Organ Pipe continued:
The next day we took the shorter trail to Bull Pasture and were pleased to find fair trail contouring around the basin, switch-backing steeply beside the canyon, then contouring to the ridge of Ajo Peak. Much was mellow and well-marked by cairns although the switchback section was eroded and very slippery. The rough hike to Ajo took about four hours and confirmed our initial idea that ragged knife-edge ridgeline would be a bad route for backpacking.
Nearing Ajo Peak, we saw another wilderness exemption: NPS and Border Patrol had built a radio tower and solar panels perched on a cliff, probably using helicopter. On the official peak (a few yards away) a hiker had supplied a brand new 2018 notebook ‘register’ to replace torn sheets of a NPS register that had not been collected for many years. It appears that about 1-2 people a week climb Ajo Peak during high use season October through March. On return we dropped into the drainage to seek water. David began pumping at a small water hole; I clambered on down the washes and found the spring; a large beautiful pond below a 20-foot red cliff. Perhaps accessible from the bottom; we didn’t take time to find out.
Coming down we met several day hikers headed for Bull Pasture. Locating our hidden packs, we found a National Park Service law enforcement officer card. Someone had gone to some trouble to find the hidden packs, maybe with a dog. Were we in trouble? A call to the visitor center indicated we were not; someone was just concerned we had left our packs. We found a new off-road “wilderness camp” in a wash about a mile north of the trailhead. David made a nice nest for the tent on desert pavement (to avoid puncturing air mattresses from hard rock) with clippings from a jojoba plant.
We faced the next morning with some uncertainty. The Ajo hike had confirmed our route: we would hike along the foot of the mountains rather than traverse the ridge. But if the vigilant law enforcement officers searched out hidden backpacks, would they also find and confiscate our water?
I was on the road by 7:15 on a clear, chilly morning. At the picnic site for Arch Canyon, we went ¼ mile up the canyon for photos of the prominent arch and dumped our trash in the canister-one benefit of facilities “in wilderness.” A vehicle with New York plates pulled up and a couple our age donned daypacks. He mentioned petroglyphs in Estes Canyon; he seemed to know more about the area than we did.
Soon after, we left the loop road and struck off across the desert, led by David’s GPS. We negotiated our way around cacti and palo verde, down and up several washes (the hardest part) and about four miles and three hours later crossed Alamo Wash. Now the moment of truth. Would David find our water cache?
Yes! He emerged with two full water jugs. At same time an older couple came hiking up the road. They had come up Alamo for a day hike but their jeep had broken down half mile earlier. No cell phone service. We couldn’t help much, being 14 miles from our own vehicle! But a young camper offered to drive them back to the main campground where their RV was parked.
We stopped at a picnic table and made a late breakfast with our new water stores. A camper offered coffee. The fellow with the broken-down jeep offered us his water supplies since day hike plans were defunct. Plan B of begging water might have worked! (At the time we refused the extra water, feeling we had an ample amount to make dinner and breakfast and hike out. Turns out we were wrong about that).
Since it was only midday, we took a brief hike up Alamo then continued hiking, planning to camp in a small strip of wilderness between the county route and main highway.
“Alamo” means cottonwood in Spanish, trees that usually grow near water. The area was homesteaded in the early 1900s; an old adobe building, and a corral remain about 0.7 miles up the canyon. We turned around at the first building and started last leg of our backpack trip.
The three miles on road went well as a cool breeze wafted from the north, with gleaming white hills of old tailings from the defunct Ajo copper mine, 30 miles distant. Then we turned due south on the old county road, last leg of our hike and right into the afternoon sun. Hot, wearing, 83 degrees (I found out later) in January! I pulled my visor over my eyes against the solar assault and soldered on. We stopped a lot to drink water.
We started seeing signs of other hikers: illegal immigrants trying to make their way north, leaving plastic bottles, a serape (wool blanket) and even clothing on the traces of roadway. Periodic all-terrain-vehicle tracks indicated unruly recreationists, drug-runners or perhaps legally exempted Border Patrol. David suggested we find a campsite far from the roadway and any action that make take place by moon light.
We headed east into the wilderness a bit over a half mile to camp in a palo verde grove. We skipped cooking; in the heat we’d consumed much more water than previous days and needed to conserve for the last five miles hiking out
Next morning, last two miles of country road complete and approaching the Ajo Loop Drive, we saw a ragged flag and a bright blue tank just off the route.
Potable water! We filled up a couple of liter bottles.
Back at the visitor center, we learned that the Humane Borders non-government-organization maintains a network of 20 tanks in Organ Pipe, hoping to prevent deaths of migrants crossing inhospitable desert. Yes, NPS permits it; and visitors may use the water too.
For hikers, this water information would be invaluable; or better yet, NPS could put out a few water tanks itself to facilitate backpacking in this amazing Sonoran desert wilderness. However, wilderness backpacking on a national monument is, at best, an afterthought.