Camping in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

The last few days were spent camping in Organ Pipe National Monument, near the Arizona-Mexico border. For some, this was a completely new experience and for others who had camped before, it was reminiscent of activities typically reserved for summer months, at least in the Midwest. The nights were cool and windy, while the days were pleasant and sunny. We relied heavily on the use of the camp stoves for this portion of the trip, on which the majority of our meals as well as countless pots of hot water were prepared.

Upon arrival on Sunday evening, we set up camp as the sun began to dip below the horizon. With a bit of daylight remaining, we were split into groups and were assigned a few plant species to identify and teach the class about. For most of us, these bizarre desert species were completely new and displayed a number of interesting traits that made them so well suited for life in the desert.

The following day began with a crew of students planning and organizing lunch to be eaten during our hike. The food and supplies were split among the group to carry to the summit of the peak we would be hiking to later that day. Our journey began on a drive through the park, ultimately leading us to the trailhead where a few groups educated the rest of the class on the various species that they had identified the prior evening. With full water bottles and lunch in our packs, we began our journey toward the summit of the peak on which we would eat our lunch. Along the way, we stopped periodically as we encountered new species and took notes on them. These included various species of cacti, including prickly pear the iconic saguaro, as well as ocotillo, which we had never seen before.  It was exciting identifying these new species and learning how native people utilized them. At the end of our hike, we had lunch at the top of a small mountain, enjoyed the view and played hacky sack. We also began reading and casually talking about issues surrounding border security, immigration, and the effects of the border on ecology.

The second day, we ventured to one of the only true oases in the United States, Quitobaqiuto. The drive there was perhaps one of the more memorable things on the trip as most of the drive was spent within eyesight of the border. We saw the fence sections and the vehicle barricades along with evidence of border crossings in the form of roads going into the wilderness of Organ Pipe National Monument. Upon arrival at Quitobaquito, we spread out and began identifying the bird and plant species that call this place home. Among these, we observed a few avian species, including the American Coot, Kestrel, and the Gila Woodpecker, as well as some of the more delicate species, such as Anna’s Hummingbird. This oasis was also home to a number of plant and tree species that would otherwise not be able to survive in the desert, including the Fremont Cottonwood and willow trees. One of the highlights of this visit was observing a species of pup fish in the cool, clear waters, which can be found nowhere else in the world.

Later that afternoon, a park biologist, Tyler, paid us a visit to discuss some of the issues that the border’s proximity to the park is having on the ecosystems in Organ Pipe National Monument. Specifically, we talked about the effects that it has on bighorn sheep, Sonoran pronghorns, and pygmy owls, and further discussed what impact the introduction of a border wall would have on such species. In addition, we talked about the interactions between the park service and border patrol, and how both parties need to work together in order to avoid harming the delicate ecosystem that the park protects.

The following morning, we concluded by enjoying a sunrise breakfast, packing up all of our equipment, tidying up the site. The last thing on our agenda was a brief exam on a few of the topics that we had read about and discussed up until this point in the trip.

An organ pipe cactus, for which the national monument is named.
Anna Brauch observing birds and other wildlife in Quitobaquito.