I have travelled down to Puerto Penasco several times a year since 2005, but despite that fact, I wasn’t aware of Pinacate until recently. Once I did find out about it, however, I was hooked on the idea of visiting the park. This area is home to some utterly surreal landscapes, with ten massive Maar craters, and North America’s largest active sand dune field. In fact, this area is so unique and otherworldly that NASA used it to train astronauts for the moon in the 1960s and 70s. Currently, the park is split into two sections that are easily visited by travelers. The first is a long dirt road that allows access to three of the reserve’s volcanic craters, and the second is a new visitor center that was built in conjunction with the UNESCO world heritage designation.
Coming from Puerto Penasco, the visitor center is the first part of the park that we visited (73km marker on highway 8). Although the building pales in comparison to the natural attractions of the park, it is a good way to start exploring. The architecture of the center is integrated into the volcanic landscape, and is perched on the wave-like structures of an ancient lava field. Pamphlets about the center also proudly mention that this is the first building in Latin America to be entirely energy self-sufficient, and the arrays of solar panels lining the roof seem to support this claim. When we arrived, we were greeted by a center employee, who not only helped us get our tickets sorted out, but actually gave us an interpretive introduction to the area with the use of the mosaic compass that fronts the center entrance. There we learned that the location of the center was chosen due to its view of the dune fields, Pinacate peak, and the Sierra Blancas. As there are several interpretive trails leading out from the center, any traveler can appreciate the significance of this decision.
These trails are not only beautiful in-and-of themselves (as they weave through the undulating, black lava fields), but they offer some best views of the dunes and the Sierra Blancas that the park offers. Besides this, these particular tracks showcase the unique landscape that has evolved in the Gran Desierto de Altar. As lifeless as one might expect a lavafield tucked away in a desert to be, the area around the visitor center (and much of the rest of the park) is typical of the Sonoran Desert.
As the wettest desert in the world, Sonora hosts a wide array of flora and fauna, and the biosphere reserve is no exception to this. The juxtaposition of the vibrant desert plants with the black, unwelcoming surface of the lava fields is mesmerizing. Animal life abounds as well; the air was filled with the soft calls of desert doves, and side-blotched lizards were basking in the sun all along the trail. It does take some care to navigate the uneven, often jagged ground of the lava fields, but the trails are short enough that they can be taken slowly, and thoroughly enjoyed along the way.
The other half of the park is a few miles down highway 8 (km 52), and consists of a loop dirt road, which is about 70 kms long. This road gets rough in a few spots, so vehicles with some nice clearance are preferable when travelling through this area, but the woman at the visitor center insisted that most cars could handle the road. In either case, it should be travelled with some caution, as much of the road is one-way, and is fairly narrow. The main attractions of this part of the park are the three craters that can be visited along the way, El Elegante, El Tecolote, and Cerro Colorado, but the road itself has a special appeal. There are several interpretive stations along the way, that do a good job of telling the enthralling history of the park, with its turbulent, volcanic origins, to its importance to the Tohono O’odham people, and the early explorations of the area by Europeans. It is also a great way to see the varying species assemblages that make up the colorful mosaic of life in the Gran Desierto de Altar.
El Elegante is the first crater on the dirt road, and it is probably the most breath-taking crater of the three. The drive towards the crater is unassuming, and it built up my anticipation, as I couldn’t help but try to look further down the road for the chance at an early glimpse of the formation. As it is, El Elegante doesn’t reveal itself until you actually hike up to it, and it does not disappoint. The impression that I got of this place is similar to what I feel when I visit the Grand Canyon.
The crater is so large that it is hard to fully grasp its size, and its cliff-like walls seem to be so perfectly round as to have been carved out by some massive artist. Closer inspection reveals imperfections in the crater’s edges, but each one is fascinating, and tells a part of the dynamic story of this formerly explosive area. There is a loop trail that runs along the edge of the crater, and the length of this track gave me some perspective on the true massiveness of El Elegante, as we walked about 2 kilometers and hadn’t even made it half way around.
El Tecolote is something of a surprise after El Elegante. After reaching the large parking lot built to accommodate visitors to the second crater, we made our way down a trail that led up through the softly sloping hills of this area. Here yellowing grass peeked up through black and red volcanic soil, and intimidating chollas seemed to dominate the landscape, the harsh desert sun making their golden spines glint like painful halos. After about 20 minutes braving the climbing trail, we topped the large, rounded mountain that was the main feature of the path, and found ourselves wondering where El Tecolote was.
It took some consideration of the area to figure out that we had been scaling El Tecolote the entire time. The mountain that the trail weaved it’s way up was the lip of the crater, and the base of the trail had passed through the opening that had been blasted out of the formation back in the days of Gran Desierto’s violent past. The beauty of El Tecolote was nothing like that of El Elegante. Looking out from the top of the trail, it wasn’t the crater that caught my eye, nor was it the crater that ended up making the hike worthwhile, but rather the view that the its edge offered. To the west, the lava that once flowed from El Tecolote was still apparent, forming a permanent, black shadow across the landscape, and Pinacate ruled the skyline in the distance. To the east, Cerro Colorado was apparent in the distance, a smooth, tan hill rising out of the dark, volcanic ground. Much of the park accessible from the road was apparent from El Tecolote.
Cerro Colorado was the final attraction of the Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, and lacking any sort of trail, it took less time to explore than El Elegante and El Tecolote. Approaching this last crater, I couldn’t help but compare Cerro Colorado to Ayer’s Rock (not that they are at all the same in actuality).
Cerro Colorado was in stark contrast the rest of the black and red formations of that were apparent from the road, and driving up to it, its smooth, slopping back dominated the otherwise flat, creosote carpeted grounds. The crater itself, viewable from the end of the road, was something of the mix of El Elegante and El Tecolote to my mind. The road followed the curve of the edge of the crater that had been blasted out, and across from the viewpoint were steep, severe cliffs like those that ringed El Elegante. After a long day of hiking and driving, Cerro Colorado was a calm finale to the surreal beauty that could be found around every corner of the park.