Walter and Sara Let the good times roll
on Sunday January 27th, Walter and I set out for our yearly migration southward to escape the gray drippy NW weather. It was 40 degrees and raining when we left home and it stayed that way for 2 days as we drove through Oregon and over the Siskiyou Mountains. We hit fog at the top of the pass and then presto as we passed over the California border the sun came out. What a difference 500 miles makes!

We worked our way southward on I-5 and by Wednesday were in Lancaster to have dinner with our daughter, Leslie and her husband Al. They are both very busy with their jobs with Lockheed-Martin working on the F-35 joint fighter program at Edwards Air Force Base outside of Lancaster. We spent the night at their house and then motored on the next morning heading southeast towards Phoenix.

We split the 375 mile drive to Phoenix into 2 days and decided to camp at Cottonwood Campground near the south entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. It was sunny and gorgeous though not real warm when we got there mid-day. We found a nice campsite with a view of the mountains to the east.

Cottonwood Campground Panorama Joshua Tree

We’d planned to take a hike but after hiking down the hill and back to register and having lunch, a nap seemed like more fun. Besides, the wind had come up...

The next morning we set out for Phoenix with clear skies. We spent the weekend visiting Sara’s niece, Amy and her dad, Mike. We did a hike in Estrella County Park that we did back in 2007. I’m happy to report that while it was steep in places, that we handled it just fine and neither of us was sore the next day particularly. Hurray for recovery and fitness.

On Sunday we watched the Super Bowl and critiqued the ads while Sara supervised Amy’s first attempt at making pot roast. It went marvelously and we all decided that yes indeed, Amy had earned her Pot Roast Merit Badge.

On Monday, after getting a late start, we headed southwest to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which is located in the middle of nowhere down next to the Mexican border. We stopped for lunch at a rest stop the consisted of a trash can and an old Ramada with no picnic tables. But it had a great view!

Rest stop view north of Organ Pipe National Monument

I’m sure this formation is called Somebody Important’s Thumb I just don’t remember whose.

View from rest stop north of Organ Pipe National Monument

Here’s Walter standing in the rest area with the mountains to the east.

Walter Cooke north of Organ Pipe National Monument

We got a nice campsite at the Twin Peaks Campground (the only RV campground in Organ Pipe) which is only 5 miles north of the Mexican border.

Here’s the view to the east from our campsite.

Twin Peaks Campground Organ Pipe National Monument

Here and there in the campground there were specimens of the namesake Organ Pipe Cactus. This one had grown up in the shade of a Palo Verde tree and was slowly overgrowing it. It will outlive the Palo Verde by many many years.

Organ Pipe Cactus and Palo Verde Tree

That night we had a lovely sunset that first lit up the mountains to the east.

Sunset at Organ Pipe National Monument

And then the hill to the north.

Sunset at Organ Pipe National Monument

And finally the western sky.

Sunset at Organ Pipe National Monument

That night we went out to look at the stars and you could see a long string of lights to the south where the park ends and Mexico begins.

The next morning we set out to see the park by car. There are basically 3 short roads in the 330,000 acres of park. The rest of the park is designated as Wilderness. First we drove out the North Puerto Blanco Drive which goes north straight out of the campground. There are nice saguaro and cholla along the road.

North Puerto Blanco Drive Organ Pipe National Monument

The Organ Pipe Cactus like to grown on the rocky hillsides here where they can get radiated heat on cold nights. This park holds nearly all of the Organ Pipe Cactus in the US. They are fairly common in the Sonoran Desert in Mexico but this is the northern-most extent of their range. Those are the Puerto Blanco Mountains to the west.

Organ Pipe Cactus in namesake park

The road ends with a Ramada and some signs that explain that everything from here on is wilderness. Walter had to walk 50 feet off the road so he could say he’d been out in the Wilderness. Of course at that point I don’t think it actually was Wilderness since he was right next to the Ramada that’s in this photo.

end of the North Puerto Blanco Road

We stopped and talked with some people from Washington who were reading the signs too. They’d been to Alaska a few years ago by pretty much the same route we had. They got to see Mt. McKinley but had bad weather for their boat trip out of Seward and so saw very little. I think we got the better end of the deal.

We drove on back down North Puerto Blanco and stopped at the Visitor’s Center. I found a nice t-shirt to buy and of course we had to watch the movie. On the whole I think that the National Monument movies aren’t quite a good as the National Park movies but it was still enjoyable. On the way back to the car I spied a bird up on top of a very tall cactus. I snuck up on him and took his photo. He turns out to be a cactus wren.

Cactus Wren at Organ Pipe National Monument Visitors Center

From the Visitor’s Center we drove across the highway and took the 21-mile long Ajo Mountain Drive which is a loop road that winds through the desert. There are some wonderful old saguaros along the drive. These guys are probably over 150 years old since they’ve got multiple arms.

Saguaros on Ajo Mt drive Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

The brittlebush dots the hillsides like grey green boulders.

Brittlebrush on hillside Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Here’s the Ajo mountain range with a forest of saguaros in the foreground.

Ajo Mt range Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

It’s not all creosote bushes, saguaros and organ pipes though. Here’s a little hedgehog cactus I found along the road.

hedgehog cactus Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

This is a pretty classic photo with the saguaros, an big organ pipe cactus and the rocky hills in the background.

Saguaros, Organ Pipe Cactus

We had our picnic lunch overlooking Diablo Wash where the native peoples of the area, the Tohono O’odham, used to dry-land farm.

Diablo Wash Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

A lizard appeared out of the bushes as we were leaving and I managed to catch him as he paused before scuttling away. He’s got good camouflage to blend into the mottled red environment.

Lizard Organ Pipe National Monument

Most of the Organ Pipe Cactus that we saw were completely vertical but this guy had some branches at the upper ends of his ‘pipes’. Later we saw a number like this. I suspect they have to be pretty old to have branches.

Big Organ Pipe Cactus

They’d had some rain so there were the beginnings of a few flowers here and there. This is Alberts Wild Buckwheat (Eriogonum abertianum).

Alberts Wild Buckwheat (Eriogonum abertianum)

This big organ pipe just begged to have his photo taken.

Large Organ Pipe Cactus

This big twisted Organ Pipe has a crest growing in its heart. This is an abnormal growth that they don’t know the cause of. But it’s real cool looking. You can get a guide at the Visitor Center of all the crests that can be seen from the road, complete with GPS locations. We decided we didn’t need to do that scavenger hunt.

Organ Pipe Cactus with crest Organ Pipe Cactus crest
The road takes a turn southward at Arch Canyon where you can get a great view of a double arch.

Arch at Arch Canyon Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Here’s a close-up so you can see the tiny little arch just above the big one. Double arch at Organ Pipe National Monument

We stopped to use the rest rooms at Bull Meadows picnic ground and I took this panorama shot. There’s a trail that starts here that takes you up into the mountains to an area where they used to keep cattle called Bull Meadows. We talked to some folks who had just finished it and they said it was marvelous. We didn’t have time to hike this time so maybe next time! We really enjoyed Organ Pipe so we just might actually go back.

Bull Meadow rest stop panorama

Just south of Bull Meadows, Walter spotted yet another small arch up on the hillside west of the road.

Arch south of Bull Meadows Organ Pipe National Monument

A little further south we got a good view of Mt. Diaz (on the left) and Diaz Spire (on the far right). I don’t know what the name of the peak in the middle is.

Mt Diaz and Diaz spire Organ Pipe National Monument

Here’s Mount Diaz and a couple of big old Organ Pipes and saguaros. The saguaro population here seems to be very healthy with a full range from juveniles to big old multi-armed specimens. After seeing many organ pipe cactus and many saguaros I decided I personally prefer the saguaros.

Mt Diaz, saguaros and Organ Pipe Cactus

Towards the end of the drive, Ocotillos start to show up. Most of them were still dormant and looked like clusters of dead sticks. But a few had sprouted leaves or the beginnings of red flowers on their tips. There was also a forest of teddy bear cholla that they think are genetically identical, so they probably all came from the same little segment of cactus that some critter carried here.

Ocotillos and cholla Mt Ajo drive

We finished our drive late in the afternoon and were treated to another beautiful sunset that evening.

Sunset at Organ Pipe National Monument

When we were breaking camp the next morning I saw a Gila woodpecker working on a cactus. I stalked him across the campground and then just as I got close enough to take a picture, a cactus wren chased him off—aggressive little critters. So here’s another cactus wren photo as a booby prize.

Cactus wren Organ Pipe National Monument campground

On our way north out of the park we stopped at a view point that explained about Mt. Ajo and Mount Tilson. Mt. Ajo, the highest point in the park, is on the right and Mount Tilson is the substantial hump on the left.

Mt Tilson and Mt Ajo Organ Pipe National Monument

We drove all the way to Anza Borrego State Park in California that day and opted to camp at Agua Caliente County Park that night. It’s a great place to stay since it has both electricity and hot springs! Here’s the view from our campsite late in the afternoon.

Anza Borrego from Agua Caliente County Park

The next morning I decided to go soak in the hot tub and then take a shower. Walter decided he didn’t want to bother to hike up to the hot pools and instead did battle with the coin-operated showers that have a habit of taking your money and not giving you any water. He did manage to fiddle with the darned coin box enough to get some coins returned and get some water but of course the water ran out when he had conditioner in his hair and he couldn’t get it to work again. He finally had to give up and rinse it out in the sink. I on the other hand, had a nice hot soak and then unlimited hot water in the shower up by the pools—all for free and I got a good walk out of the deal too.

In Part II we’ll be driving on to San Diego for a long weekend with our daughter, Tracy and visits to the USS Midway, Padres Fan Fest, Balboa Park, Torrey Pines and the San Diego Zoo!