Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Text: Troy Hendrick • Photography: Troy Hendrick

The day before I embarked on a Gold Wing 1800 to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, I opened a Backpacker Magazine article entitled "Organ Pipe Cactus - The Most Dangerous Park in America." Flipping to the story, I was shocked to learn that my standard riding Kevlar might be pulling double duty - protecting me from the asphalt as well as stray bullets from armed drug smugglers speeding across the desert in black SUVs.

After more investigation, it was easy to work up paranoid scenarios of the fate awaiting me just north of Sonoyta, Mexico, in southwestern Arizona's remote and deadly Sonoran Desert. A waterless stretch of dirt road used by early settlers heading west is still called "El Camino del Diablo," the Devil's Highway, and it's spotted with unmarked graves of those the desert reclaimed.

In reality, the only dangers I found were the lulling effects of a blistering, dust-trailed pace engendered by the pure solitude and expansiveness of the few roads between Phoenix and Organ Pipe. Fortunately, each patrol car turns out to be occupied by Border Patrol officers who are none too interested in the typical motorcycle speeding bust. There are bigger fish to fry in Organ Pipe.

Roughly 280,000 Mexican aliens illegally cross the border into the U.S. each year along Organ Pipe Cactus's shared border with Mexico. That's around 770 on average per day. Many are smuggling drugs. But according to Park Ranger Daniel Martinez, hikers who bump into these border jumpers generally end up returning a friendly tip of the hat as both go on their ways.

Nonetheless, one much-publicized 2002 incident served to enlarge the infamous reputation of Organ Pipe. Ranger Kris Eggle responded to a radio warning from Mexican police that a vehicle evaded capture by speeding across the desert into U.S. territory. Eggle investigated. When he approached the suspect, the Mexican national opened fire, fatally wounding the 27-year-old Ranger. Ironically, the same incident spawned beefed-up border patrols along the 28 lonely miles through Organ Pipe between Why, Arizona, and Mexico, making this stretch of asphalt very secure.

AZ 85, Organ Pipe's central thoroughfare, slides through the valley between the Ajo Range and the Puerto Blanco Mountains, and a scorching-hot, parched desert landscape unfolds with little alteration view after view on the trip south to the border. It's the only paved road in Organ Pipe, but enduro riders will be rewarded with two dirt-road scenic loops - the 21-mile Ajo Mountain and the 53-mile Puerto Blanco drives. Hoping the unpaved roads would be smooth enough for the Gold Wing, I give them a try. But a few moments on the washboard surface quickly cancel that plan. Turned around, I ride to the visitor center about five miles north of the border.

Visiting the park can be done in a day, but appreciating it takes longer. Unfortunately, the closest lodging is in Ajo, about 17 miles north of Organ Pipe. But I am determined to catch one of the desert's most cherished treasures - a sunset. So, after setting up a tent at Twin Peaks campground by the visitor center (well-patrolled, clean restroom facilities, and full RV hookups), I make several passes back and forth along AZ 85.

As the sun descends behind the western Puerto Blanco Mountains, the sky dampens into a wash of orange and purple. Stately saguaro cacti glow in a bath of soft, peachy light. I finish the evening ride at the border while dusk lights the desert in the final moments preceding a starry night.

The organ pipe cactus is one of 26 species of cacti thriving in a punishing environment. It even chooses southward-facing slopes to absorb the most sun and heat. Resembling tubular-shaped organ pipes, the many arms of a mature plant strain skyward in a haphazard jumble of tendrils. Although common throughout Mexico and this national monument, it is rarely found on our side of the border anywhere else. Also common are the well-known saguaro cacti, with their heavy arms and plumped trident shapes. Creosote bush, palo verde, cholla cacti, prickly pear and ocotillo all share the sparse allotment of water.

At night, the desert awakens as the adapted animal species go about their busy work in the sun's absence. Gila monsters, rattlesnakes, javelina, kangaroo rats and roadrunners are some of the species slithering and skittering here.

North of the park lies the old copper-mining town of Ajo. The town almost disappeared when the mining company closed operation many years ago, but it has recently experienced a minor revival due to desert-loving urban refugees from the Phoenix and Tucson areas. At Señor Sancho's on AZ 85 south near the north end of town, I found very tasty, authentic Mexican food. For a quicker, less-exotic alternative, Coyote Bob's deli has tables on the sidewalk facing the downtown plaza. Surrounded by tall palm trees and featuring adobe-style archways, the plaza lies on a slope leading up to a grand, white, mission-style church, preserving the town's Spanish-Colonial character.

To add a fun road to the trip, head east on SR 238 from Gila Bend on your way back to either Phoenix or Tucson. There are a few long and fast sweepers to enjoy, but the unique features are the sudden up-and-down contours of the road.

Organ Pipe is certainly a destination best suited for the most adventurous riders. Besides its remote location, the weather can be unbearable, and the majority of the park's roads aren't appropriate for many types of bikes. The solitude and stark beauty counterbalance the grim realities of a foreboding desert along the drug-infested border between southwestern Arizona and Mexico. But the dangers are more perceived than real. Organ Pipe Cactus is a lonely corner of America where, if you're lucky enough to ride through a soft, purple sunset, you're guaranteed to remember what matters and forget what doesn't.