Mount Ajo, Organ Pipe National Monument

December 24-25, 2004

Mount Ajo at 4800 feet is the highest peak in Organ Pipe National Monument. The trailhead is a good four hours from Tucson, if you allow time to stop at park headquarters for your backcountry permit and to drive half of the 21-mile-long Ajo loop. Since this hike is best done when the days are short, we left Tucson at 5:30 a.m. and hit the trailhead at 9:30. The weather was hardly encouraging, with temperatures in the 40s and winds gusting to 40 mph. I started the hike wearing long pants and a polar fleece jacket -- very unusual for Arizona -- and by lunchtime I added long underwear!

Bull Pasture trail climbs quickly to the top of a ridge overlooking Estes Canyon, a huge bowl made of globs of red rhyolite and bands of bubbly yellow tuff. To the right, you can see the rim of Bull Pasture, a larger and higher volcanic bowl. Streaks of desert varnish mark the spot where several streams collect water from Bull Pasture and tumble hundreds of feet into Estes Canyon in the rainy season.

The trail scrambles around a yellow wedge of tuff and then climbs quickly to Bull Pasture overlook about two miles from the trailhead. From this point, the trail diminishes to a faint track that heads downhill and follows a wash to a saddle just below a cup-and-saucer shaped peak. Note that this trail is not shown on the Mount Ajo topo map.

At the point where you are sure you have gone too far south, the trail turns and begins tracking steadily east around the side of the bowl, heading toward a cluster of bizarre red volcanic cones.

The cones are the strangest geologic features in this other-worldly environment. They also mark the only really scarey section of this hike. The trail, such as it is, hooks south around the cones and ascends a small landslide. Between the steep grade and the ball bearings under foot, it was a bit like trying to skate uphill carrying a 35-pound backpack. As I made my way on all fours, hugging the ground when violent gusts of wind threatened to blow me over, I wondered why I wasn't home sipping eggnog like any other sane person.

But suddenly the the trail tops out above the cones and runs north along a ledge of sunny yellow tuff.

Four hours flat from the trailhead -- cones and all -- we stumbled onto a perfect camping spot, just below the ridge, with a rough stone wall for protection and a view to die for. We set up camp and enjoyed a few hours of sunny warm weather and relief from the winds that we could still hear swirling below us.

While Dennis profited from a warm and cozy tent, my curiosity carried me up and over the ridge. Here the wind resumed its full force, but there were eye-popping views south and east through Tohono O'Odham territory all the way to the unmistakable silhouette of Baboquivari.

The trail continues north, passing to the right of a false summit. From a saddle just below the summit I could see the shimmering Sea of Cortez, more than 60 miles to the south.

This is looking south along the spine of Ajo Mountain.

Christmas Eve dinner was dehydrated chicken and mashed potatoes washed down with a plastic bottle of Gewurtraminer.

Then we dashed back up the ridge to watch the sun set.

See the cones in the center of the photo? And that tiny trail snaking uphill to the left?

Of course the heat vanished with the sun, and we zipped into the tent for a very long night. The sun had barely disappeared when the full moon popped over the horizon. Three tiny Mexican border towns twinkled below us. We had the mountain to ourselves. We had not seen another person all day.

Christmas Day dawned sunny and calm. We delayed our departure as long as possible.

After a liesurely breakfast, we made one more trip to the ridge. This photo was taken looking north and east toward the Tohono O'Odham village of Guvo.

As we meandered back down the mountain, we succumbed to the urge to explore some of the washes in the upper pasture. All were much deeper than we expected and -- even more surprising -- they all contained sizable pools of water.

Here is the first Mexican poppy of the year. It's only Christmas Day, but spring is aleady on its way.

One last night in the park -- this time camped out above the wash in my beloved Alamo Canyon -- before slowly wandering back to Tucson.