With giant cactuses and sleek jaguars, Arizona’s Sonoran Desert has an edgy beauty tinged with danger

With giant cactuses and sleek jaguars, Arizona’s Sonoran Desert has an edgy beauty tinged with danger

By David Kelly

Photos by Mark Boster


It was 10 a.m. and already 100 degrees.

I could feel the moisture being sucked from my body as I climbed toward a cluster of pale green cactuses. Their serpentine arms waved gently like desert anemones in the scorching wind.

I was hiking through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, a wild sliver of the Sonoran Desert  whose botanical wonders include its namesake cactus, seen almost nowhere else in the United States.

From the hilltop, hundreds of organ pipes, some 25 feet tall, crowded the sandy floor. A few perched atop the upper slopes of rugged Mt. Ajo across the valley.


The silence was absolute. I wished for the manic chattering of a cactus wren to break its grip. It was mid-October. Back home in Colorado the air was crisp and the aspens golden. Here all was rust-colored rock and unrelenting heat.

And that was the point.

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I came to experience the heart of the Sonoran Desert, said to be the most biodiverse desert in the world. A vast array of plants, reptiles, birds and mammals, including America’s only jaguar population, inhabit this harsh world.


Summer monsoons and winter rains combine with sun and heat to create spectacular life forms such as organ pipes and saguaros.

There are the octopus-like senitas and hulking barrel cactuses along with rare elephant trees. Lithe paloverdes and shapely mesquites fill in the blanks.

Botanical wonders abound in the wild Sonoran Desert of Organ Pipe National Monument and Saguaro National Park. Just mind the heat. (Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times)

Perhaps the best place to explore the Sonoran is here in Organ Pipe and farther north in Saguaro National Park.

They are part of the same desert yet very different. Saguaro is divided by a major metropolitan area, east and west sides separated by 30 miles of Tucson.

Organ Pipe, an International Biosphere Reserve, is far more remote. It shares 31 miles of border with Mexico. The nearest decent-sized American town is Ajo, which has a handful of restaurants and motels.

I left the swaying organ pipes and made for the Kris Eggle Visitor Center, named for a park ranger whose life colors the recent history of this place.

In 2002 a pair of drug smugglers fleeing Mexican authorities entered the park and were chased  by Eggle and Border Patrol agents. One of the suspects opened fire with an AK-47, killing Eggle. The perpetrator escaped into Mexico where he was killed by police.

A stone hat and plaque memorialize Park Ranger Kris Eggle, who was killed while chasing drug smugglers in 2002.

Beauty and risk

That is the paradox of Organ Pipe.


The very location that makes this 517-square-mile monument starkly beautiful has, in the past, made it dangerous.

It sits astride prime human- and drug-trafficking routes. For 11 years until 2014, nearly 70% of Organ Pipe was closed to visitors because of illegal activity. The media called it  “the most dangerous national park in America.”

Susan Walter, the monument’s chief of interpretation, said Organ Pipe is a different, more secure place these days.

“For one thing, 100% of it is open to the public, thanks to cooperation with the Border Patrol,” she said.

“They put in a vehicle barrier to stop people from driving through illegally from Mexico, and there are surveillance towers. We believe we have taken the necessary prudent steps to keep visitors as safe as we can.”

Visitation, which had dropped to 21,582 in 2011, was 35,082 in (fiscal year) 2016.

I headed to the Twin Peaks campground past a sign warning that “smuggling and illegal immigration may be encountered in this area.” Visitors are asked to dial 911 if they see anything suspicious.

San Diego residents Frank Yancey and Barbara Deese stand with their dog Sophie at a campground at Organ Pipe National Monument.
San Diego residents Frank Yancey and Barbara Deese stand with their dog Sophie at a campground at Organ Pipe National Monument.

I found Frank Yancey and Barbara Deese from San Diego relaxing under the awning of their RV.


Yancey was cradling his poodle, Sophie. He told me they had been coming to Organ Pipe for more than a dozen years.

“This park is gorgeous and has some of the best facilities around,” said Yancey, a retired school teacher. “When we first came a lot of the roads were closed,  but we have never had any problems.”

The campground host was John Zaleski, an accountant from New Jersey. After the death of his mother, he decided a major change was in order.

Tips for visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument »

He sold his condo, bought a mobile home and found a job in this lonesome desert.

“To be honest, I was a little concerned at first but now feel more at ease,” he said. “I feel completely safe here.”

One of the most popular ways to see Organ Pipe is along Ajo Mountain Drive, a 21-mile, graded dirt road loop with lots of turnoffs that let you explore the desert on foot.

A pamphlet lists 18 stops along the route.  Stop 4 puts you beside a collection of large organ pipe cactuses.

The extreme heat and lack of frost make this an ideal home for them. Unlike the saguaro, they don’t need to spend their early years in the shadow of another plant. They thrive in the blazing sun.

Humanitarian groups have placed blue tanks of water to aid immigrants crossing the desert in Organ Pipe National Monument.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicles man the metal border fence with trucks, cameras and regular patrols in the park.

Humanitarian groups have placed blue tanks of water, left, to aid immigrants crossing the desert in Organ Pipe National Monument. At right, U.S. Customs and Border Protection vehicles man the metal border fence with trucks, cameras and regular patrols in the park.

In May and June their sweet-smelling blossoms are pollinated by nectar-feeding bats. If you cross the border, you can follow the organ pipes down to the turquoise seas of Baja California.

As I walked through the desert, I saw a flag waving just ahead. A big, blue barrel of water stood under it, set out by a humanitarian group aiding undocumented immigrants.

Farther along, the vehicle barrier along the Mexican border was clearly visible, a Border Patrol truck parked alongside it. More than 500 border agents patrol the area.

I stopped at a convenience store in tiny Lukeville, the last town on the U.S. side of the border. A pickup truck outside was stacked with washing machines, perhaps to sell in Mexico.

Border Patrol officers had a young man in handcuffs. He looked hot and weary. We exchanged glances and I headed north.

Visitors snap pictures of the iconic cactuses along Cactus Forest Drive in Saguaro National Park.
Visitors snap pictures of the iconic cactuses along Cactus Forest Drive in Saguaro National Park.

Forest of saguaros

Along the way, I passed through the sprawling Tohono O’odham Reservation and stopped in the hamlet of Why to admire an outdoor bathroom covered in splendid murals of horses, desert scenes and one tall glass of water.

I entered the east side of Saguaro National Park and was greeted by perhaps the most iconic cactuses in the world.

Some of the saguaros were more than 50 feet tall and 2 centuries old. Industrious woodpeckers had drilled holes in their arms. Bird nests sat among the spines.

Saguaros are whimsical things with chaotic, twisting limbs. One resembled a runner, another a gunfighter and a kindly looking specimen appeared to reach for my hand.

The woody skeletons of their dead compadres lay scattered about, fragments of desiccated skin resembling alligator hide.

An iconic Saguaro cactus reaches for the sky as clouds drift by along Cactus Forest Drive in Saguaro National Park
The arm of a saguaro cactus takes a slight twist.

A gila woodpecker works on a hole in a saguaro cactus.
The wood skeleton of a saguaro shows the intricate inner beauty of the giant cactus after death.

Clockwise from top left, an iconic saguaro cactus reaches for the sky. The arm of a saguaro takes a slight twist. The wood skeleton of a saguaro shows the intricate inner beauty of the giant cactus after death. A gila woodpecker works on a hole in the cactus.

I asked park spokesperson Andy Fisher why saguaros are limited to the Sonoran.

“We are barely a desert because we get so much precipitation,” she said. “That’s why we have so many saguaros.

“Saguaros need winter and summer rain, and that’s what we get.”

They bloom at night during the heat of summer. The Tohono O’odham people harvest their fruit for jams, syrup and ceremonial wine.

I joined ranger Cam Juarez for a walk among the saguaros. Juarez is the son of Mexican migrant farmworkers. A birth defect significantly shortened both arms, which he believes was caused by  a pesticide used in the fields where his mother worked while pregnant.

Ranger Cam Juarez.
Ranger Cam Juarez walks along the recently improved Mica View Trail, past desert plants and cactuses.

He is passionate about the park and working to promote it among the city’s diverse population.

“The majority of visitors are from out of town,” he said. “Germany is the No. 1 contributor, followed by Japan and China.

“Tucson is 62% Latino yet many don’t even know we are here.”

Saguaro’s 91,000 acres extend from the gnarly tree chollas of the desert floor to the pines of the Rincon Mountains.

As Juarez and I walked, families of quail dashed past. Mourning doves cooed from saguaro tops. A brazen hummingbird dropped from the sky to inspect us before buzzing off.

Tips for visiting Saguaro National Park »

Juarez told me the east side has more wilderness, but the west has three times as many saguaros. That’s because of years of cattle grazing in the east, disease and a rare freeze in 1937 that killed thousands of saguaros, he said.

On the west side, I was greeted by  thousands of saguaros standing behind the visitor’s center.

I headed for the Signal Hill trail head. The path wound up toward a pile of basalt rocks inscribed with animal and spiral petroglyphs by the prehistoric Hohokam people.

I looked over the valley and watched the sun slowly sink into the desert. A warm breeze carried the jumbled scents of creosote and sage.

Down below, the saguaros glowed yellow and then orange. Soon they were crooked silhouettes against a starry sky.

The bright light from the setting sun is refracted through the UV filter on the camera’s lens as giant saguaro cactuses stand tall.

If you go


From LAX,  Southwest, American, United and Delta offer nonstop and connecting service (change of planes) to Tucson. Restricted round-trip fares from $152, including taxes and fees. Organ Pipe is about 128 miles from Tucson and 15 miles from Ajo, the nearest town on the U.S. side of the border. You can also make the six-hour drive from Los Angeles.


There are two campgrounds within the monument. Twin Peaks Campground has water, picnic tables, grills, restrooms and showers. Alamo Canyon is a primitive, first-come, first-serve campground. Only tents, vans and truck campers are allowed at Alamo.

There are a handful of motels in Ajo. The Marine Motel (1966 N. 2nd Ave., Ajo; [520] 387-7626). No frills but a decent choice. Prices vary. I stayed in Tucson, which is two hours north.


Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, 10 Organ Pipe Drive, Ajo; (520) 387-6849. There are a variety of long and short hikes. Heat can kill so take a gallon of water per person per day. The coolest times to hike are October through April, though it was 100 degrees when I was here in late October. Check in at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center and ask a ranger about the best hike for the time of year you’re visiting.

Scenic drives

Ajo Mountain Drive is a 21-mile-long loop that takes in some of the best scenery in Organ Pipe. Allow a minimum of two hours. The 37-mile Puerto Blanco Drive is more expansive. Lots of organ pipes, saguaro and senita cactuses. Quitobaquito Springs, a rare bit of water in this desert, can be explored from here.


Organ Pipe shares a 31-mile border with Mexico. It has come a long way from the dark days of 2002 when ranger Kris Eggle was killed by drug smugglers. For years after, close to 70% of the park was shut to visitors. Now it’s completely open. A beefed-up Border Patrol presence, increased surveillance and more rangers have made the place more secure. But human and drug trafficking continues. If you see anything suspicious, call 911 or alert a ranger. Smugglers and migrants don’t want to be seen, so odds of encountering them are low.

National park tips and photo ops from L.A. Times Travel »

Homes in Tucson can be seen near the border of Saguaro National Park.


From LAX, Southwest, American, United and Delta offer nonstop and connecting service (change of planes) to Tucson. Restricted round-trip fares from $152, including taxes and fees. You can also drive the six or so hours from L.A.


Tucson is a major metropolitan area with lodging options that go from the bottom end to expensive resorts. I stayed at the Hampton Inn near the airport for about $70 a night for a single. Hampton Inn Tucson Airport, 6971 S. Tucson Blvd., Tucson; (520) 918-9000

Backcountry camping is allowed in designated sites. Get a permit at the visitor center first.


Saguaro National Park, 3693 S. Old Spanish Trail, Tucson; (520) 733-5158 (west side), (520) 733-5153 (east side). The park has two districts, the Saguaro West-Tucson Mountain District and the Saguaro East-Rincon Mountain District. They sit on either side of Tucson, about 30 miles apart. The hottest time of year is May through September, when temperatures average in the 100s. If you come in summer, start your day at 4:30 a.m. and end at 9:30 a.m. The saguaros bloom in summer so take this into account when visiting. If you want less heat, the best time to visit is October through April.

East side: This side of the park is larger, with a range of hikes and drives. You can hike 130 miles of trails from the scorching desert floor to the Rincon Mountains. A family of javelinas — boar — lives behind the visitor center. If you are lucky they might show themselves.

A bicyclist zooms past lush desert plants and cacti on Cactus Forest Drive in Saguaro.

Scenic drives

Cactus Forest Drive, a paved one-way road, winds eight miles through the park with turnoffs that allow you to get out and explore the Sonoran Desert. You can get up close with the saguaros here along with barrel cactuses that often stand close to 4 feet high. Woodpeckers can often be seen inside the holes they drill in saguaro arms. The chattering of birds is endless.

West side: This side of the park is smaller but has three times as many saguaros.

The Scenic Bajada Loop Drive is a five-mile drive that begins at the visitor center. You can take short hikes such as the Cactus Garden Trail, the Desert Discovery Nature Trail and the Valley View Overlook Trail. If you climb Signal Hill, you can see prehistoric Hohokam petroglyphs with images of big horn sheep, the sun and a beautiful spiral pecked into the stone. This is a great place to watch the sun set, which is magical in the Sonoran.

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Lead photo caption: Cactus in Saguaro National Park enjoy the cool of the desert after sundown near Tucson, Ariz.

Additional Credits: Produced by: Sean Greene



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