Crested Saguaro Society

Crest Quest Reports

March 4 - 9, 2023 Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Report by Joe Orman


In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks.

                                      John Muir

Simply put, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is one of my favorite places in the whole world. Since my first visit in 1987, I've returned dozens of times. March is my favorite time to visit; days are growing longer, weather is ideal, and in a good year the wildflowers are plentiful!

On this trip, I decided to break up the long drive down to OPCNM by taking an overnight detour into a mountain range near Gila Bend. I believe the Crested Saguaro Society hadn't yet searched these mountains, so I had hope for some new discoveries. The dirt road into the mountains took me past this Y-arm saguaro, which is often a sign that crests are in the area:

I made camp by the road, and from my campfire watched an almost-full moon rise over the desert:

With my camera's zoom lens, I was able to get a pretty good photo of the moon:

On the other side of the sky, I had a magnificent view of the planets Venus and Jupiter above evening twilight (Venus is the brighter and higher of the two):

The next morning, I drove the back roads farther into the range. At the end of one road, I climbed a small hill and gazed up a broad valley. Nearby I spotted this Y-saguaro ... the closest thing I would find to a crest in these mountains:

But it was a very good spring for desert wildflowers, so I contented myself with some flower photography. Purple lupine:


I don't know the name of this small white flower:

... or these yellow flowers:

The yellow flowers carpeted the desert floor far into the distance:

Driving out of the mountains, I saw dense patches of globe mallow along the road:

All the wide world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go ...
The spot where we chance to be always seems to be the best.

                                      John Muir

I arrived at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in late afternoon. Before checking in to my campsite, I decided to do a short hike. Y-tip saguaro beside the trail:

I've photographed red-tailed hawks many times perching on saguaros; this was the first time I got a good photo of one on the wing:

Large organ pipe that had recently toppled ... it came out by the roots, probably due to the plentiful ground-soaking rains Arizona had experienced over the winter (note the non-native grass which has recently taken over the desert floor):

Small natural arch on the ridge above me:

I searched the rocky slopes for crested organ pipe cactus, but only found this one tiny crest close to the ground:

Last light on cactus forest, Ajo Mountains behind:

My campsite at the base of the Ajo Mountains, surrounded by organ pipes and saguaros:

The next morning I hiked for several miles cross-sountry along the base of the mountains. My hike took me past a dead crested organ pipe cactus, so I stopped to take updated photos. Since my previous visit ten years earlier, the skin has decayed from the crest and the crest skeleton is fully exposed:

Note how the skeleton of an organ pipe crest is actually two symmetrical halves with a gap in between!

My hike gave me views far out over the saguaro forest on the plain below; I was able to get a telephoto shot of this crested saguaro I'd discovered a couple of years previously:

The hillsides were colorful with brittlebush in bloom:

Every time I return to OPCNM, I think there are probably no more crested saguaros to be discovered ... and fortunately, every time I prove myself wrong! On this hike, I found this newly-cresting saguaro:

That made a good turn-around point for my hike. On the way back I saw many wildflowers. Mexican gold poppy:


My eyes also seeks out interesting geology I noticed many rocks filled with these elongated crystalline structures:

It took close observation to spot this organ pipe crest, hidden deep among the normal pipes:

Unlike the saguaro, which forms buds only at the tips of its trunks and arms, the organ pipe cactus forms buds all the way up and down each stem:

On another organ pipe I saw this multiple-Y-tip, a clue that there may be a crest on the same plant:

... and sure enough, when I got closer I saw this nice crest at the base:

Nearby, I spotted this organ pipe with one crested tip:

I passed this saguaro with glomerate growth:

I found a saguaro with a small arm crest:

These flowers are formally known as LPF's (Little Purple Flowers):

I finished my hike with a Y-tip saguaro:

The next day, Harry Ford joined me and we drove one of the monument's back roads. First, we stopped at this roadside crested organ pipe for an updated photo:

I took Harry on a short hike to show him the most massively-crested organ pipe I've ever seen, which I discovered in 2020:

Our hike took us past this organ pipe skeleton:

How lavish is Nature, building, pulling down, creating, destroying, chasing every material particle from form to form, ever changing, ever beautiful.

                                      John Muir

We made the hike a loop so I could also show Harry another crested organ pipe, which I also discovered in 2020:

Just before returning to our Jeeps, we passed this crested organ pipe and took an updated photo:

At our next stop on the road, we hiked over to this arm-crest saguaro that I'd found in 2020:

A bit farther up the road, we scrambled up the hillside to take updated photos of this crested saguaro ... has grown a lot since first photographed by Bob & Pat back in 2007!

Next stop was to show Harry this organ pipe I'd spotted right next to the road back in 2014:

Another stop, and another updated photo ... found several years ago by Rick Scott -- the only crested cholla I've ever seen in OPCNM:

A short but steep walk away, a crested saguaro I haven't photographed since 2012:

Also nearby, the bare skeleton of the crested arms of an organ pipe which died and collapsed over the last few years:

Telephoto shot from my Jeep ... I've been watching this Y-split saguaro for many years, hoping for it to truly crest out:

Right next to the road is a three-crested organ pipe that Bob and Pat first photographed in 2007; recently it has sprouted this fourth crest:

Farther down the road, we decided not to hike out to this crested saguaro I'd first photographed in 2012, so I settled for this telephoto shot:

Harry showed me this "golden" organ pipe cactus:

We also didn't make the steep scramble up to this crested organ pipe I'd found a year earlier, with about a dozen crests (telephoto shot):

At this point it was time for Harry to head for home. After we said our goodbyes and he drove off, I took a moment to look out over the cactus forest with my binoculars and spotting scope, and saw what appeared to be a crested saguaro far in the distance. It was just at the limit of my telephoto lens:

So I took a bearing and hiked cross-country to it ... turned out to be about a mile and a half walk and not crested after all:

On the hike back, I took a slight detour to look at this double-crested organ pipe I'd found a year earlier:

That night from my campsite I watched as the full moon rose over the distant mountains:

The next morning I drove one of the few park roads I'd never been on ... Camino de Dos Republicas to Gachado Well. Here's the lone remaining building (note border wall in background):

Then I took a short hike into some hills off of a different road just north of the border. From atop the hills I could see this nice big crested saguaro I'd first found in 2017:

The first of two crested organ pipes I'd find on this hike:

I also saw evidence that others had passed this way before me:

The second crested organ pipe:

On this hike I saw some amazingly large specimens of organ pipe cactus (that's my hat in the center of the photo for scale):

I also saw this huge senita cactus (again, hat for scale). The senita is related to the organ pipe, but only grows in a very limited area of the monument and can be identified by the "hairy" spines on the ends of each stem:

Back at my campsite that evening, the sky put on another show. Last light on the distant Ajo Mountains:

How glorious a greeting the sun gives the mountains! To behold this alone is worth the pains of any excursion a thousand times over.

                                      John Muir

... and twilight colors in the west:

The campground amphitheater talk that evening was "Traveling Stories" ... the twilight sky with Venus and Jupiter provided a natural background:

The next day was my last in the monument. As I drove out of the campground that morning, I paused to document the growth of this little roadside crest which I've been watching for the last ten years:

This morning's hike brought more delights; I think this flower is a primrose:

The small valley I was hiking into is next to a set of hills where several crested saguaros have prevously been documented. So I knew the odds were good, but was still pleasantly surprised to spot this crestie:

As I was hiking over to it, I found another one very close by:

As I continued my hike I saw another organ pipe that had come out by the roots:

At a patio talk I'd attended earlier in the week, the ranger said one difference between saguaros and organ pipes is that the organ pipe doesn't grow arms. What do you call these, then?

Another Y-split saguaro:

This organ pipe had about a half-dozen crests; this photo shows three or four of them, depending how you count:

A stone's throw away, I found a third crested saguaro:

Just before making it back to my Jeep, I found one last crested organ pipe:

On the drive out of the monument, I paused to take updated photos of two more roadside crested saguaros. This one is a bit hard to see from the road because it's almost surrounded by a palo verde tree:

This crest has widened out quite a bit since I started photographing it nine years ago:

Thank you for sharing the journey! I leave you with this bouquet of poppies:

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul.

                                      John Muir

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Revised: October 21, 2023
All photos copyright © 2023 Joe Orman