Cactus, Cactus, Everywhere – Exporing Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Ajo Mountain Scenic Road

Ajo Mountain Scenic Road @ 2011 Bo Mackison

One of the best ways to explore a large portion of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is to do so on the loop road. Not usually my favorite way to see a national park, but in this case, it was certainly an efficient way to see various habitats of the park while taking advantage of the protection and speed of my car. Less wear and tear on my body, and I didn’t get lost once! Of course, it IS a loop…

The 21 mile Ajo Mountain Scenic Road winds from desert floor, ascends through the Ajo Mountain Range, and then returns to the desert floor. The beginning is partly paved, but once it reaches higher elevations and tight passes, the road becomes rocky and bumpy, a bit of an adventure ride. And I have to say, I have seen National Parks and Monuments in the 48 lower states, and I think this 20 mile length of road rivals almost any other road, National Park or not, for its breathtaking beauty. I think it must be in my top five favorites.

Organ Pipe and Palo Verde

Organ Pipe and Palo Verde © 2011 Bo Mackison

The organ pipe cactus is much like it s cousin, the saguaro. Both large cacti grow near a nurse tree, often a palo verde, as shown in this photograph. A bird, while sitting in a tree, makes a deposit under the tree which includes the seeds of cactus. The tree provides protection from the harsh sun, carnivores and water from the nurse tree as it indirectly waters the seedling cactus. If it isn’t eaten, frost-bitten, or scorched to death, it may make it. Cacti have the best chance of making it past the first few years of growth if the weather is milder and wetter than average.

These conditions happen only a few times in a century in the Arizona Uplands where Organ Pipe National Monument is located. That is why there are only a few sizes/ages of cactus in a any given area. The lucky cacti that make it to the height of three feet–40 years worth of growth–are quite resistant to weather extremes and animal damage, and have much lower mortality rates than the younger cacti.

Organ Pipe NM

“Good Housekeeping” Desert © 2011 Bo Mackison

This region of the Sonoran Desert seems much less cluttered than the desert I hiked in a few days ago, the western unit of Saguaro National Park. There everything was a jumble of clutter. Here, it looks like the maids have come through, preparing for an inspection from the “Good Housekeeping” desert spirit.

Organ Pipe Cactus

Organ Pipe Cactus © 2011 Bo Mackison

Organ pipes are easily distinguished from the saguaro, and the other large, but less common cactus, the senita. (No photos of the senita yet, but I’ll keep looking.) Organ pipes have arms that rise from ground level, their stems are often thinner, and they do not sprout projecting arms.

They are uncommon in the United States–found only in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument and the adjacent Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation located in south central Arizona. This is the most northern habitat for these plants. They are common in the Sonora, Mexico to the south. At that most southern part of the Sonoran desert, these cacti grow with such density, they appear as a sea of organ pipes. Now that is something I would love to see!

Southern Mountain Side--Cactus Habitat

Southern Mountain Side–Cactus Habitat © 2011 Bo Mackison

Organ pipes are usually found on south facing, rocky mountain sides. In Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, the south exposures are one of the warmest micro-habitats in the United States. The cacti typically grow about 10 feet high, though occasionally they can be seen twice that height. Their flowers are white, and bloom at night from April through August. They open in the dark and close shortly after sunrise. That would be something to see, too.

In the photograph above, the organ pipes are joined by the fuzzy Teddy Bear Cholla, a few palo verde trees, and creosote bushes.


Bo Mackison is a photographer and owner of Seeded Earth Studio LLC. She is living in Tucson for two months, exhibiting her photography in art shows, taking photographs, and blogging about photography, art fairs, and living life “solo.”  She is finding the desert habitat more and more to her liking. She is also finding that a solitary life comes with unexpected gifts, too.

About Bo Mackison

I'm a photographer, book-artist, traveler, naturalist, and creator of the Contemplative Creatives Journey, An Online Workshop and Community and Desert Wisdom Cards and Workshops. Though often not well known, I find the desert a welcoming place - a healing space. Its mysteries and gifts transformed me several years ago. Since that first encounter, I return again and again to fill my well in what most people think of as a desolate region. I'd love to share my desert discoveries and wisdom with you. Please subscribe to receive my five part mini email course The Gifts of the Desert. It's my gift to you.


  1. These are amazing Bo, I love the color contrast between the sky and the Cactus, beautiful work !!

  2. Gandalf says:

    I enjoyed riding along on your journey through Organ Pipes via today’s post. I particularly liked the “Good Housekeeping Desert.” I’d like to hire the housekeeping crew that handles that task. 🙂

  3. Absolutely love the first picture! Amazing!

  4. Outstanding photos, Bo! I love seeing that area again!

  5. The cacti are wonderful, but that sky! Those clouds! Soooooo wonderful!

  6. Wow…the blue of the sky! Just an amazing adventure you are on, Bo!!!

    • Bo Mackison says:

      The sky is such a deep shade of blue because there is very little pollution particulates that it moves through — thus, a blue, blue sky.

  7. Amazing photos. The sky is just perfect!

    I’ve been to a desert only once, for less than a day, and one of the things that stood out for me was the sky. It’s different in the desert.

  8. You ordered an incredibly beautiful sky and day for your road trip, Bo. These are stunners, your photographs! I must say, the call of the West is tugging at me this morning. What a gorgeous part of our country!!!

    • Bo Mackison says:

      The Southwest has many gifts to offer, especially when one goes searching every day. It;s a wonderful region–deserts, mountains, riparian areas, sky islands. So much to see.

  9. I absolutely love the desert. That is where I feel connected at my Source and can take in all of the beauty that surrounds me. I also love to take photos of nature–mostly clouds and mountains, I live by Mt.Shasta, CA. I love your photos. Just so lovely. thank you.

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