Trip Reports

The ‘Nation’s Most Dangerous Park’: Hiking and Camping at Organ Pipe

Nation's Most Dangerous Park

Arriving at Organ Pipe

When we stopped at the crossroad in Why, Arizona, I couldn’t help but smile at the peculiar name. The placed hardly qualifies as a town. More of a community, if that. “Why is this town called Why?” I wondered to myself.

Kim and Arrow began to resume consciousness. My heart gushed with excitement. I had just spent the last two hours driving through a desolate wasteland (no offense Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation) with no cell phone service to stream music and long stretches without radio.

“We’re almost there, babe!” I declared. “I’ve been waiting to visit Organ Pipe my whole life.”

“You say that about a lot of places,” she responded.

I laughed and admitted, “I guess that’s true.”

The cacti forest that surrounded us started to get thicker. The rugged desert mountains got closer and as the late sun crept lower in the horizon, the cliffs became redder and the puffy clouds more ominous.

Why the ‘Nation’s Most Dangerous Park’?

I spotted a dirt road on the left, thinking the Kris Eggle Visitor Center was just out of sight behind some palo verde trees. Kris was a 28-year-old park ranger shot and killed by gang members of a Mexican drug cartel in 2002. Because the park sits on the Mexico-United States border, it encounters drug smuggling and illegal border crossings. This is why it has been called the nation’s most dangerous park.

As it turns out, there was no visitor center on that road. Instead, we found Alamo Canyon Campground, a delightful primitive campground with four tent-only sites. The camp is surrounded by giant saguaros and lots of the park’s claim to fame, the organ pipe cactus. We spent two nights there, braving a violent wind and rain storm the first night. It really tested the limits of our cheap tent, but we survived.

Organ Pipe covers 517 mi² and there is a lot to explore. Unfortunately, we only had one full day to check it out, so we had to make the most of it.

Exploring the Park

In the morning, we walked up Alamo Canyon. The trail was wide, the canyon beautiful, and the desert vegetation plentiful. It was neat to run into the remnants of a miner’s old stone building and some rusted ranch equipment.

That afternoon, we drove the Ajo Mountain Drive, a scenic loop that is mostly unpaved. Along the way, we made a few pit stops to get a closer look at the bizarre plant life and soak in the stunning views. We also scurried up the Arch Canyon Trail, leaving the other hikers behind as we charged up a steep, unmaintained path to the actual arch. We were pleased to see that nobody was up for the challenge and earned ourselves a pleasant rest beneath the 90-foot monstrosity.

The Storm

As we made our way down, the skies got grayer and the clouds began piling in. We were without our rain gear in t-shirts and shorts (in February, which is novel to me having grown up in Utah) and got lucky, because within footsteps of returning to our truck a downpour started. The rain drops themselves were giant and at times, it seemed like a waterfall was dumping onto our windshield. I could barely see at all, but it was a one-way road so I knew the only thing I had to do was not veer into any cactus.

All of a sudden, the rain stopped. The transition was so instant it was uncanny. Kim and I chuckled and returned to the visitor center, where we met a friendly ranger.

A Friendly Ranger

“I’ve been stuck inside all day. Feels great to have some sunshine on my face!” he announced.

We told him about the downpour we experienced which ignited his excitement about the upcoming spring wildflower season. We got to talking and discovered he and his wife had left their dead end office jobs to become park rangers.

“We had always dreamed of living in Ajo,” he said.

Most people’s life ambition does not involve moving to a cow town in the Sonoran Desert, but after experiencing the quiet solitude of wide open expanses and its lush desert biome, that ranger seems like a real smart fella.


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