In 1937 President Franklin D. Roosevelt created Organ Pipe National Monument in order to protect its namesake, and the rugged Sonoran ecology of the Ajo, Puerto Blanco, and Sonoyta Mountains. Early on, the park struggled to balance its protective duties with the needs of miners and ranchers, both of which continued using the land there until the 1970s. These competing needs were eventually decided by the declaration of the United Nations in 1976 that designated the national monument as an International Biosphere Reserve, at which point alternative uses of the park ended (Reference).
The peace in Organ Pipe National Monument was short lived, however, as the park became the stage of drug and border conflicts between the United States and Mexico beginning in the mid-1990s. During this time, US policies concerning illegal immigration and drugs were tightened, and smuggling systems of varying complexity for both people and drugs have developed along the US-Mexican border. Popular border crossings along this border have experienced increasing security measures since this time, and these developments forced smugglers to look to the wilderness for ways in the United States. (See Back Again Cait’s No More Deaths post to learn more about the US border issues).
Organ Pipe became an increasingly frequented highway for these activities, as its borders were protected only by flimsy chain-linked fences, or concrete walls that could be destroyed by smugglers with relative ease. Impromptu roads began to crop up in the desert, trash and trails from trekking immigrants cracked the ancient bacterial crust of the Sonora, and reports of illegal activities grew in numbers, as did the armed conflicts between smugglers and the National Monument personnel.
This struggle culminated in the death of ranger Kris Eggle in 2002, when he was shot to death while pursuing drug cartel members through the park, attempting to protect his country from criminals that were already known to have murdered several victims in Mexico. At this time, the inadequacies of the Organ Pipe border were realized, and the dangerous nature of the situation that had developed there was finally grasped. Organ Pipe was dubbed “the most dangerous park in America,” and more than half of the National Monument was closed to visitors for their own safety. Plans were also drafted for the building a stronger border wall to replace the failing barriers, and the visitor center was renamed in honored of the park’s fallen ranger (Reference One; Reference Two.
As for me, I didn’t know about the real history of the park until I was thinking about visiting. I was aware, however, about its danger through stories that I heard from other Phoenicians. One in particular, involved a friend of a friend who was out hiking in the park, and just so happened to see smugglers dropping off contraband in a camouflaged, underground stash. According to the story, or the version that I remember, this particular friend of a friend ended up being pursued by the criminals, but I think that the general reputation of Organ Pipe may have created some embellishment in my mind.
At any rate, in 2014 the park reopened much of the area that had been closed after Eggle’s death, and I figured that this indicated that things had improved, and in fact, things had. The US government had expanded its border wall across the park’s boundary, and increased its patrols in the area. With this in mind, I thought it would be good to pair a trip down to Puerto Penasco with some exploration of Organ Pipe.
The most friendly, helpful rangers that I have ever met manned the visitor center here. There was also a great gift shop where I scored some prickly pear candy and mesquite flour (which made some great scones, by the way), and a nice little museum. Of course, the gift shop wasn’t the draw, and after learning about the lay of the park from the rangers, we decided to explore the Ajo Mountain Drive.
As its name suggests, this road runs right up to the Ajo Mountains, which had made for some of the most stunning landscapes on the drive from Phoenix to Rocky Point for the several years that I had been driving that way. I was giddy with the thought of seeing the mountains up close and hiking them. The drive didn’t disappoint, but I was surprised that the road was mostly unpaved. Luckily we were in a Honda Element, and the track was nice enough for us to travel it easily.
The desert here was breathtaking. I’ve lived in Arizona my entire life in both Phoenix and Tucson, and I have driven through much of the state. Even so, the rugged cliffs of the Ajo Mountains and the brilliant mix of Sonoran plants here seemed particularly perfect. We couldn’t help ourselves and kept stopping on the way to take pictures. About half way down the road we stopped at the Arch Canyon Trail, and hiked for about an hour. Much of the trail, as its name suggested, ran along the southern edge of a canyon in the shadow of a great stone arch that was formed along the side mountain cliffs. This path was just slightly inclined, and well maintained. Besides stopping to snap pictures of the arch all down the trail, we also spotted a centipede and plenty of beautiful desert birds among the varied plants that gathered along the path. Towards the end of the trail, where we turned around, the path twined its way of the stone side of the mountain and lost much of its demarcation. By the looks of it, it worked its way up to the arch, but we didn’t have the proper footwear to check it out.
At any rate, between the drive, the hike, and the friendly rangers, I wasn’t at all disappointed in our stop at the park, and it definitely felt like Organ Pipe had made good progress since being labeled the most dangerous park in the United States.
And if you have any questions about Organ Pipe or my travels feel free to leave me a comment. 🙂
My next update will be on December 15th, about the Torrey Pines State Reserve in San Deigo, CA!