Located in southwestern Arizona, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument preserves one of the most impressive, remote, and dangerous areas of the Sonoran Desert. Covering 517 square miles (1338 square km) along the Mexican border, the park and its people protect a variety of unique and interesting landscapes and species including the namesake organ pipe cactus (Stenocereus thurberi, Cactaceae).
Each organ pipe cactus generates multiple stems from a short trunk and can reach 26 feet (8 m) in height. They’re slow-growing and don’t reach maturity until around 150 years in age. Flowers appear from April until June and are creamy white and about 3″ (8 cm) across. They close during the day and open at night and are pollinated predominantly by bats. The resulting fruit fall and disperse the seeds, and in the harsh desert environment they face an uphill battle to germinate and grow. New plants require a great deal of shade from a “nurse tree” for the first several years until their roots reach sufficient depth for water uptake.
Organ pipe cacti are extremely sensitive to frost and can only be found within the United States in this narrow sliver of extreme southern Arizona. They are however much more abundant in the Mexican states of Sonora and Baja California Sur.
Another similar large cactus can also be found in greater numbers across a wider range in southern Arizona and Sonora, Mexico. The saguaro (pronounced “suh-HWAR-oh”) (Carnegiea gigantea, Cactaceae) shares a similar life history to the organ pipe, with a number of physical differences. These cacti begin life as a single stem (or “spear”) and only begin to generate side arms at around 100 years of age.
As with organ pipes, saguaro flowers are large and creamy white and open at night. Saguaro flowers remain open longer into the day, however, and as a result honey bees play a larger role in their pollination. Saguaro fruit is said to be sweet like watermelon, and they sometimes split open in the heat to reveal their red flesh. If you’re tempted to taste one, however, it should be noted that harming a saguaro in any way is prohibited in the state of Arizona.
This park is more than just large cacti, however. Many plant species conspire to create a surprisingly lush array of foliage in this hot, dry desert. Other cacti like chollas, hedgehogs, prickly pears, and Arizona barrels dot the parched landscape along with trees and shrubs like the cottonwood, ironwood, ocotillo, mesquite and creosote. Animals include mountain lions, desert bighorn sheep, Sonoran pronghorn, coyotes, javelinas, jackrabbits, and numerous birds and reptiles including Gila monsters and several species of rattlesnakes. Although some may think of deserts as barren, lifeless wastelands, places like this demonstrate otherwise. Every view is filled with plants, insects, and even larger animals lurking just out of sight.
In this expansive wilderness other things can move just out of sight, including drug smugglers, human traffickers and worse moving north out of Mexico. Controlling the flow of contraband and crime is the responsibility, in part, of the National Park Service rangers that patrol this park. In August of 2002 ranger Kris Eggle was pursuing cartel members fleeing from Mexico after they committed a string of murders. During their encounter he was slain in the line of duty.
In the wake of the cartel violence most of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was closed to the public for the next eleven years, and it became known as “America’s most dangerous national park.” An increased presence of law enforcement officers, more frequent patrols, and more arrests and prosecutions eventually stemmed the tide of illegal activity and violence and lead to the park being fully reopened in September of 2014. In the intervening years a monument was erected to remember Kris Eggle’s sacrifice for the people, places, and principles of the United States, and the visitor center was renamed in his honor.
Dark days like these should serve as a reminder that these remote outposts on the American frontier are not only full of wonder and beauty, but potential peril as well. From our cozy homes with climate control and WiFi it’s easy to forget that within our borders are harsh environments filled with the threats of environmental exposure, dehydration, dangerous wildlife, and even more dangerous people. Every day people like Kris Eggle work to make these places safe for visitation and bring us all closer to the most remote and fascinating places our country has to offer.
In spite of such rare and tragic events parks like these remain mostly harmless thanks to the dedicated work of the NPS and other law enforcement officers. Today visitors to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument are more threatened by dehydration than cross-border violence. If you decide to venture to this edge of America bring extra water and enjoy the scenery, the plants, and the wildlife, and thank your local NPS ranger, border patrol agent, or other law enforcement officer for making it all possible.