– Tucson, Arizona to Mesa, Arizona –

Well, we did it. We found some flowers in the desert, so our trip has at least lived up to its name. They weren’t everywhere, and it certainly wasn’t a super bloom, but we definitely got to see some flowering cactus and some wildflowers. Success! Today ended up being a little different than we’d planned, though unlike yesterday, we decided to make it that way, rather than suffering at the hands of chance.

Our morning began around 5:45am, not at 5, as I had feared. Sunrise wasn’t until around 6:30, so we were a little afraid to get up too early and have to run in the pitch black. We were right to worry because not only was it still quite dark at 5:45, it was also cloudy. In the time it took us to get out of bed and get dressed, it did finally lighten up a bit, and the clouds were a nice accompaniment to our run.

Flowers! We did it!

We did our run on the loop trail¬† in Santa Cruz River Park. The trail was fantastic, wide and nicely paved and flat. As always with Arizona, there isn’t any shade, but you can’t expect miracles. The other funny thing about the trail is that it runs next to the “river,” which is really just a dry bed where there could be a river, at some point. There certainly isn’t one right now. We spoiled our run right after by stopping for sandwiches at the Dunkin’ Donuts before we went back to our hotel. We were responsible yesterday morning and didn’t have Krispy Kreme, so today we threw it all away and had other donuts instead.

It was just after 8:30 when we left the hotel, and we still needed to stop for coffee, tea, ice, and gas to start our morning. We took Highway 86 out of Tucson, and stopped at Quiktrip on our way by for all of the things required to start our morning. As we were leaving, I told Mark that I hoped the fact that Tucson had Quiktrips meant that Mesa (our stop for tonight) would as well, and I can now confirm that this is true. There’s one less than half a mile from me as I write this. Score!

Ripley and a Saguaro

It’s about 3.5 hours from Tucson to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, our major stop for the day, and since we weren’t really leaving town until 9am, it was around noon before we made it there. A large portion of the drive takes you through the middle of nowhere, but the middle of nowhere in this case is specifically on the Tohono O’odham Nation Reservation, which is very empty. It does have a few small towns, but for the most part, the drive was through miles and miles of nothing, surrounded by thousands of Saguaro cacti. And I mean thousands.

In addition, the desert along the road is flowering! Not a lot, not as much as we wanted, but definitely enough to count. We stopped a couple of times for photos of wildflowers ocotillo, as well as some photos of saguaros. The road is just a normal, small highway, so I can’t help but wonder if all of the people that drove past us wondered if we were crazy, pulled off on the side of the road, wandering through the cactus in the heat. It is already very warm here. For a reasonable portion of the drive, it was around 86 or so. We definitely needed our hats. I wouldn’t want to be out there any later in the season.

Flowering ocotillo

Just before we made it to Organ Pipe Cactus, we stopped in the tiny town of Why, right outside the reservation. I guess a portion of it is on the reservation, because the gas station we visited there is a very small casino. We didn’t go into the casino part, but judging by the cars, it can’t be a popular spot. Or maybe it is, and that’s all the cars they need to fill the place. I have no idea. They didn’t have tea for us, so we weren’t able to refill our drinks. Luckily, we had planned for this eventuality, and had a gallon of unsweet tea and ice in the cooler for just such a thirsty occasion.

After our break, we made it down to the national monument. I wouldn’t have told my mother before we went, since I don’t think she would have approved, but Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was closed for 11 years, from 2003 to 2014. Why, you might ask? Well, the park was quite dangerous at that time because of all of the illegal drug and human trafficking activities in the area, and the issues in the park culminated in 2002, when a park ranger named Kris Eggle was murdered in the park. The visitor center is now named in his honor.

The tiniest casino

So, the park has only been completely open for about 4 years since then, and as you enter, you come up to signs that talk about illegal activity, not traveling alone, watching for suspicious behavior, and getting out of the area after dark. It is nowhere near as dangerous as it once was, and we saw many, many park rangers and border patrol agents on our trip through the park, but the signs can still be a little nerve-wracking. Like I said, I think my mom would’ve had us turn around. The park is literally on the border with Mexico, and the crossing is about 8 miles from the visitor center.

We pulled into the visitor center parking lot just after noon and went inside to have a look around. I should mention now that originally, we had two more parks planned for today. One was Casa Grande Ruins National Monument, and the other was Sonoran Desert National Monument. The Sonoran Desert one turns out to be managed by the BLM now, and isn’t much to see, so we were already a little iffy on whether or not we cared about seeing that one. As for the other, the ruins are the only real attraction in the park, and while it will be cool to see someday, we weren’t too excited about it in particular.

Getting our national park stamp

I mention this because in the visitor center, we discovered that Organ Pipe Cactus has not one, but two big driving loops, and one of them can take 4-6 hours, travels 41 miles through the back country of the park, and requires a high clearance vehicle. To say we were intrigued is an understatement. We knew we didn’t have time to do the 4-6 hour loop and visit our other parks, so we had to make a decision. In the end, we couldn’t resist the allure of doing the full, mostly one-way loop, so we tossed aside our plans to visit other parks today and fully committed to Organ Pipe Cactus. I’m glad we did.

After we had gotten our national park stamp and filled up little Ripley’s water bottle, we headed over to the entrance to the Puerto Blanco road. The first and last portions of the road are two-way, but the vast majority is a one way road, which is why it takes so long to traverse. You can’t turn around. The one way section is quite narrow in places, so while sometimes it seems a little silly that the road is one way, other times it makes perfect sense. It is worth mentioning that there are a few other drives you can take through the park, but the two big loops are the most popular. The other, smaller loop is the most popular drive in the park, according to the visitor center. It is shorter and easier to access for all types of vehicles.

Puerto Blanco Road

It doesn’t take very long to complete the first two-way portion of Puerto Blanco road. It just goes back to a picnic area and a set of pit toilets. We stopped there to pull our lunch out of the cooler to eat while we drove along. We also took a last bathroom break, since the road only had one more set of pit toilets quite a bit further along the road. We only saw a few other people having picnics there, and once the one-way portion started, we did not see many other travelers at all.

Once we had entered the one-way section, we started seeing water barrels with tall blue flags along the road, for stranded travelers. Well, I say we saw them, but really only I was seeing them. Mark was never able to spot them. I guess we wouldn’t want to rely on Mark’s eyes during some sort of survival situation. He would walk right past salvation.

Not a comforting sign

I can definitely see how, aside from any potential hazards from other humans in the park, the weather can be quite dangerous. Considering how warm it was in the sun in early March, I cannot imagine wanting to visit this park during the summer. Just being out of the truck for 10 minutes, even in my hat, had me feeling pretty warm. The nice thing about spring, though, is that it isn’t so warm that the shade doesn’t help. I could sit in the truck for a long time without feeling hot. Once you were in the shade, the temperature was pleasant. We didn’t even have the air conditioner running most of the time, and Ripley was able to sit in the truck with the windows down and watch us take photos without getting hot at all.

Still, the signs and such spread around along the road about the weather are not comforting, just like the signs about smuggling and trafficking. The sign above was at the Golden Bell Mine picnic area, where Mark and I got out to take some photos of pretty desert landscapes. As you can see, the sign asks you to push the red button if you need help and someone will come for you. You should know that you never want to have to push that red button. It took us an hour and a half to make it back to this sign, and there aren’t any other roads back here. Help is going to have to come in the same way we did, unless the national park system down here magically has a helicopter.

Organ Pipe Cactus

The Golden Bell Mine stop has two mining shafts right next to the road, though I never was able to tell exactly what they were mining. The name makes me assume it was gold, and I know another mine in the park, the Victoria Mine, was the site of some minor amount of silver and gold mining as early as the late 1800s. We didn’t come across any signs that said for sure, and the park’s map/brochure is very thin, so there is definitely no information there. The mines are long, vertical shafts, and are covered by huge metal grates.

We only saw two other vehicles on the one-way section of road, and one of them was a park service vehicle. An older man and woman were driving it. They seemed to be surveying something, though we never did figure out what, though we saw them multiple times. They were also picking up roadside trash. I think they  were volunteers, and not rangers.

An old corral and water trough at Bonita Well

The first portion of Puerto Blanco drive is mountainous, and filled with saguaro. We didn’t actually start seeing the national monument’s namesake cactus, the organ pipe, until well into the drive. The park is the only place in the United States where this particular type of cactus grows wild. Many more can be found in Mexico. They actually flower a little later in the year, which surprises me. Only a cactus could flower in the Arizona (and Mexico!) heat like that.

Our next stop along the road was Bonita Well, which is the site of the second and final set of pit toilets, as well as an old corral and water tower. These last two are remnants of a cattle ranching operation that was still in business as late as the 1930s. I assume they have maintained the fence a little to keep up appearances, because I can’t imagine barbed wire lasting that long. It’s a very pretty area, with both organ pipe and saguaro cactus, as well as small mountains in the distance. It doesn’t seem like it would be a great spot for a cattle ranch, though. Maybe the owners were desperate.

Intrepid Tacoma

After Bonita Well, you eventually come to a spot where the road once again becomes two-way, just before you reach Quitobaquito Springs. While we were in the visitor center earlier in the day, I had seen a postcard for the park with a large pond on it, with a bird flying away from the water, and it had the park’s name on it. I pointed it out to Mark and joked that it couldn’t possibly be real, but it is. There’s a pond and a spring at Quitobaquito, which I guess is why the park was once a reasonable place for a cattle ranch.

It’s a little walk down to the spring, and we didn’t actually take it, though now that we are back at the hotel, I can’t 100% explain why. I don’t think the walk down to the spring was that far, as we could see green trees from the road. It was warm, certainly, and I’m not sure Ripley was allowed on the trail, but we didn’t even try to check. I kind of think we were a little nervous, since once you reach Quitobaquito, you are literally on the border with Mexico. Sure, there’s a fence, and it is certainly perfectly safe, but with all of the signs about smuggling and trafficking, it can be scary to get too far away from the car, at least for me. I don’t think that was Mark’s motivation, but he didn’t seem interested in walking down to the spring either, so we stayed with our truck and took photos around the turnoff to the spring on the main road instead.

It’s the border!

After Quitobaquito, the drive becomes South Puerto Blanco Road, and it runs through what they call the Senita Basin along the border with Mexico. Senita Basin is filled with a new type of cactus, as you might’ve guessed, called senita. There’s another little road you can take to drive back into an area that is densely populated with this type of cactus, but we elected to skip it. We had been on the dirt road for more than 3 hours, and we were starting to get a little tired of our scenery. Senita looks superficially like organ pipe cactus, as it grows in tall shafts from the ground in the same way, but the arms are more angular, instead of rounded, and the tops are covered in funny black hair. We didn’t get any great pictures of it, since we didn’t take the little road back into the area where it was prolific.

From the Senita basin, we drove off of the dirt road and back onto the main paved road that leads through the park down into Mexico through the town of Lukeville. We actually drove down to take a little look at the border crossing before we left. There are a ton of people crossing right now. I think they are all going down to the Gulf of California, which isn’t far at all. We turned north and made our way to Mesa instead. We had a sub sandwich from a pot-themed shop for dinner. Don’t ask me why the sandwich shop was marijuana-themed. I legitimately have no idea. Is even medicinal pot legal in Arizona? Who knows. The sandwich was nice enough, even if all of the employees seemed a little stoned.

Ripley and the Organ Pipe Cactus

Tomorrow we will go for a run here in Mesa then head on to Roswell for the night. With Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Done, and the third day of our trip finished, we are now on the downward slope of our spring break trip. We will be home by Tuesday night. I think we only have one real park planned for tomorrow, but it looks like it will be pretty cool. It’s a cliff dwelling. I’m looking forward to it, and to my run.

– Trip Total : 1,475 miles


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