Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Mount Ajo, 4,808', Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Essence: Mount Ajo is located at the bottom of the country, the highest peak in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Remote, yes, but it is a premiere Sonoran hike with so many enchanting features it's hard to keep walking: globby tuff, an accessible arch, cones to play in, and lichen madness. The route showcases the western wall of the volcanic Ajo Range. During superblooms there are billions of buds and blossoms, and a multiplicity of birds.  
Travel: The Estes Canyon Picnic Area and trailhead is 10.9 miles out the 21-mile, one-way Ajo Mountain Drive, an improved dirt road suitable for all vehicles. Pick up a free interpretive guide from the visitor center. Then cross State Route 85 to begin the scenic drive. This is a mere five miles north of the U.S.-Mexico border. Pit toilet. Carry all the water you will need. No dogs, no bikes on the trail.
Entrance Fee and Campground: $12 per vehicle or free with annual National Parks Pass ($80). No reservations at the Twin Peaks Campground, however there is almost always space available at this peaceful village with 34 tent and 174 RV sites and solar showers. $16 per night in this starry starry night park. 
Distance and Elevation Gain: 9.0 miles; 2,700 feet of climbing
Time: 5:30 - 7:30
Difficulty: Trail; navigation moderate (carry your map); Class 2+; no exposure; best months are November through March. Beware--do not hike in the summer when the temperature can reach a scorching 118 degrees.
Maps: Mount Ajo, AZ 7.5 Quad; Trails Illustrated No. 224, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument
Latest Date Hiked: February 10, 2016
Quote: I’ve made an odd discovery. Every time I talk to a savant I feel quite sure that happiness is no longer a possibility. Yet when I talk with my gardener, I’m convinced of the opposite. Bertrand Russell 

Framed by saguaros and draped in winter light, Mount Ajo, image-center, is visible from the Estes Canyon Picnic Area.

Route: From the Estes Canyon Trailhead at 2,380 feet, take the established Bull Pasture trail to the overlook. Circle the south end of Bull Pasture on a cairned social trail. Bear roughly northeast and  penetrate the west wall of the Ajo Range. Continue north to the crest. On the return, complete the loop in Estes Canyon.

The admirably constructed trail descends into Estes Canyon and crosses the wash. Staircases are constructed from cut stone. In 0.1 mile the trail splits at a signed junction. Both routes lead to Bull Pasture but leave the slightly longer Estes Canyon option for the return trip. Go right toward Bull Pasture. The path traverses a broad canyon. Healthy, plump saguaros, infants and ancient ones, favor the drainage. Copious chainfruit cholla are so tall they shade my hiking companion from early morning light.

The track switchbacks pleasantly up a west-facing slope, or bajada. This region is thick with organ pipe cactus. These nocturnal bloomers will begin their display in May. The park encompasses the bulk of the organ pipe population in America. (THW, photo)

Turning southeast, walk up a gentle bedrock spine. The trail skirts east of the prow of a volcanic buttress and then works south toward a weakness in the cliffs. The Estes Canyon Trail joins at 1.1 mile. Visually, my favorite section of trail is from here to Bull Pasture. So even if you don't intend to climb Ajo, commit to the half mile spur to Bull Pasture. The trail inclines steeply on a stairway of placed boulders as it probes our access cleft. Northeast is Mount Ajo with its perfectly vertical western face and cliff layers stepping down through rhyolite to yellow hued volcanic tuff embellished with dark striations.

On the west, the trackway intimately hugs golden globs of volcanic tuff. The path hesitates as views open to the west before bending east to ascend slabs of stone. (THW, photo)

Attain the Bull Pasture Overlook at 1.6 miles, 3,260 feet. The sharp-eyed can see the towers atop Ajo. The established trail ends here. If you've had enough, this is your turnaround. Return on the Estes Canyon Loop for a total of 4.1 miles, 880 feet of gain. (THW, photo)

For those going on to the peak, the proper social trail crosses directly east beyond the sign. It is the most obvious amongst a myriad of wildcat paths. The trail curves around the south end of the broad Bull Pasture basin before traversing under the cliffs shown. Early ranchers grazed cattle in Bull Pasture.

Faithfully follow cairns southeast. At 2.0 miles the trail pivots east around a blue agave. My friend asserts blue agaves are either perfect or they don't exist. Walk a few paces south to look at Diaz Spire and Peak.

Do a short climb up a slope then essentially hold the contour beneath the cliff band, bearing northeast. Cross the stone floor of Estes Canyon wash at 2.6 miles. After passing below an arch, the track mounts very steeply southeast through The Cones. To stand in the arch, approach it off-trail from the east.

The trail tops out momentarily on a tiny saddle in bulbous cones comprised of compressed volcanic ash. This is an outrageous place to stop and play.

There is one final steep segment with loose material on the path. Pass beneath startling standing stones.

The route bends northerly and at 3.1 miles see a false peak at the southern end of the summit ridge. We are now walking on sunshine, blazing yellow lichen growing on the welded tuff, igneous rock that contains fragments of bedrock from an explosive volcanic eruption. (THW, photo)

The path makes an ascending traverse on the west side of the divide until, finally, at 3.6 miles, it pierces the ridgetop at 4,380 feet. But in just a few paces the trail moves east to bypass the false summit and a midway high point. The true summit comes into view at 3.8 miles.

The Class 2+ path wanders up through breccia, a volcanic conglomerate with large chunks of random rock picked up by flowing lava. Jojoba, rosewood, and juniper thrive here.

Crest the peak at 4.25 miles. The summit register is inside an enormous metal box. The prominence is a linear series of breccia mounds. There are various structures scattered all over for one purpose or another which detracts from the natural order. Soaring ravens and raptors will remind you that you are in wild country. Over 270 birds have been identified at Organ Pipe.

Since Mount Ajo is the highest eminence in the park, the view is unparalleled. To the west you can see our route, Estes Canyon, Ajo Mountain Drive, Twin Peaks Campground, Diablo Mountains, Tillotson Peak, Pinkley Peak, and Kino Peak. (THW, photo)

Close by in the south is Diaz Peak and Diaz Spire, named for Captain Melchior Diaz, leader of the Coronado expedition 1539-1542. Sonoyta, Mexico is but 13 miles away as the crow flies. (THW, photo)

Walk to the northern end of the summit ridge for a better look at Montezuma's Head, image-right. Swing to the right to see Mount Lemmon in the Santa Catalina Mountains, Rincon Peak, and Baboquivari Peak.

On the return, we left the trail to visit the arch located at 3,700 feet in elevation. From its vantage point, the cones were accentuated in afternoon light.

Inside the arch.

Return as you came and soon you will once again be alongside the tuff buttress which, from this side, looks like a fin. Turn right at the junction with the Estes Canyon Loop trail. It adds a half mile but enriches the experience. The well engineered path switchbacks to the canyon floor. It is mostly flat from here to the trailhead. Walk through a lush arboretum of Sonoran plants. (THW, photo)

Some years ago, I climbed Mount Ajo during a superbloom. My field notes indicate that in March the following plants were blossoming: brittlebush, buckwheat, triangle bursage, creosote bush (one of the oldest living organisms on the planet), desert chicory, ephedra, fairy duster, fiddleneck windflower, filaree, desert gilia, desert globemallow, hedgehog cactus, hummingbird bush, Indian paintbrush, jojoba, larkspur, Mojave lupine, desert marigold, Mexican gold poppy, ocotillo, desert penstemon, phacelia, pincushion cactus, pink owl clover, ragged rock flower, sand lacepod, sedum, shrubby deervetch, trailing windmill, verbena, and yellow trumpet bush. 

Twenty-six cactus species live in Organ Pipe. By April the cholla will be blooming: chainfruit, staghorn, buckhorn, and teddybear. Wait until May for organ pipe, saguaro, Engelmann prickly pear, as well as agave, yucca, and palo verde. It might be July before the barrels start blossoming.

Little curled up brown balls of spikemoss boarder the trail. After a soaking rain these plants turn a moist, vibrant green aptly named resurrection plant. Likewise, throughout this magnificent hike, I felt like I'd died and gone to heaven.

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