Day Trip: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Southern Arizona

Odometer (ILX):  209,416

Trip Distance:  260 Miles

“Where should we meet up on Saturday?”


“Just so I can do a little mapping on times and distances.”

“So Why?”

That’s how a planning conversation about this trip could have gone.  Because, of all the places our group could have picked to rendezvous before venturing into the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, we picked the town of Why, Arizona.  And the term “town” is used very loosely, since it’s home to only about 100 people.  And, as we discovered, its only restaurant (Granny Mac’s Kitchen) is closed on Saturday – the one day of the week that we’d be visiting.  Guess we’ll have to sample Granny’s culinary creations on a future trip.

I’ve visited Why before – about 5 years ago, actually, and discussed a little about how its name came to be.  The intersection of State Routes 85 and 86 originally created a Y shape, but for safety reasons were later transformed to meet at a T.  It was here in Why, at the Why Not Travel Store where James Lee of Six Speed Blog and I awaited arrival of Jason from Driven for Drives.  In addition to snacks and drinks (though I was disappointed the nacho cheese machine was out of cheese), the Why Not store also sells Mexican automobile insurance policies for travelers who are on their way south of the border.  A liability-only policy runs $35 per day and “full coverage” rates vary.

We didn’t stick around long, because we had turf to cover a little south of Why.  Tucked into the far southern reaches of Arizona – literally, touching the international border with Mexico, is a special place that is remote in geography and picturesque in landscape.  Even now, when Arizona’s weather is at its prime and tourism should be at its peak, we had the park largely to ourselves.  Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument was established 81 years ago in 1937 and sees just over 1/4 million visitors per year.  By comparison, another of Arizona’s parks, the Grand Canyon, sees about 7 million visitors per year.  I much prefer visiting the lesser-traveled park units.

Now with 3 cars in tandem – my ILX, James’ tester Corolla hatchback, and Jason’s Mazda 6, we visited the Kris Eggle Visitor Center.  It was named for a 29-year-old border patrol agent who was killed in the line of duty in 2002 by a Mexican drug smuggler.  The dangers of being so close to the border are very real, and even today, visitors are encouraged to travel in groups and only visit during the day.

A 15-minute overview film taught a little about the terrain and its history.  I noticed that a pair of hikers inquired with the park ranger about getting a token for completing one of the hikes, and later learned that any visitor who hikes 5 or more miles in the monument is eligible.  We also saw a 7 or 8-year-old take a “ranger oath” with his right arm extended.  Traditions like that make visits to the parks memorable.

The Ajo Mountain Trail was the main attraction for us, and despite the fact that it was rugged and unpaved for most of the 21-mile loop, we knew we had to check it out.  Per-car admission was $20 but to me it was worth it to be able to say I’ve “been there, done that.”  I led the way and kicked up a pretty good cloud of dust for my followers while we stayed in touch by walkie-talkies.  The trail extends eastward to the foothills and curves up to a panoramic lookout over the terrain.  The Sonoran Desert, we had learned earlier in the film at the visitor center, is notoriously one of the most “green” types of deserts, and even in summer displays a wide variety of plant life.  One of those plants, the Organ Pipe Cactus for which the monument was named, is native to the area and highly prevalent.

Since amenities immediately near the visitor center were few, we decided to back-track to the town of Ajo for a bite to eat at Agave Grill before splitting ways for the evening.  James gave his hamburger a little more pizzazz by adding avocado, bacon, and a fried egg.  Jason and I couldn’t help but play copy-cat and order the same thing.  The owner of the restaurant later came out to let us know how much the kitchen staff had enjoyed putting together our custom-ordered burger creations.

But the next time I visit, it’ll be on a non-Saturday so I can see if Granny Mac’s food compares.

Signage indicating proximity to Mexico.  Here’s where we headed south from Gila Bend on Highway 85.

Cab of an old pickup truck made into a fountain – with music playing from inside it!

Coyotes on the loose!

Your one-stop shop:

Jason received this text on his phone as we neared the border (though we didn’t cross it!)

Need a place to store your car?  Or your gun?  While in Mexico…

From the Why Not Travel Store:  “If you need a penny, take one.  If you need two, get a job!”

Interior of the OPCNM Visitor Center

Jason making some purchases

Headed out on the Ajo Mountain Road

Not a great place to have low clearance and low-pro tires!

Quick break near a summit on the trail.

Check the size of that saguaro cactus.

“Double arch”

Dinner spot at Agave Grill in Ajo, Arizona

The burger that wasn’t even on the menu.  We’ll call it, “James’ Juicy Creation.”

Hope you enjoyed coming along!

12 Responses to “Day Trip: Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Southern Arizona”

  1. Glad to see more love on the ILX! Love the shade of blue of that Corolla.

    • It’s a pretty poppin’ blue, that’s for sure! Fun car – that one is a manual, too. Nothing like breaking in a brand new car by taking it off-road. Luckily all the cars are now cleaned up and looking fresh with no damage to report.

  2. That burger looks AMAZING. Excuse me while I wipe the drool off my iPad…

    Very cool trip. Some of the scenery looked like something from No Country for Old Men. Not sure I would have taken the Accord down that road!!

    How’s the ILX holding up?

    • The ILX is at 60% oil life remaining on this change and exhibits very little sign of needing anything for the foreseeable future. It’s been a seriously easy car to keep on the road, despite having 210,000 miles on it now.

  3. The Ajo Mountain dirt road looked to be pretty rough riding. In one of the latest episodes of ‘Barn Find Hunter’, Tom Cotter travelled down a unpaved road and said that after such trips he has to take that woody wagon home and tighten every bolt in it. The joys of classic car ownership, eh!?! The new Corolla looks sporty enough, assuming it’s another press car that James has on loan? We just added a Toyota C-HR to our fleet at work, the design is pretty “out there” on it. Definitely a marmite car.

    • Yes several months ago James had a C-HR and it was wild looking! Adding to the eye-catching factor, was the vivid blue-green color that it came painted in – similar to the teal that my Integra GS-R is painted. That’s a funny comment from Tom Cotter. I haven’t had to tighten any ILX bolts yet 🙂

  4. Mmm…another one of those burgers sure would hit the spot right now! Great write-up and was great to meet up again and do a good ole off-road drive. I spent a good 2hrs doing a wash and plucking small stones out of the tires. Amazingly, my air filter doesn’t look that bad. How did your cleanup go?

    • Haha, I had stones in my tires too. I’ll let them work themselves out! Haven’t popped the hood yet to see how the engine bay fared, but the rest of the car looks like nothing ever happened. Mmm, a burger, even at 9:30 in the morning it sounds appealing.

  5. Fun little day trip. I do think a trip on Sunday to Granny’s needs to be in the works. I didn’t notice that penny jar, that cracks me up.

  6. That saguaro cactus gives the Washington Monument a run for its money. Haha. Happy Turkey Day! 😀

    • We’ll just call it the Arizona Monument! Needs a few Christmas decorations wrapped around it. I’ve spent the last 5 days in gray, chilly Pittsburgh so it definitely feels very holiday-ish. Give me a fireplace and a cocoa!

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