Saguaro Cactus & Rock Arch, Ajo Mountain Drive
This route takes you right into the foothills of the Ajo Mountains. Apart from some steep sections, the road is unsurfaced (unpaved). Here, a rock arch towers over the road and a Saguaro Cactus appears to stand guard over it.
Organ Pipe Cactus, Ajo Mountain Drive
While Highway 85 provides an overview of this desert area, to get a real feel for it you need to take one of the two loop drives through the National Monument, the 84 kilometre (52 mile) Puerto Blanco Drive or the 34 kilometre (21 mile) Ajo Mountain Drive. We decided to take the Ajo Mountain Drive because most of Puerto Blanco Drive was closed due to its close proximity to the Mexican border. This picture shows a magnificent Organ Pipe Cactus right beside the Ajo Mountain Drive. While this is the only place in the USA where Organ Pipe Cacti are found, they are more common in Mexico. They cannot tolerate cold weather so here at the most northerly edge of their territory they are only to be found on south-facing slopes.
Chain Fruit Cholla, Ajo Mountain Drive
Cholla is a term applied to various shrubby cacti with segmented branches. The Chain Fruit Cholla is named after the way that its flowers bloom at the end of the branches and on old fruit that may stay attached to the plant for many years. The new flowers blooming on the old fruit create new fruit forming a chain with the old. It is also known as the Jumping Cholla because when passers by brush against the segments they stick to them and break off, giving the impression that the cactus jumped at them. This is a mechanism for dispersing the fruit across short distances by attaching them to desert animals.
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
The Sonoran Desert west of Tucson is amongst the hottest and driest in the USA, an ideal place for cactus plants to flourish. Down near the border with Mexico is a the only place in the USA where the Organ Pipe Cactus grows. Closely related to the Saguaro Cactus, it is so named because it has many limbs branching out from its base, resembling the pipes of an organ. We have visited the area twice, once in 1993 and again in 2008. On our second visit we found the National Monument to be much as we remembered it. What had changed was that its proximity of the Mexican border meant that some roads were closed for security reasons and travel was interrupted several times by Homeland Security checkpoints. Such checkpoints are something that you associate with totalitarian countries, but prior to 9/11 not with the USA.
Saguaro Cactus & Ajo Mountains
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is located between the Ajo (pronounced aa-ho) Mountains in Arizona and the border with Mexico. While the Organ Pipe Cactus is the star of the show, there is no shortage of iconic Saguaro Cacti. This fine specimen was growing an short distance from Arizona Highway 85 which links Gila Bend, Arizona with Sonoyta, Mexico running right through the 134,000 hectare (333,000 acre) National Monument.
Organ Pipe National Monument is a long drive from any major city. It is a good three and a half hour drive from Tucson, excluding any stops for Homeland security checkpoints. On our first trip we underestimated the time required to travel from Tucson and arrived in the late afternoon. We were rewarded with a great sunset, but then had a long drive to Gila Bend followed by a night where our sleep was interrupted by regular trains running right behind the motel.
View from Plaza, Ajo
Outside of the National Monument, the nearest town is Ajo. This is where we decided to stay during our 2008 visit, although it is not a place where that has major chain hotels. Nevertheless, there is some accommodation and a limited range of restaurants. We stayed in a very comfortable Bed & Breakfast. Ajo is a former copper mining town so we did not expect it to be particularly photogenic. We were pleasantly surprised to find a very interesting town with a number of historic buildings. This picture taken from the Plaza shows the Curley School built in 1919 but now converted to apartments, and on the right the Immaculate Conception Roman Catholic Church.
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