then also stopped at Arch Canyon to do a 3 KM hike. We would have liked to hike all the way up the arches but we didn’t have our hiking boots so the climb wasn’t possible. In the afternoon some clouds rolled in so we were really glad we had clear skies through the morning as we road towards the mountains. The total trip took us 7 hours with the reading and photo stops and we were the only bikers that day but we were very glad we had done it instead of taking the ranger van or attempting to take the RV on the road.
In my latest beer sampling I got a mixed case of IPA’s from Sierra Nevada Brewery. My favourite of this grouping was the No Middle Ground IPA which had coffee added. The last shot for this section shows the beautiful campsite we had with the massive Organ Pipe Cactus right beside the RV. We really enjoyed this location and would certainly put it on our parks to return to in the future.
Next stop Lost Dutchman SP.