Deep in the Sonoran Desert sits Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Sharing its southern border with Mexico, this park features scenic drives, wide open desert expanses and most notable of all – thousands of its namesake Organ Pipe Cactus. It’s the only place in the United States where Organ Pipe Cactus grows wild, but that isn’t the only wild thing about the monument.
Because of the proximity to the Mexico border, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is no stranger to crime. Between 2003-2014 the majority of the park was even closed due to issues with smuggling, human trafficking and other crime. Today the park is completely open, with a significant increase in Border Patrol agents and Park Rangers, but you’ll still see warning signs pretty frequently throughout the area.
Always one to err on the side of caution, I had put off visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument because of this highly advertised concern over safety. Having now visited (with a partner, not alone) I can honestly say I never once felt unsafe in the parts of the park we explored. It was nice to have someone else with me since there’s always safety in numbers, but I’d feel that way in most every park I visit as well as walking in my own city at night. Be aware of your surroundings, be prepared, but there’s no reason to be afraid or hesitant to visit this park. It has so much to offer!
Having driven down from Phoenix in the morning, by the time we set up camp at the Twin Peaks campground we only had a few hours of daylight for a quick hike. We headed along the Ajo Mountain Drive loop, just east of the visitor center towards the Arch Canyon trailhead. It’s at mile 9 of Ajo Mountain Drive, which is a 21 mile graded dirt road (mostly one-way) loop. The road was pretty smooth and was paved for portions as it crosses washes or heads up hill. I’d recommend checking with the visitor center if you have questions about whether you should attempt this with your vehicle, but there were plenty of sedans out there when we parked at the trailhead.
I had done some research ahead of time on which hiking trails we wanted to tackle and honestly hadn’t read a lot of exciting stuff about the Arch Canyon Trail. The majority of reviews on All Trails seemed to say that you don’t even see the arch from the top and other descriptions said it’s an easy 1.2 mile round trip into the canyon and failed to mention actually getting to the arch itself. Needless to say, I didn’t have high hopes, but since it was the first trail on a 21 mile one-way road we figured we’d check it out then proceed on to the more difficult Bull Pasture-Estes Canyon loop for some real exercise.
This is the part where (yes, in my review) I tell you not to listen to trail reviews! I’m SO GLAD we took a chance on this quick hike which turned out to be quite challenging, super fun rock scramble with amazing views from directly underneath a huge double rock arch surrounded by red rock and Organ Pipe Cactus!
Important things to know:
- The “trail” is officially 0.6 miles (1-way) into the canyon where you’ll see the arch most of the time off to your right above you. This part of the trail is well maintained, easy tread with less than 300ft of steady elevation gain.
- This is a great place to turn around if you’re not ready for a strenuous climb with some rock scramble on an unmarked trail.
- If you choose to continue, it’s a little less than a mile from here to the top and under the arch – about 3 miles round trip total.
- The remainder of the climb is fairly open with little shade and is a “social” trail meaning it’s not maintained, but it does have pretty frequent rock cairns helping guide your route up the mountain.
- Make sure you have plenty of water/snacks and that you are confident in your navigation skills. I’ve found it’s much easier to follow unmarked trails UP and a lot harder to find the right route again on your way DOWN, especially if it’s afternoon.
Starting at the Arch Canyon Trailhead
Head on up the well defined Arch Canyon trail toward the arch. You’ll see it high up on your right for the first half mile or so. Once you reach this sign about 0.6 miles in, you’ll veer right. This is where the “unmaintained” trail begins. There are some warning signs on a faint path to your left – make sure not to go that way.
At this sign (not far after the last sign) you’ll reach the first more challenging part with some loose rocks and steeper incline. This is still nothing compared to what you’ll do in another quarter mile so if you feel uncomfortable definitely turn around here and at least test how you feel going back down this section.
Make sure you stop and look around as you make your way up the mountain. I found myself staring at my feet along during the climb as I picked my way up the rocks, but there are incredible views of the surrounding canyons and peaks.
Ok, so in full disclosure – I’m not a tall person. Assuming you’re taller than 5’3″ this climb might be a tad easier, but no joke there are some big stretches as you scramble over boulders on the upper sections of the trail. Also note: I had to scoot on my butt in a few places on the way back down to make it over some of the tall stretches, but nothing that I’d consider too scary.
Yay! If you’ve made it to this view, you’ve made it to the top of the climb! After climbing out of the canyon you’ll eventually reach a bit of a plateau and you’ll start seeing a line of stacked rock cairns “sorta” pointing the way. We wandered around on top in this area quite a bit because we didn’t see all of the cairns at first. In this photo below – aim toward where the right hand is pointing to go toward the arch.
If you headed to where the left hand was pointing in the previous photo, a few hundred yards ahead you’ll end up where this little itty bitty person is in the photo below. You might be tempted to think you could end up on top of the arch from here, but from what we saw it looked like a pretty dangerous drop and I wouldn’t recommend going any further.
From this point the “trail” is pretty hard to follow. We could see a trail about 50 yards below us along the last couple hundred yards to the arch so we carefully picked our way down the hill to our left and met up with that trail. It was pretty muddy and loose even though we hadn’t had recent rains, so definitely use caution on this section as it was pretty challenging to get back up.
Finally down level with the base of the arch, it was an incredible sight looking up at it. I promise, photos don’t do it justice! Although just the 1 arch (with the little double arch above it) this easily rivals some of the more famous arches in Arches National Park in size.
The views of the valley looking back toward the trailhead and into the valley were spectacular as well.
When you’re done exploring and admiring the giant arch, head back exactly the way you came. We took a few detours while trying to find the right route up, but overall the hike came in a just about 3 miles round trip and took us 2.5 hours (including a lot of photo taking). Total elevation gain for our hike was about 1,200ft.