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Friday, June 30, 2023

Old Mines and Cactus Spines: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Oh my god, they weren't kidding.

I found myself hunkered down in a sumo squat, naked and afraid of the water spraying out of the shower head. Hot! So hot! Searing, surface-of-the-sun hot. Why did I bother wearing sunscreen when the shower was threatening to give me worse burns than the Arizona sun could ever dish out?

After a long hike in the hot desert sun, the campground showers sounded like heaven. I had fantasized about this moment the last two miles of the hike as the ravens cawed and the cactus loomed, stubbornly refusing to offer shade. A nice cool shower was just the ticket, I thought. The empty campground guaranteed I'd be the only one in the restroom, a luxury during our two week camping trip. It's gonna be great!

A sign posted on the bathroom door noted the shower water was warmed by a solar device on the roof and to use with care, it could be very hot. It was fairly early in the morning so I figured the water wouldn't have had THAT much time to heat. Besides, I could always mix it with cold, right?

Nope. The water was on or it was off, no hot/cold mixing available. And apparently the pipes were plumbed straight through hell before leading to the shower head. The only saving grace: the shower head shot out a misty spray. You know, the normally annoying sputtering flow you find in the cheapest hotels. With the finesse of a Marine crossing under barbed wire with a dash of coyote stalking unsuspecting prey, I squatted on the periphery of the spray, quickly ducking in and out of the flow trying to rinse the shampoo and soap without losing any skin, staying as far as possible from the source of the scorching inferno coming out of the wall. Good thing we were the only ones in the campground. My screaming obscenities would have been a little disturbing for fellow campers. I'm pretty sure the ravens were used to it.

A look through the Victoria Mine Store window, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

If you visit different desert regions often enough you start to notice they are not all built the same. After visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument I have to say the Sonoran desert is my favorite by far. It's lush by desert standards - so many different strains of cactus mixed with Palo Verde trees, mesquite and creosote bushes, some grasses and scores of birds, mammals, reptiles and insects. The park is named for the Organ Pipe cactus which grows here, one of the only places in the U.S. it grows this far north.

Organ Pipe cactus, for which the park was named.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is located in Arizona, so far south you can literally see the border with Mexico from the campground. It wasn't always this way. Sure, the border has been there all along, but there wasn't a wall built when we first visited 25 years ago. Back then it was a rickety barbed wire fence, just three strings of wire marking the international border. It was (and still is) a pretty desolate area, hot and dry as deserts are known to be, so not an attractive spot to cross in those days. With the increase in border patrol at the popular crossing spots near cities, migrants have been forced to go further and further out to cross over. As a result, many people were dying in their quest to get in to the U.S. The wall was erected in the last few years despite the protests, lawsuits and warnings of archaeologists, biologists, ecologists, and many of the parks devoted fans (you can read more about this here). 

This park is actually part of a larger international park, it's sister lying on the Mexican side of the border. Wildlife used to cross unhindered, moving with the seasons and food sources up and down the mountains. Studies are still ongoing to determine just how the wall is affecting the many endangered species that share this area.

The wall can be seen slicing the park in half, the black line to the left on the mountain side.

We visited this year in late May 2023, off season for this park (high season is January-March). It was a warm 94 degrees when we arrived, but nothing like what we have experienced in Death Valley in May. Being used to California's brutal 6-months-in-advance, highly competitive campground usage we had made reservations ahead of our arrival. Lo and behold when we showed up we were one of two parties occupying the place. Two out of 208 campsites. 

It was a luxury, and well worth the heat to enjoy our own slice of beautiful desert. We had our own campground loop, with our own toilets and showers. We even had our own personal pack of coyotes serenading us each evening. It was heaven, especially after spending the previous four nights packed in with 3000 other campers at Overland Expo in Flagstaff.

We decided to get up early the next morning and take a hike to Victoria Mine, taking advantage of the early morning light (not to mention the cooler temperatures). 

Victoria Mine has quite a history: it's one of the oldest silver mines in southern Arizona. I couldn't find a reference to the year it was established, but it was taken over in 1880 by an unsavory character named Cipriano Ortega. This guy sounded (and by all accounts acted) like a bad mafia dude. Shady dealings and unexplained murders happened around "La Americana" during his ownership, but it pulled in $80,000 worth of silver ore making him one of the richest unsavory characters. Around 1899 it was sold to an American businessman who renamed it Victoria Mine after the storekeeper's wife. 

The remains of the stone store building are still there, along with several mine shafts that have been carefully covered and locked to keep the curious from killing themselves. It's a fun place to poke around, with lots of old mine remnants along with the usual glass shards and old tin cans laying around.

The trail starts right out of the campground and dips in and out of several washes among the huge saguaro cactus and sage brush. We saw small animals scurry away from us and hide under the scrubby bushes as we crunched through the gravel in the washes. Early morning is the best time to see the mostly nocturnal and diurnal animals here.

A raven alerts his cousins there are invaders on the trail this morning.

It took about an hour to get to the mine (2.2 miles). We poked around, threw rocks in the mine shafts (because that's what you do, right?) and took photos of the old store and rusty equipment left behind by the mine's owners. Warning signs were posted alerting us the area is used by smugglers and other desperate people, and to call 911 if any strange activity was observed. Of course, there is no cell service out there so not sure how that would help. In any case, we did not detect any weirdness other than the creepy history surrounding the notorious owner of 1880.

Victoria Mine area

Bits and pieces of the Victoria Mine lay around the site.

Mark makes his way through the giant saguaro groves, Victoria Mine trail.

We contemplated continuing on to the connecting trails to Lost Cabin and points beyond, but it was already getting into the 80s at 8am, not a promising outlook for another two hours on the trail. 

Back at camp, we ate some nice cool yogurt and granola sitting in the shade of the truck, washing it down with jugs of water. It's always a good idea to hydrate, but especially so in the desert. Dehydration is no fun, and it only has to happen once before you start chugging water at every opportunity (yes, I was the stupid one who didn't think I needed to carry so much water on one of our first hikes in Anza Borrego. Never again!) It was during breakfast we first noticed the little hairy circle around Mark's ankle. "That's strange," Mark brushed at them. "crap! It's cactus spines!" Out came the reading glasses and tweezers as I slowly pulled each little spine out as Mark winced. They were so fine he hadn't even noticed when he brushed into them. They most likely came from the low growing beavertail cactus that tend to grow under other bushes lining the trails.

During the hike I had noticed one of my feet had an occasional stabbing pain. I brushed it off at the time, figuring it was a little rock caught in my boot. After pulling Mark's spines, I took my boot off to empty it only to find a long cactus spine had pierced through the leather, gone through my heavy wool sock and was embedded in the side of my foot. Mark's turn with the tweezers as I winced. This place is brutal.

Considering the temperature, we decided the Ajo Mountain drive in our air conditioned truck sounded like a great idea.

Ajo Mountain Drive is 21 miles of dirt road, looping up and through the Ajo Mountains on the east side of the park. The road is one way with plenty of pull outs which makes it a pleasant, relaxed drive. Not that we saw anyone else, but I can imagine it gets a little crowded in high season. The road is graded for normal passenger cars, so you don't need 4WD and high clearance, but I wouldn't recommend a low slung sports car or long RV/trailer.

We received a trail guide at the Visitor's Center with numbered stops and comprehensive information regarding the area's flora and fauna. It even included a handy pronunciation table that succeeded in training me out of pronouncing the "g" in saguaro (it's sa-WAR-row not sa-GWAR-oh). Make sure to take note of your mileage when you start the drive: the guide stops have the incremental mileage noted. We didn't, and ended up estimating each stop. It didn't really matter though, the entire drive was beautiful with plenty of blooming cactus and notable canyons along the way (click here to access the online guide).

An agave in bloom
Closeup of the blossoms

We did the short hike into Arch Canyon, located about 9 miles into the drive. It's about a mile one way, and climbs into a surprisingly narrow canyon lush with cactus, lizards and bandits. Well, we didn't see any bandits, but we could imagine it would make a great hideout. The canyon is named for the two arches on the ridge above. It was a nice little hike, cooler in the higher altitude of the Ajo mountains.

The start of the Arch Canyon trail. Mark is looking at the arches, up on the ridge above.

Closeup of the arches. See the tiny one on top of the larger opening?

Further up the canyon

Looking back at the truck from the trail

Bees buzz on saguaro blossoms

There are a few picnic areas along the road, with covered tables and restrooms if you need a nice place to rest. We enjoyed the drive, and all the info the booklet offered. 

We stopped in at the Visitor's Center and took advantage of the air conditioned building to check out the displays and do a little browsing in the store. The rangers were nice, and eager to answer any questions we had. Honestly, I think they were glad for some company, the park was that empty. 

The park is huge. The last time we had visited we were allowed to drive the whole perimeter. Currently, the western and southern roads (South Puerto Blanco Road) is closed due to border activity, effectively cutting off half the park from the public. It's too bad, there are some beautiful views and nice hikes in that area. Hopefully in the near future this area will be open again. 

Back at camp, we poured ourselves an icy drink and had a snack, pulling our chairs around the truck to follow the shade. It really was a grand view, the sun was setting making the entire desert glow in a warm amber color. We were glowing too, it had been a wonderful day full of nice hikes, surprising discoveries, and surreal vistas. 

Or maybe it was our skin, still raw from those scorching showers. 

In any case, we would do it again in a heartbeat.


  1. A great tale, you guys. Adventure and experience. Sorry 'bout the scalding shower and hitchhiking spine. Awesome entry!! You guys know how to live!!

  2. Hey Kelly & Mark. Glad to see you out and about again. I was just getting ready to send an email to make sure you were OK. I've spent a lot of time out in the Mojave and I have to say that sunrise in the desert is probably the most beautiful time there. Glad you had fun. All's well over here in Jackson.