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Trail Blazing

In the southwest Sonora Desert, blooming wildflowers, organ pipe cactus and a homey B&B in tiny Ajo.

March 22, 1998|MICHAEL PARRISH | Parrish, a freelance writer, is a former business reporter for The Times

AJO, Ariz. — I've lived most of my life in deserts--the Great Basin, the Sahara, now the Mojave. So while many who trek to this little-settled corner in southwestern Arizona will be struck by the rugged openness of the vast Sonoran Desert, what impresses me is its luxuriance.

Generous summer thundershowers bring the region extra water. With two rainy seasons, the Sonoran is the most plant-crammed desert of the four in North America and is often described by botanists as "arborescent" because, as arid lands go, it is a forest of tall cactuses, yucca and bushes that are truly small trees. All of these flower and all will be blooming their heads off over the next few months.

In the first week of March, I drove from Los Angeles to Yuma, Ariz., on to Gila Bend, then headed south through the town of Ajo and the mischievously named Why, to spend a couple of days at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument on the Mexican border. Organ Pipe is an immense protected chunk of land in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, and at the northern limit of the cactuses' geographical range. In fact, it's the only spot in the United States to see them.

I went to cruise through the early wildflower arrivals, get up close to the saguaro and organ pipe cactuses and to see a backwater, but historically rich region that had always seemed mysterious and remote to me. It turned out to be a long but hardly challenging drive to get there, with good roads all the way. To cut back on the eight-hour drive from Los Angeles, you can also fly to Phoenix or Tucson, each about 150 miles from Ajo, the best staging area for day trips to the monument and other local destinations.

The first morning in the monument, stopping along the road to walk through small meadows of Mexican gold poppies and deep blue lupine, I ran across a couple of Tucson-based photographers, cruising through themselves to gauge when to come back with their cameras.

"The best wildflowers in 20 years!" declared Jack Dykinga, who has published a book on the area.

Some think that "best in 20 years" may be overstating the case. Robert C. Power Jr., of the National Park Service's Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, earlier had told me that the 1992 wildflower season also brought a bumper crop. For my part, the wildflowers are in smaller proportion than I've seen in Southern California. There aren't the expansive fields of poppies that a wet year brings to the plains west of Lancaster.

Nonetheless, Organ Pipe is having a festive time of it this season, with blooms on cactuses and other plants that are seldom seen elsewhere. "And these green carpets," says Power of the ground-hugging plants and grasses, "are just going to be busting out all over this year."

Such hot prospects for blossoms in Organ Pipe normally would mean that by now, without reservations, you'd have to bring your own recreational vehicle or a tent to have accommodations near the wildflowers.

There aren't a lot of rooms in Ajo, and they're usually booked months in advance, even in an unpromising year. And Arizona is a particularly big draw in winter and early spring for warmth-seeking Canadian tourists. But the Canadians, buffeted by declines in their dollar, have been cutting their stays short this season, if they come at all. This has made for unaccustomed lodging opportunities, particularly Sundays through Thursdays.

I came myself because of a Canadian, as it happens. Over omelets in the dining room of a La Jolla bed-and-breakfast inn some time back, she had said that she spends a few weeks every spring in Ajo--for the wildflowers, for the quiet of the historic old mining town, and for the peacefulness of a particular Ajo inn.

As it turns out, Ajo has long been a regional base of operations--for early Americans, Spanish colonialists, Mexican and American miners, Al Capone and, it's rumored, some of Pancho Villa's soldiers, as well as a wide assortment of desert "ratitos."

It remains a well-positioned jumping-off point today for excursions to Organ Pipe and other outdoor locales, to the observatories at Kitt Peak a couple of hours to the east, to the Casa Grande Ruins National Monument (former home of an enigmatic early people called the Hohokam) about two hours northeast, or, just an hour away, to Mexico and the fishing and beach town of Puerto Penasco.


My first interest was the monument, a preserve of more than 330,000 acres. I hadn't expected Organ Pipe to be such a hiker's heaven. Dozens of short and long trails set out from two loops of good dirt road. (Cross-country hikes are allowed, but I'd check in with the park rangers before taking off.) One of these scenic loops is 53 miles and will take most of the day by car, as you stop along the way. When I was there, 10 miles of this long route passed through wildflowers in bloom. If you like abandoned mines and other historic sites, this is your best bet, with many just a short hike from the road.

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