Did you know that a saguaro cactus doesn’t grow its first arm until it’s already 100 years old and can reach a height of 45 feet? These Sonoran desert plants are everywhere in southern Arizona and are truly astounding, but I wasn’t here for them. I was here for the organ pipe cactus, because this is the only place in the United States where you can see them, and while perhaps less showy than their big brothers they are still plenty showy. They grow to between 15-25 feet tall and can be even wider than that, with stems splayed out upward and outward as crazily as the saguaro arms.
This park has a sad recent history due to its shared border with Mexico, which for more than a decade hindered its ability to connect with the public. In the 1990’s the area became a haven for drug running and illegal border crossing because of how untamed it is, with 95% of the park being designated wilderness. In 2002 park ranger Kris Eggle was shot and killed chasing members of the Mexican drug cartel who had fled into the park trying to escape Mexican authorities. A year later and all the way into 2014 most of the park was closed off to the public for being too dangerous. While a massively increased presence by authorities has tightened the border it’s had questionable environmental effects on the land here as Border Patrol drive through off road due to Homeland Security’s ability to skirt laws that otherwise would protect the park’s natural environment. It is sadly yet another victim of the drug trade, though relatively safe for people now with the very noticeable police presence. Highway 85, which takes you into Mexico, runs through the park and just after you leave through the north you will be stopped and questioned by Border Patrol.
It’s not all bad news, though. The visitor center is now named after Ranger Eggle in a touching tribute and the park is beautiful and well maintained. Because it is somewhat out of the way (I mean, the closest town is literally called Why and that really says it all…) it’s not heavily trafficked by visitors, meaning it’s just you and nature. I passed a whole two cars on the 21 mile one-way graded Ajo Mountain Drive, which is a loop that takes about 2 hours to complete and which offers a good initial overview of the park for any basic passenger car. I am very grateful I learned about this place once it was actually open, as it will hopefully remain moving forward.