Crested Saguaro Society

Crest Quest Reports

March 2 - 9, 2024 Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Report by Joe Orman


There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.
                                                              Nelson Mandela

I've visited Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument many times since my first visit in 1987. Although there have been some changes to the monument over those years, it remains largely the same one of the most pristine desert environments I've ever had the pleasure to explore. And since 2008, the crest quest has added an additional element of challenge and delight to every visit. OPCNM has become one of my very favorite places.

On this solo visit, before entering the monument I spent a day outside of its northern boundary. Passing through the town of Ajo, I spotted a crested boxing glove cholla in a front yard:

As I continued south of Ajo, my binos picked out a new crest a way off the dirt road. I was about ready to hike cross-country to it when I noticed a Jeep road that happened to lead right to it:

One order of business was to check up on various cresties I'd gotten tips on. The road also took me past Bob and Pat's C861, a mutant multiple-Y, but I found it down:

Bob and Pat's 2007 photo:

I'd had someone's photo of this crested organ pipe cactus in my files for a few years; using a distinctive hill in the background I was able to locate it:

Harry had forwarded an online post about this wavery crested saguaro; again by using a background hill Ted and I were able to figure out the location in Google Earth, so I drove right to it:

Ted had forwarded a tip on a small top-crest saguaro with photo and GPS coordinates, but when I got to the coordinates I found a multiple-Y saguaro instead a follow-up is needed!

As a consolation prize, a short distance away I found this nice arm crest:

I was disgusted to see that someone had been using this multiple-Y-split saguaro as a bow-and-arrow target:

From atop another saguaro, a hawk surveyed its desert domain:

I drove around several of the local roads in an unsuccessful attempt to spot the missing top-crest, one of which took me by this crested saguaro I'd documented 11 years previously (also Bob's C2116):

This area was a delightful mix of different species of cactus; late in the afternoon I spotted a crested organ pipe and hiked over to it:

The same person who sent Ted the tip on the phantom crested saguaro had included a tip on a crested organ pipe; I found it right at the given coordinates:

The day's end came quickly; I made camp nearby and watched the evening twilight deepen behind a nearby pinnacle:

At 2:30 a.m., the desert was dimly lit by the third-quarter moon:

Four hours later, I'm up again to photograph Venus in morning twilight:

... and the sunrise colors:

After sunrise, I notice that an organ pipe on the edge of my campsite has a dead crest:

From my campsite, I took a short loop hike around the area short but rich with delights and oddities. This young saguaro was missing some skin but still alive!

As always, I'm teased by a Y-split saguaro and I talk back why won't you just go ahead and crest out?

Another bird perched on a saguaro, this one a gila woodpecker:

This was not a great March for wildflowers, but I did find quite a few scattered specimens of different varieties. Is this a burst of fireworks? No, fairy duster blossoms!

As I suspected I might, I found another crested organ pipe:

On the drive out of the area, I passed this glomerate saguaro:

When documented by Bob and Pat back in 2010, this saguaro was a 4-way Y-split (C1615). I didn't hike over to it, but my telephoto lens confirmed that it has split even more since then!

Bob and Pat's 2010 photo:

Finally, I entered Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, which would be my home for the next five days:

My first order of business in the monument was to do a cross-country hike off of the highway, and check up on a couple of Bob and Pat's finds both what I call "side crests." First was C855, but unfortunately I found it down:

Bob and Pat's 2007 photo:

There is nothing permanent except change.

However, I was glad to find that the nearby C856 was still standing:

Bob and Pat's 2007 photo:

Continuing to hike farther from the road, I kept my eyes open for whatever the desert would bring me. I spotted this Y-split saguaro in the distance but didn't bother walking over to it:

From the distant to the close; a Mexican gold poppy:

Probably the beginning of a Y-arm:

A definite Y-arm:

Another glomerate saguaro:

My vision continued to shift from the distance to the desert floor underfoot; found a nice swirling specimen of chalcedony:

This saguaro looked like it wanted to give me a many-armed hug!

Looping back toward my Jeep, I finally found a new crested saguaro and it was also a "side crest":

Sometimes the delight comes just from the juxtaposition of the different elements of the desert scene. I was struck by the artistic arrangement of these vertical saguaros around the diagonal branches of a dead tree:

After the hike, driving to the campground, I paused along the highway to take a quick updated photo of Harry's "Double OP" crested saguaro (also Bob and Pat's C852). Both halves have crested out nicely:

Photos over the years by Bob and Pat, Harry, me, and Ash:

I checked in to my campsite, which would be my "home base" for four nights. A few minutes after sunset, I photographed the Belt of Venus (a band of atmosphere-reddened sunlight above the earth's shadow) in the east:

... and on the other side of the sky, sunset-colored clouds:

The next morning, I decided to hike into a basin not far from the campground. On the first half of this loop hike, I found three small saguaro arm crests. Crest #1:

Crest #2:

Crest #3:

Even in death, the organ pipe cactus skeleton makes a striking sculpture:

The next four crested cactuses I found were all organ pipes. Specimen #1 had six crests:

Close-ups of all six crests:

The ocotillos were completely leafed out after all the recent rain:

As I hiked around the basin, the view of the cactus-studded landscape stretched all the way to a distant mountain:

Crested organ pipe #2:

Crested organ pipe #3:

Crested organ pipe #4:

These bladderpod flowers reached for the sky:

Later in the day, I explored a different, smaller basin. Here I didn't find any cresties, but again I was teased by a Y-split saguaro:

Back at campsite, my breath was taken away by the sight of the day's last light on the Ajo Mountains:

And again, both sides of the sky put on a show sunset cloud colors:

Sunsets remind us that change is beautiful, and endings can be a celebration.
                                                              Morgan Harper Nichols

A nice little campfire brought the evening to a close:

The next morning, I once again got out my park map and picked an unexplored area. I parked along one of the back roads and hiked cross-country a mile or so to a range of hills. On the way, I passed yet-another Y-split saguaro:

I was lucky my route took me by this crested organ pipe; I never would have spotted the crest from a distance since it was low and hidden among another stems:

This small crest on top of an organ pipe was easier to see:

From the hills, I got out my binoculars and scanned the saguaro forest which stretched far into the distance. I spotted two nice top-crests quite near each other, and hiked out to them. The first:

The second:

As it turned out, both of these crests were fairly close to dirt roads I'd driven many times over the years, but they were not quite visible from the roads! As I continued my loop hike back to my Jeep, as always I kept an eye out for interesting mineral specimens ... this chunk of quartz held interesting crystal shapes:

I passed this mutant multiple-Y, but didn't detour over to it:

This chuparosa bush was ablaze with color:

Back on the dirt road, I paused to take an updated photo of this arm crest I'd first documented back in 2016:

... and this organ pipe, which was just starting to crest when I first spotted it in 2017:

2017 photo for comparison:

Nearby, I found another organ pipe with a small crest:

The next day, I drove one of the monument's backcountry loop roads ... the day would be full of crest-questing both near and close to the road. The first stop was to take a telephoto shot of this hillside organ pipe I'd hiked up to a few years ago. At that time it wasn't quite crested, but it looks like it's getting there!

Desert evening primrose

Another glomerate saguaro:

I noticed many organ pipes like this; I've read that these stumpy growths are caused by frost damage to a young stem. Whatever the cause, they make it hard to spot a crest among them!

These tiny buds along the stem of the organ pipe cactus are the first step in the formation of flowers and fruit:

Desert lupine:

A cluster of claret cup cactus. It was a bit too early in the season for the cactus to be blooming, so no tiny bright-red cups of wine yet:

White woolly daisies:

This Y-split saguaro had a cresting pattern in its pleats, so I suspect it'll crest out some day. I recorded the GPS coordinates so I can check up on it in the future:

I also recorded the coordinates of this saguaro arm; looks like it will either crest out or become a Y-split:

Back on the road, I photographed this trailhead interpretive sign which includes a photo of a crested saguaro. In 2014, I hiked this trail with a group of friends to photograph the crested saguaro, and now the memory comes flooding back. Was that really ten years ago already?

2014 photos:

Things do not change; we change.
                                                              Henry David Thoreau

I've been taking telephoto shots of this Y-split from the road for several years, hoping it will crest out, but it just keeps splitting:

Farther on, I paused at another trailhead parking area and glassed the surrounding slopes. This crested organ pipe caught my eye, so I scrambled up to it:

Ocotillo blossom:

Looping back to the trailhead, I spotted this crested cholla only the second specimen that I've ever seen in the monument:

Continuing on the drive, I was surprised to see this four-crested organ pipe right next to the road. Somehow, in all the previous times I've driven this road I'd never noticed it!

Close-ups of all four crests:

Farther on, I paused to take an updated telephoto shot of this top-crest saguaro a thousand feet off the road:

Globemallow blossom:

Another updated photo, of a roadside crested organ pipe:

Just up the slope from that one, I found another organ pipe with a couple of small crests:

I finished the loop drive and made it back to my campsite in time for the sunset colors:

That evening I attended the ranger program at the campground amphitheater. The special guest speaker was ranger Justin Yazzie, visiting from the national parks in northeastern Arizona. His presentation was titled "Home Away From Home," and it was interesting to hear an outsider's perspective on the flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert:

The next morning I packed up and headed for a different campground, where I'd spend my last night in the monument. Along the road I stopped to photograph this Desert chicory:

... and get an updated photo of this roadside arm crest:

After setting up camp, I took a loop hike from the campground and saw several different types of wildflowers. Phacelia, aka fiddleneck or scorpionweed:

Unidentified white flower:

This hike's scenery was magnificent! My binos picked out a crested organ pipe in the notch to the right of the pinnacle, so I detoured up to it.

The scramble was quite a workout, but the nice crest was worth it:

As is my habit, I made it a loop hike, and found one more crested organ pipe with three small crests growing from one stem:

Another off-route multiple-Y saguaro that I didn't detour over to:

And another juxtaposition ... a young saguaro cradled within the arms of an organ pipe:

Parry's penstemon:

Desert sunflowers:

The view from my campsite was spectacular in the day's last light:

... followed by my last sunset in the monument:

The next morning, on the long drive from the monument to the Phoenix area, I spotted a new crested saguaro just off the highway. Looks like the trunk has broken off and started re-growing at least twice in the past:

I also stopped to photograph Bob and Pat's C1659 beside the highway:

Bob and Pat's 2011 photo:

Farther up the highway, I noticed a ghost bike and stopped to pay my respects to the fallen rider:

I photographed one last crested saguaro before returning home ... exploring north of Phoenix with some friends, I showed them this big ol' arm crest that I'd last photographed on a 2011 outing with Joe P.:

Every time I return to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, I'm pleasantly reminded of all the trips I've done there over the years, and all the good friends that joined me on those trips. The years and the people have come and gone, but the monument remains, largely unchanged and unspoiled. I myself have changed over those years, but in one very good way: I've been enriched by the wonderful memories of my visits to one of my favorite places.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
                                                              T.S. Elliot

Back to Crested Saguaro Society Crest Quest Reports page.

Revised: June 16, 2024
All photos copyright © 2024 Joe Orman