SPECIAL REPORT • The West's untapped treasures

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Ajo, AZ
Sam Negri

In the spring, a visit to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southwestern Arizona provides a tonic for the senses. Clusters of tall green cactus - they really do look like parts of a pipe organ - cover broad hills that form a rocky pillow at the base of volcanic mountains. Being able to look across 517 square miles of the Sonoran Desert and see virtually no sign of human intrusion is a refreshing bonus.

Organ Pipe is quintessential Sonoran Desert terrain, a landscape of cactus and creosote bush interspersed with jagged mountains and laced with thickets of mesquite, ironwood, and palo verde trees. Most of the organ pipe cactus in the United States are found within the monument's borders.

Animals and plants are easily viewed from two scenic loop roads. Both are winding and slightly hilly, unpaved but well graded. Ordinary cars do fine, but both roads are unsuitable for motorhomes over 25 feet long.

WHERE: The park is approximately 145 miles southwest of Tucson. Take State 86 west to State 85; the visitor center is 12 miles south.

WHEN: Open year-round; November through April is best. COST: $5 per vehicle.

SERVICES: The visitor center is open 8-5 daily. A campground ($10) is located 1 1/2 miles south of the visitor center. For information on motels and RV parks in Lukeville and Ajo, contact the Ajo District Chamber of Commerce (520/387-7742 or www.ajoinaz.com).

ACTIVITIES: Ajo Mountain Dr. is only 21 miles long and is partly made up of a one-way loop. It takes half a day to drive 53-mile-long Puerto Blanco Dr. To see the entire loop of Puerto Blanco and Quitobaquito (a spring-fed pond abundant in bird life) on the other side, you must head north on a one-way road from the visitor center. There have been thefts at Quitobaquito, so lock your vehicle.

Palo Verde Trail is a 2.6-mile round trip that connects the visitor center with the campground. Estes Canyon-Bull Pasture Trails make up a steeper, more demanding 4.1-mile round trip that passes an unusual outcropping of obsidian and ends on a high plateau with a panoramic park view.

CONTACT: (520) 387-6849 or www.nps.gov/orpi.