El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar

Scott Chandler

Wildness is a necessity- John Muir
Joined
Jan 4, 2014
Messages
940
Trip Reports
75
Likes
3,593
Thread starter #1
2.13-15.2017

It's been a good couple months now of wandering in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument as I work here. It's all been very nice, and I've taken hundreds of pictures, but the adventure level has been small. It was high time to venture out, and my friends Daniel and Whitney visiting instigated a trip. A trip across the border. Did you know Mexico has national parks? Did you know there is one extremely accessible? I knew neither of those until I came to ORPI.

Thus we went south to El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar!

After negotiating the beggars of Sonoyta and a while of driving south we passed our turn, U-turned, and approached a closed gate. Uhhhhh... What? Turns out visitation is small enough that the fee collector personally opens the gate! We decided to be adventurous despite the looks the staff cast towards my Mit and got camping permits up the 4x4 road at Cono Rojo. The road wasn't stellar, but I've also taken my car on worse. Really the requirement should be heavy duty tires, the rocks were sketchy. Volcanic.

El Pinacate-3.jpg
Which brings me to what this park is all about. El Pinacate is the name of a massive shield volcano made of many vents just south of the AZ/MX border. It was active something like 20 million years ago when the area was actively being torn apart by the basin and range province. The local Tohono O'odham people have creation stories based about the place and relied on the tinajas (water catchments) in the lava fields for their pilgrimages to the Sea of Cortez for salt.

After a while of bumping around we reached Cono Rojo. We had made a poor choice, thinking the road wouldn't scare our tires so much, so we decided to stay in camp for the afternoon instead of going back to the main drive and seeing the craters. There are over 400 craters in the area, 12 of which are unique maar craters, caused by magma hitting water under the ground. There is a sizable scenic drive that takes you to a few of the bigger craters. But we chilled and enjoyed an awesome camp nestled in the lava flows.

Cono Rojo
El Pinacate-7.jpg

Kino Crater (what we thought was Pico Pinacate) from above camp
El Pinacate-8.jpg

Fire Barrel Cactus
El Pinacate-9.jpg El Pinacate-11.jpg

Massive Elephant Trees (put ORPI's to shame)
El Pinacate-16.jpg

El Pinacate-19.jpg

Baja Nightshade- Endemic to the Sea of Cortez area
El Pinacate-20.jpg El Pinacate-21.jpg

Senita Cactus
El Pinacate-25.jpg El Pinacate-27.jpg El Pinacate-29.jpg

Only a few saguaro here
El Pinacate-34.jpg

Many Headed Barrel Cactus El Pinacate-35.jpg

Chuckwalla
El Pinacate-38.jpg El Pinacate-43.jpg El Pinacate-47.jpg

Costa's Hummingbird
El Pinacate-40.jpg El Pinacate-46.jpg

And so many more assorted failing light shots.
El Pinacate-54.jpg El Pinacate-55.jpg El Pinacate-58.jpg El Pinacate-60.jpg El Pinacate-62.jpg El Pinacate-66.jpg El Pinacate-71.jpg

On the next morning we were up early to summit El Pinacate. Just bright enough to see. The resident Great Horned Owl was still hooting us along.

The sunrise was epic. Lots of humidity and broken clouds.
El Pinacate-76.jpg El Pinacate-78.jpg El Pinacate-79.jpg El Pinacate-85.jpg

The hike was 24 km round trip, mostly because it wound around the lava flows. I can only guess it would have been awful to cut through them directly. Because of this we doubted the trail's integrity a few times, but eventually it started to climb to out goal, at the end so much so that it was straight up the cinder cone. The views from the top were surreal and we spent a long time gawking and contemplating the world.

El Pinacate-86.jpg El Pinacate-90.jpg El Pinacate-94.jpg El Pinacate-95.jpg El Pinacate-97.jpg


View northeast from the summit- Ajo Mountains (ORPI) in the distance
El Pinacate-99.jpg

View southeast- lots of craters to the Sierra Blanca and beyond down the Sea of Cortez coast. El Pinacate-100.jpg

View south- The Gran Desierto de Altar and Sea of Cortez El Pinacate-101.jpg

View west- More Gran Desierto and Sea of Cortez El Pinacate-102.jpg

View northwest- Still more Gran Desierto to the United States where them mountains are. El Pinacate-103.jpg


View north- Lots of craters out there El Pinacate-104.jpg

Zoomed in on two maar volcanoes- El Elegante and Cerro Colorado, Agua Dulce Mountains (US) in the distance El Pinacate-108.jpg

Dunes and the sea. Cool
El Pinacate-111.jpg

The next day we bumped out of camp and to the south so that we could get closer to that Gran Desierto. It didn't disappoint. The Gran Desierto de Altar is the largest active sand dune expanse in North America at 1.4 million acres. The sand comes from the Colorado River's ancient floodplains. The dunes only reach 600 feet, so Great Sand Dunes has it beat there. But walking out there brought out the inner kid.

The Sierra Blanca Mountains
El Pinacate-125.jpg

Sand Verbena I think
El Pinacate-128.jpg

Pahoehoe Lava Flow!
El Pinacate-129.jpg

Mmm, desert and mountains, dunes seem biggish
El Pinacate-130.jpg

Flat Tailed Horned Lizard
El Pinacate-134.jpg El Pinacate-135.jpg

Bigger
El Pinacate-136.jpg El Pinacate-141.jpg El Pinacate-144.jpg El Pinacate-147.jpg El Pinacate-150.jpg El Pinacate-151.jpg El Pinacate-154.jpg El Pinacate-155.jpg

Big El Pinacate-156.jpg

Gran Desierto is a fitting name El Pinacate-157.jpg

Sea of Cortez over there. Wow
El Pinacate-159.jpg

Volcanoes and sand. COOL
El Pinacate-167.jpg El Pinacate-171.jpg El Pinacate-175.jpg El Pinacate-178.jpg

So Mexico has a pretty spectacular place, just right there, across the border. It was enlightening and invigorating. It never ceases to amaze me how many cool places this world has. Here, even though it is the same Sonoran Desert, El Pinacate seems so vastly different from Organ Pipe it is like night and day. I might be in love with it. We'll see. I have to see those craters after all.

El Pinacate-180.jpg

 

Jackson

I like to go outside.
.
Joined
May 31, 2015
Messages
1,308
Trip Reports
22
Likes
2,006
#4
This is awesome. I figured there had to be some kind of park or wilderness on the Mexican side, but I've never looked into it. So thanks for sharing great pictures of a beautiful place! Did you see anyone else while you were out there or did you have it all to yourselves?
 

Kmatjhwy

Wilderness Wanderer
Joined
Sep 23, 2016
Messages
241
Trip Reports
1
Likes
389
#5
Scott, Great Photos! Wow! Thanks a Bunch!!! years ago I hiked all over the Organ Pipe NM. It has sooooo much to offer. I really remember being at and birdwatching at Quitobaquito Springs there. I still have desires some winter to get wayyy back into that Cabeza Prieta Game Range Area. There is soooo much there. Post more. Now have always wndered about this area. Didn't the astronauts train in this area before they went to the moon in the late 60s and early 70s.
 

DrNed

The mountains are calling and I must go
.
Joined
Mar 31, 2013
Messages
861
Trip Reports
21
Likes
943
#6
If you haven't previously, you should read The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea,
which I believe is near this area.

The book gave me an appreciation for this area, it's history and how harsh it is. Not to mention,
new perspectives on border jumpers.

Great TR. Thanks.
 

Scott Chandler

Wildness is a necessity- John Muir
Joined
Jan 4, 2014
Messages
940
Trip Reports
75
Likes
3,593
Thread starter #7
Since you work at ORPI and no doubt have insider tips... what should I make sure to do?
Do the touristy stuff and if you want more wander in the desert. There aren't really destinations here, moreso a ton of subtle beauty and little amazements that are just off the beaten paths. Beauty in the plants, rocks, sky, etc. Real tree hugger stuff. :)

Biggest bang for buck is the Ajo Mountain Drive, anyone can do it but it's awesome. Victoria Mine is a great trail, so is Senita Basin. Adventures are up Ajo Mountain or up to our arch. There's an off trail hike called Grass Canyon that I hear is nice but haven't done.
 
Last edited:

Scott Chandler

Wildness is a necessity- John Muir
Joined
Jan 4, 2014
Messages
940
Trip Reports
75
Likes
3,593
Thread starter #8
This is awesome. I figured there had to be some kind of park or wilderness on the Mexican side, but I've never looked into it. So thanks for sharing great pictures of a beautiful place! Did you see anyone else while you were out there or did you have it all to yourselves?
Amazingly a group from Sonora pulled into the same campground (apparently has a capacity for 25 people) late that first day. They were super quiet though and hiked Pinacate later than we did so we only met with an exchange of "Hello" and "Buenos Dias" on the trail. No one out at the dunes.
 

Similar threads

Top