Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Prior to our trip to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument we were very excited to experience the park's beauty, learn about organ pipe cacti, and hopefully see some saguaro cacti, as well, since we didn't make it to Saguaro National Park in Tucson.
Little did we know the danger the park's proximity to Mexico posed! We were about to find out! From the time we stopped at the park's entrance sign to every stop we made near the visitor's center and campground, this warning sign was posted! Although the signs made us uncomfortable, we felt they were obligatory warnings and that the park service wouldn't allow us to travel into an area that was unsafe for tourists to be. We knew nothing of the violence that had taken place in the park and that 70% of it had been closed to the public since 2003 after Kris Eggle, a park ranger that the visitor's center is now named for, had been killed in an encounter with Mexican drug cartel members fleeing into the U.S. through the park!
There was an article in the park information newspaper similar to this September 2014 news release. The new park superintendent, Brent Range, stated that it was his goal to reopen the park to the public given increased security measures, as it is the U.S. citizen's land to use. One of the instituted security measures is to warn the public of the dangers, so that we can best decide what we are capable of handling! We weren't made aware of any safety orientations being given at the visitor's center, although, I spoke with a visitor's center employee at length. No passes are required for driving the rural park loops, so basically no one is aware that you are out in the park. We doubt that a check of the park roads is made each evening, unless the border patrol happens to drive the park loops! We didn't see the park newspaper article until after our self guided tour and thank goodness we didn't read it during our ride through the park or we definitely would have been even more frightened! Had we read the article ahead of our decision to tour the park and seen where it had just been opened to the public on September 15, 2014, I think we would have decided against touring the rural areas of the park.   
This is the sign posted by the road that leads into the park loops. We once again interpreted the sign to be an obligatory warning and that the park service wouldn't let us go into an area that they felt would put us in harms way. With what I've read since about the park, I feel the park service didn't protect us to the degree a tourist should be and am considering writing a letter to the U.S. Park Service or other appropriate agency.
We chose to drive the 20 mile loop indicated on the right side of this park map. There is a larger 50 mile loop on the left side of the map that in part runs along the border of Mexico. While the park's U.S.-Mexico border at one time was not protected with much more than minimal barb wire fencing, there is now 30 miles of vehicle barrier fencing and 5 miles of human barrier fencing. The park newspaper stated, "The barrier has reduced the illegal entry of vehicles and nearly eliminated high speed pursuits on Hwy 85."  This seemed to answer my question as to why there seems to be an inordinate number of roadside crosses indicating many deaths have occurred along Highway 85 near the park! 
As you can see it was an overcast and dark day when we entered the park in the late afternoon. The visitor's center is open until 4:30 and it can easily take a couple of hours to drive the 20 mile loop!
There are several pretty mountains and a variety of cacti to see within the park.  
It was beautiful seeing the sun on the mountain peak, but given the warnings about the area all we felt was apprehension at stopping a moment to look! Our picture taking stops consisted of me taking quick fretful jumps out of the truck, while Roy kept his foot on the gas pedal!
There were scenic views with picnic tables and cabanas, but I can't imagine tourists lingering at them.
We were concerned that the overcast was bringing on darkness earlier than usual and were assessing the ease with which the narrow roads could be blocked!
The deeper we got into the desolate park the more we employed techniques not to panic. such as just not talking about our concerns. We were, however, bypassing the numbered points of interest in a park tour pamphlet and driving the roads at a speed we felt would detour anyone from trying to detain us!
By the time we were near the halfway point of the tour, we were using the 18 points of interest in the pamphlet as a countdown to how soon we would be off the park loop and back to safety! At point of interest number 10 is a large parking lot at a trail head. There was a parked vehicle and 3 guys in their late 20's to early 30's. We had to wonder what as mere tourists we would have been able to do if we encountered these guys in a situation that would have caused them to want to do us harm. The look on the one guy's face that looked in our direction indicated he was as nervous as we were at our passing encounter! I had to think how awful it is to be in a place where we should all be awestruck and only feeling fear! 
This was the grand scene as we reached the 18th and final point of interest in the park loop pamphlet. It is also where we breathed a sigh of relief that we were soon to be off the park loop! 
My recommendation if you are in the vicinity of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is to drive through the park campground near the visitor's center or even stay awhile. There is a ranger station that you enter and exit past at the campground.  
The campground is beautiful and has some trails nearby. There is also a trail near the visitor's center. Go to the start of the trail loops road, take a peek down the road, and then turn around and leave! You'll see just as many Cacti on Hwy. 86 driving to or from Tucson!