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Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is one-of-a-kind desert spectacle

The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument showcases what could be considered one of the Southwest’s most amazing displays of nature’s creativity.
Updated: Jun. 11, 2022 at 10:44 PM MST
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NEAR AJO, AZ (Arizona Highways TV) -- Along State Route 85 in southern Arizona is a small former mining town with a huge backyard. Ajo is completely surrounded by the beauty of the Sonoran Desert, and its historic plaza in the center of town is the place to sit and take it all in. From here, you can admire Spanish colonial revival architecture, listen to the birds while you eat your lunch, and take advantage of the photo ops.

About 40 miles south of Ajo, State Route85 leads you to one of the most visited national monuments in the country.

“Most of the people who come through are just driving down Highway 85 on their way to Mexico, and it’s not until you get off that highway that you can actually see what the splendor of this place really is,” our guide explained.

The Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument showcases what could be considered one of the Southwest’s most amazing displays of nature’s creativity. Full of colorful landscapes and abstract cacti, it is also the only place in the country where the organ pipe cactus grows wild.

This is the only place in the U.S. where the organ pipe cactus grows naturally.
This is the only place in the U.S. where the organ pipe cactus grows naturally.(Arizona Highways TV)

“Further south as you travel into Mexico, they’ll be all over the place,” our guide said “But this is the only place in the United States you can find them. As you go towards Tucson, it gets too cold. As you go towards Phoenix, it gets too cold. If you go towards Yuma, it gets too dry. So, really this is the right set of circumstances to find that unique species.”

They actually look a lot like a saguaro, but the branches are more slender and tend to branch out from the bottom. They can live to be about 200 years old.

“There’s a phenomenon that you find in saguaro cactus where you kind of look at the tops and they have kind of this cauliflower kind of shape to them. We call that cristate,” our guide explained. “Turns out that organ pipe cactus also have cristate.” It’s an unusual yet beautiful abnormality caused when the cells in the growing stem begin to divide outward instead of the circular pattern of a normal cactus.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

There are 26 species of cactus in the park, which makes up more than 500 square miles of desert wilderness. The monument is also home to another phenomenon -- a pair of natural arches practically stacked on top of each other. If you time your trip right, you can see the full beauty of a desert in bloom.

“We’re known for our flowers actually in the spring, so you guys are here at a beautiful time of year where you can actually see some of those poppies and the lupine and things like that,” our guide said. From mid-February to mid-March, you can see hundreds of different kinds of flowers. Of course, the size of the bloom depends on how much winter rain the park gets.

The area is known for its amazing spring wildflowers.
The area is known for its amazing spring wildflowers.(Arizona Highways TV)

Every year, between 250,000 and 300,000 visitors from all over the world come to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument for one reason. “They want to see the quintessential Sonoran Desert, the American desert.”