• Ecology of the Southwest

Camping in the Sonoran Desert


Long time no blog. But here's our week in a nutshell:

On Sunday, we left Flagstaff and stopped in Phoenix to shop for groceries for the next 3 days camping in Organ Pipe National Monument. For most, "camping food" means hotdogs, a bag of crumbly buns, a sticky bottle of ketchup, and maybe a stash of graham crackers and marshmallows. But for "Alpha Team Adventure," dinner is a craft. Especially with Dr./ Chef Baack leading the trip. So this was not your average Safeway stop, nooo sir. We have become a well-oiled grocery machine. A band of 16 sun-burned, hiking boot-clad travelers, pouring out of our dirty vans, storming the Safeway, and rounding up everything we need for burritos, chicken-pesto-mushroom penne, and red pepper-lentil-pea soup. And in 15 short minutes. Impressive, if I may say so myself.

When we pulled into Organ Pipe National Monument later that evening, our first "assignment" was to climb an adjacent hill and watch the sunset. And it did not disappoint. Then we hastily set up camp, made dinner, and conked out for the night.


Having settled into our campsite, we woke up early Monday morning and had breakfast and hot drinks while we waited for the mist from the cold night to make way for the hot desert sun that so defines the ecosystem. Gone were the Junipers and Pinon Pines that covered the landscape in  northern Arizona. This place, in contrast, was ruled by plants that are much better equipped at storing and saving water in an extremely arid environment. "Saguaros," the classic towering cactus with "arms" covered our campsite and the hills beyond, as well as flattened clusters of "Prickly Pear" cacti, and the monument's namesake, "Organ Pipe" cacti.

We took a walk around to familiarize ourselves with the new plants. From the hill next to our campsite, we could see Sonoyta, a Mexican city that hugs the border on the other side. That afternoon, we met with a wildlife biologist on staff at the monument, Tim Tibbitts. Tim told us a lot about what it's like to work so close to the border, and it's a strange situation indeed. Although the entire monument technically belongs to the park staff, there are parts of the park they're not allowed to enter without permission from Border Security.

Tim also talked about the climate catastrophe that the monument's ecosystem is facing. They are currently in the longest drought on record, and Tim suspects it's not a passing phase. With usually-cold night temperatures rising by a few degrees now and a persistent lack of winter rains, baby cacti and other desert plants are having trouble getting started.


We left early Tuesday morning for a roughly 5-mile hike at the Ajo Mountain range, about 45 minutes away from our campsite. It was a beautiful place. We saw a few cacti in bloom in the adjacent Estes Canyon, and explored more than a few windy peaks.


Sunset at Organ Pipe National Monument
Climbing at Ajo Mountain
Tuesday's hike