After booking a terrible AirBnB in Maricopa it was time to get back on track with my plans. The original idea was to fly in and immediately drive to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and hike a couple days. Now plans have changed but at least I get one full day until I can come back again. Buckle up, this is going to be a long one!
Kris Eggle Visitor Center
Of course first stop is always the visitor center to get info on trails and learn about the park’s unique local features. Here’s a shot of the map signpost – notice how vast & huge this area is! I’m only going to scratch the surface but it’s well worth it. Multiple mountain ranges, bordered by the Tohono O’odham Indian reservation and Mexico, lots of trails – you won’t get bored!
The visitor center is named in honor of Kris Eggle, a National Park Ranger who was killed in 2002 during a pursuit of drug cartel members crossing the border. By all accounts he was an inspiring person (see more here). My first thought was how the fraudulent “War on Drugs” is likely responsible in large part for his death and now 20 years later nothing has changed. Cartels wouldn’t be smuggling if we could legalize currently scheduled substances and provided proper treatment programs/health care. Instead politicans name things in memorial of our dead citizens like Kris instead of fixing the root causes.
OK stepping off my soapbox and back to the nature aspects. Incide the visitor center are several large educational exhibits detailing the climate, environment, wildlife, and history of the native O’odham peoples.
Ajo Mountain Drive
Looking at the maps and knowing I only have the day to explore, I set out on the Ajo Mountain Drive and committed to the 21-mile one-way loop east of the visitor center. It’s a mostly gravel road but well maintained and passable by any vehicle. The loop drive winds northeast climbing upwards between the Diablo Mountains and Ajo Mountain Range.
Very few signs or pullouts on the loop road but there is a mileage marker sign showing you are only 7 miles away from Mexico at this point. Second closest I’ve ever been to Mexico (first was at Chamizal where Mexico is across the highway – see that post here).
Here’s a view near the start of the loop looking towards the Ajo Range in the distance about 10 miles away. Lots of saguaro cactus in this area. Fun fact: saguaro live for 50 years before growing their first branch. Most here have none or only one branch, guessing they are 50-100 years old on average.
Another view heading towards the Ajo Range but now much closer. Mountains are such amazing things – from a distance they look MUCH smaller and once you get up-close it’s almost unbelievable how large they are. Never gets old. Cactus density has increased markedly.
Arch Canyon (partial)
First stop on the loop drive is Arch Canyon, a short draw leading up into the Ajo Range where a fantastic double arch natural rock feature is atop one of the peaks. Here’s what the trail sign looks like. I might also add that I didn’t bother to read the entire sign and just saw it was 1.2 miles out & back with 200ft elevation gain, thinking “Oh cool that’s nice and easy, let’s go!” If you read the elevation graph closer you can see it’s 0.6 miles on the maintained part of the trail – with an additional 0.7 miles and 700 more feet elevation after that…
Immediately from the trail head you can see the double arch. For those of you non-hikers it’s still definitely worth viewing from here though you probably won’t make out the teeny tiny second arch without binoculars.
After hiking a little bit closer and using my camera’s zoom lens (18-135 lens, nothing too crazy) it’s much easier to see the smaller arch. Very cool to find these!
Here’s a view of Arch Canyon after hiking to the end of the maintained trail. From here the path leads sharply south and up, up, up the steep grade. I didn’t bring my gear on such a short trail, and it’s at this point – without my normal backpack, hiking shoes/boots, trekking poles, or even water – that I realized it would be dumb and unsafe to climb any further (seriously there’s a fair bit of scree here, kind of slippery). Passed on this today but still got to see the arch from below so it was worth it.
Bull Pasture: Going UP
The next stop – and last stop – was at the Bull Pasture / Estes Canyon loop trail. It’s a 3-4+ mile loop with just shy of 1,000 feet elevation change. Depending on which trail you start on the climb profile is slightly different but both climb sharply past the junction point before actually reaching the final viewpoint. I started on the Bull Pasture Trail to the right to make a couterclockwise loop.
Bull Pasture Trail really doesn’t have any “easy” parts. As you can see it climbs right off the get-go and keeps going up until the end. Downside to this route is you don’t get much time for pictures on the outbound direction as you are mostly looking at your feet trying not to twist an ankle on rocks.
Looking backwards from a point about half-way to the junction. You can already see for many miles across the various small mountain ranges. Even if you only go this far I’d say it’s worth it but greater rewards lie ahead. Press on!
Plant life here in the Sonoran Desert are typical low scrub brushes along with many varieties of cacti including this photogenic “jumping” cholla cactus. Defintiely keep your distance if you don’t like getting poked!
Finally reached the Bull Pasture marker sign. In the distance the Ajo Range peaks loom large over everything below and rise near vertically at points with no slope at all. To say they are large is an understatement.
Here’s the view looking back to the north. Amazing scenery, just amazing. Not much else to say really. Hopefully the photos translate to your computer screen and you can understand why I come out here. [Tip: Best viewed on a larger computer screen, click any of the photos for a full-screen view with more resolution.]
Views from this spot looking west-northwest. I believe those are the Diablo Mountains across the canyon, possibly Tillotson Peak but not quite sure exactly which is which from the maps. Amazing regardless.
Looking back east-northeast across the large canyon at Bull Pasture there’s a small trickle of a waterfall. This is created by a natural spring obscured in the greneery above, aptly named Bull Pasture Spring. Historically ranchers would pasture their cattle here which is how it got the name, and now that I have seen the spring it makes sense as it might be the only water in a large area.
The trail continues another quarter/half mile to a great viewpoint but at times disappears into the brush. Doesn’t seem there is much traffic here. Watch your step, easy to get poked here.
Once reaching the viewpoint you are greeted with spectacular views of what I think is Diaz Peak straight ahead to the southwest. Far in the distance to the south? That’s Mexico. Can’t say that every day.
I found the only other living creature – what looks like some kind of common sparrow. Not sure though, I tried looking them up but I’m not much of a birder. There are more than 270 types of birds that have been observed in the monument, click here if you want to learn more about them.
One final look at the mountains in the far distance. The sun has been playing an on/off game of hide and seek with the wispy clouds and luckily in this shot gave a great dramatic effect.
Estes Canyon: Completing The Loop
Heading back downwards through Estes Canyon gives some equally incredible eye candy and you really get to see the Ajo Range exploding from the valley below. Here’s one angle where both Bull Pasture and Estes Canyon trails intersect. Quite steep going up/down here so most of my focus was on not falling down the cliff.
I don’t always include vertical photos but this one should give an idea just how far Mount Ajo towers above. At this point I think it’s a 2,000 ft elevation change and it’s all vertical. I believe there is a trail/route to the peak but it’s a much more serious adventure.
Only one trail sign on this route telling you the parking lot is 1.5 miles away. Happily though it’s all downhill from here and a much gentler slope profile.
Down at the bottom of Estes Canyon it’s much greener, shaded, and cool. It’s a narrow trail but if you step carefully there is no danger of getting poked by the cacti. Great views again of the Ajo Range.
Another similar view but with different lighting effects as the sun briefly popped out from the clouds. Even the colors change slightly when the light hits at different angles, almost as if the sky itself is painting the landscape as it changes moods.
Once back down towards the bottom of Estes Canyon I tured to look back where I had come from. Mount Ajo looks like a giant fortress looming above all the tiny ants like me down in the sandbox.
I had to snap one photo of what I would call the “ideal” organ pipe cactus as the namesake of this park. This is the only place in the United States to see large groups of them – read more about it here on the NPS site.
Finally at the end of the trail I was given a wave goodbye from one of the local polite desert citizens. Sun is getting low on the horizon which means it’s time to mosey along. Adios, Señor Sonoran Saguaro!
Exit Ajo Mountain Drive
The finaly ~11 miles driving out from Ajo Mountain Drive take a fair bit of time as you can only drive about 20mph across the washboard gravel. However as a very happy little accident I got to watch the sun set behind the mountains during this final leg of the journey. Pretty good end to a productive day. 10/10 I would come back to this park, there is so much more to be seen.
Here’s the hiking track for my abbreviated/aborted Arch Canyon hike. As you can see the trail bends 90° to the south and climbs sharply up the cliffs. I wasn’t prepared because I can’t read good sometimes and was excited to just finally do some hiking.
Stats for the Arch Canyon section. Pretty mild elevation change on the maintained section. VERY steep after that. I missed out, maybe next time.
Here’s the hiking track for the Bull Pasture / Estes Canyon loop. From the topo / shaded relief you can see how it climbs up into the Ajo Range and then rolls all downhill on the return trip. That small dotted path heading east goes all the way up to Mount Ajo.
Mileage just past 4.5 miles and elevation change right around 1,000 feet. Definitely would call this hike moderate/strenuous depending on your fitness level. It’s a workout, get ready for your glutes to be blasted but in a good way.
Lat = 31.9562531 , Long = -112.8027267 -- Show at Google Maps
Author’s Note: Due to many reasons – none of them very good – I’m posting this from the future in February 2022. Actual visit date/time December 6, 2019 5:11pm. I’ll backdate it later so as to maintain chronological order. I’ve got an overwhelming backlog of photos to process which is probably why I procrastinate. Hope you enjoy them all the same.