Truth be told, you have to go our of your way to visit Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (www.nps.gov/orpi/index.htm); but it’s definitely worth the effort. Located about three hours south of Phoenix, this international Biosphere Reserve was set aside in 1976, to conserve and study the Sonoran Desert ecosystem. And although this pristine area is quite remote, it’s also pretty accessible – that is with a little advance planning.
Plan A Visit
Located about 33 miles south of Ajo on Highway 85, the Kris Eggle Visitor Center is the perfect place to begin your Organ Pipe visit. Accessible parking is available in front, with level access over to the main building and to the accessible restrooms. There are also accessible picnic tables on a covered cement pad located nearby, if you’d like to enjoy lunch al fresco.
Inside there are barrier-free pathways throughout the building, around the interpretive exhibits and over to the staffed ranger information desk. And since there’s no manned entrance station to this park, don’t forget to pick up a park map when you stop by the visitor center.
Out back there’s level access to the nature trail, which runs alongside a creek filled with native pupfish. Interpretive plaques dot the quarter-mile paved route, which leads back out to the parking lot. This well-done trail offers a good introduction to Sonoran Desert habitat, and it’s a great spot for a scenic photo. And if you need a break, there are several benches located along the way.
Hit the Road
One of the most accessible ways to enjoy the area is to take the 21-mile Ajo Mountain Scenic Drive. Pick up a guide at the visitor center, and cross Highway 85 to start the drive. It takes two hours to drive the route straight through, but be sure and allow extra time for stops along the way.
This road winds up and around the canyon, and offers a good look at the flora and fauna of the area. The changing landscape is dotted with prickly pear, jojoba, cholla and of course the namesake organ pipe; and don’t be surprised if you spot a few quail scampering across the roadway every now and then. The one-way road begins as graded dirt, but there are rocky patches and even a few paved segments along the way. It’s perfectly passable in a low-clearance vehicle in dry weather; however it’s best to skip the drive during the rainy season, as flooding is a common occurrence.
The great part about the drive is that it’s never very busy, and you can pull out and enjoy the secluded windshield views along the way. Diablo Canyon Picnic Area is located around mile 5.5; and even though there’s just a standard table located there, you can drive right over to it. Be sure and pull off at the Arch Trailhead at mile 9 for a beautiful canyon view; and keep in mind that the only vault toilet is located up the road at the Estes Canyon stop, near mile 11. There’s a level path over to the accessible unit, and some of the standard picnic tables at this stop may also be usable for many folks. Take your time and enjoy the drive – you never know what you’ll see along the way.
Tie on the Feed Bag
To be honest, there aren’t really many restaurants near Organ Pipe, so this is where some advance planning is definitely necessary. If you don’t pack along a picnic lunch to nosh on at the visitor center or along the scenic drive, then check out one of the only accessible restaurants in the area – Granny Mac’s Kitchen in nearby Why. Yes, I said Why. And the good new is, not only is this local eatery nicely accessible, but it also serves up some pretty tasty grub .
Granny Mac’s Kitchen is easy to spot too – it’s located on the west side of Highway 85, right behind the Texaco station. Although the parking lot is mostly gravel and dirt, there’s accessible parking on cement slabs near the front door, with level access to the restaurant. Inside there’s plenty of room to roll around the tables, and barrier-free access over to the accessible restrooms.
This cute café, which is decorated with chicken figurines and country knickknacks, features a menu filled with soups, salads, sandwiches and Mexican specialties. And although the American offerings are certainly tasty, the tacos, burritos and enchiladas really hit a home run. The portions are beyond hearty, and the prices are quite reasonable. You know you’ve found a good joint, when you see the local border patrol officers dining there. So stop by on your next trek down Highway 85 — you won’t be disappointed.