Mount Ajo, Organ Pipe National Monument

December 9-11, 2011

Back in the 70s, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was a popular stopover for RVs bound for the beaches of Mexico, and it wasn't uncommon to fill all 208 spaces at Twin Peaks Campground on a busy weekend.

Then in 2002, park ranger Kris Eggle was shot and killed while pursuing members of a drug cartel hit squad who fled into the United States after committing a string of murders in Mexico.

Shortly thereafter, Organ Pipe was named the "most dangerous park in the nation" by the National Park Rangers Lodge of the Fraternal Order of Police, and almost the entire western two-thirds of the park was closed to visitors. The most recent park map doesn't even show the former 53-mile-long Penasco Blanco scenic drive on the western side of the park.

Is the park as dangerous as everyone seems to think? I've been hiking and camping in Organ Pipe since 2001, and while there is undoubtedly a lot of migrant traffic in the closed sections of the park, I haven't seen the slightest indication — not an empty Jumex can or a plastic water jug or a fire ring — in either campground or along the 21-mile Ajo scenic drive.

With a group of hardy hikers from the Tucson Backpackers, we spent the last weekend before Christmas in the park. On Saturday we scaled Mount Ajo which is one of the most spectacular hikes anywhere in Arizona. John, I-Chun and Jim all made it to the top, but I was happy just to wander along the ridge filming the fantastic tortured spires on either side, and revisiting a spot where Dennis and I camped back in 2004 when backpacking was still permitted in the park.

Meanwhile down in Bull Pasture, Dennis set up his portable 80-meter ham radio rig, and took some fantastic long-range shots of our crew dancing along the ridge.

We were challenged by a heavy rainstorm overnight, but by breakfast the storm had moved on and we were able to squeeze in another hike along the Victoria Mine Trail. However, the highlight of the weekend was when volunteer Ranger Rovik Rivenburgh recognized four members of our group as "Desert Rangers".

Here is the pledge we all made, and we take it seriously:

As a Desert Ranger, I will help to preserve and protect Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument by sharing my knowledge of the park with others, demonstrating appropriate behavior to Junior Rangers and other people of all ages, and supporting conservation of the park's natural and cultural resources.

So plan a trip to the jewel of southern Arizona — Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The spring wildflowers should be fantastic!