Before we get into hikes we want to remind you to practice the LEAVE NO TRACE principles. Please remember to stay on trail, pack out all trash, and explore prepared. Don’t carve into any rocks. It is illegal! Check out our hiking tips here. This blog focuses on our trip to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument & Tucson.
It’s become a tradition of ours to plan a trip over Thanksgiving weekend. We both get Black Friday off from work, giving us at least a three-day weekend without using PTO. In 2021 we used our Thanksgiving weekend to visit Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and Tucson. In this blog post we’ll cover what we did on our trip and share tips for planning your trip to the national monument and surrounding area.
What makes Organ Pipe Cactus cool? Why does it get national monument status? Those are two questions we had going into our trip, and two questions we felt were adequately answered by the end of our visit. First, we found it to be extremely fascinating to learn that the organ pipe cactus only grows in the Sonoran Desert, and the small region of the National Monument, plus the immediate surrounding area, is the ONLY place in the United States that it grows naturally. Second, we learned that organ pipe cacti grow best on mountain or hill sides that face the sun and out of rocks. They actually love to grow out of rocks because the rocks retain heat and help keep the cactus warm during the night time. When you visit, take a look and you’ll see!
On Friday morning we drove to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The national monument is about a 2.5 hour drive from the Phoenix area and fairly remote. The town of Ajo, Arizona is the closest town with services. We recommend fueling up there so you can hit the park with a full tank of gas.
Once we arrived, our first order of business was to check out the visitor center. Organ Pipe Cactus does require a fee that varies depending on how you enter the park. Fees are collected at the visitor center. We used our America the Beautiful Pass!
After the visitor center we started the Ajo Mountain Drive. This one way loop is the primary attraction in the park. The road is a mixture of pavement and gravel. We always recommend checking in with the park rangers for the latest conditions, but the road is passable for most vehicles. However, please check your tires prior to visiting and make sure you have a working spare. We came across a vehicle that had a flat tire but did not have a working spare, so they basically limped very slowly all the way around the loop.
The loop is very scenic with a nice mixture of the namesake Organ Pipe cactus, tall saguaros, ocotillo, and other Sonoran Desert vegetation. Right along the road are some amazing organ pipe cacti, with tons of “pipes” growing tall. At the visitor center you can pick up an informational packet to read at the different numbered stops along the loop.
Since hiking is kind of our thing, we had planned to hike Arch Canyon Trail. There is an obvious parking area on the east side of the road. The park also designates the stop as a picnic area, but we don’t recall any picnic tables. This was a beautiful hike but definitely challenging. At the top is an amazing view of the valley below and of Ajo Arch. We didn’t go out to the arch but started too. The trail became very hard to follow and we just weren’t feeling it. Ultimately, we were happy with our decision because we liked our view of the arch better from a distance versus inside of it. Dogs are not allowed on any trail in Organ Pipe Cactus!
After our hike we continued our drive down the road a little further to Estes Park. We stopped here and made a Mountain House lunch at one of the picnic tables under the shade structures. There is a loop here called Bull Pasture Trail that we really want to do next time! Once we finished our food we continued on our way to finish the loop. From there we went south and drove down more dirt roads to get to the Senita Basin. We stayed in the car for this portion as it was more sight seeing than hiking, although there are trails in the area. Senita basin is home to a massive stand of senita cactus.
After our drive through Senita Basin we started our drive to Tucson; it’s about a 2 hour and 15 minute drive from the national monument. We stayed in an airbnb and had plans to hike Pusch Peak on Saturday, a hike that had been on our list for awhile and that is closed for part of the year!
Pusch Peak is not a long hike, but it is a very strenuous hike in Oro Valley. This hike is very steep with sections that have loose rock. The views are incredible from the top! To the east there are views of Mount Lemmon, and looking southwest there are views of Tucson and the surrounding valley. Be sure not to leave anything valuable in your car! Several cars were broken into when we finished our hike. Dogs are not allowed on this trail. That evening we met friends for dinner and drinks in Tucson!
On Sunday we drove to the east side of Saguaro National Park and did The Cactus Forest Scenic Loop Drive. A beautiful 8 mile loop with pulls outs and hiking trails along the way. This was our first time on the east side of Saguaro National Park and it didn’t disappoint! The east side has taller mountains and is higher in elevation. If you have the full day we recommend checking out the west side of the park as well! We love the Bajada Loop Scenic Drive on the west side.