National parks are crowded, but national monuments, just as good, don't have nearly as many people visit them. That's what I found at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in southwest Arizona when I was among only about a dozen visitors.
This Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is just five miles from the Mexico border, and it's mostly in the middle of nowhere, however, they have some rare plant species you won't find anywhere else in the United States, making them rarer than the cherished Saguaro Cactus - still standing tall and proud as a symbol of the American West.
Just don’t be a bird brain like me and think that "Organ Pipe Cactus" means it’s one giant cactus shaped like a pipe organ because technically, that’s not what it is. Sure, the Organ Pipe Cactus’ can be said to look like a pipe organ, but there are thousands of these plants, not just one big one that looks like a church organ. Well, how was I supposed to know? I’ve never spent any time in the west before.
You might want to go here just because the cactuses are rarer than Saguaros. If you don’t care about that, you might want to go just for the drive. No matter where you’re coming from, you will go through the classic, untouched Sonoran Desert. It’s the western road trip of your dreams.
From Tucson, it’s a long two-lane highway filled with Saguaro cactus mountains as you cross the Tohono O’odham Reservation. Because it’s a reservation, the land is pristine and nearly untouched except for a gas station every 40 miles or so and a few small sections of housing.
The cactuses are rarer than Saguaros – which only grow in the Sonoran Desert – because these only grow in the far south of the Sonoran Desert. You won’t see them elsewhere. Isn’t that amazing?
Once you get close to the 517-square-mile park, near the town of “Why,” the cacti get denser, and more types are prevalent than you’re likely to see in any other place. It’s like someone planted a massive cactus garden. Pretty mountains peaked in the background, glowing red and brown. Another 30 minutes past Why, and you’ll find the visitor’s center.
This is where I learned that a “pipe organ” is a type of organ cactus that grows in a big bunch. Many “organ” stalks spring up in a straight pillar from the ground, like celery. Some are big, some small, and others massive. At first glance, they didn’t seem that special, but upon examining them, I realized I hadn’t seen any of them elsewhere in my western travels. But here, they were in abundance. You’ll also find the rare Senita cactus, similar to the pipe organ but with a spiked top.
The monument area is an International Biosphere Reserve, and you’ll be surprised by all the 30+ types of cactuses you’ll see – and you should see it because it won’t last forever. UNESCO created the biosphere reserve program to protect these unique places from overwhelming environmental pressures that destroy them. The program also includes tropical forests, coral reefs, prairie grassland, river systems, and other deserts. This particular reserve is currently threatened by plans for building a border wall, some of which have already been installed, damaging several miles of the National Monument.