Prettiest Hike in Organ Pipe: Bull Pasture

Estes Canyon

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument may be known as much for being directly on the Mexican boarder as for the cactus that gives it its name.  From almost anywhere in the park, you can look south and see into a “foreign” country—or at least land that doesn’t belong to the United States!  There is even a road that goes right along the boarder, although it has been closed for a while, and I don’t expect it to reopen to the public any time soon.  However, my favorite hike in the park is located in the eastern part of the park, almost as far as you can get from the Mexican boarder and still be in the developed area of the national monument.  In Bull Pasture, you can see for miles across the Sonoran desert, into Mexico, and across the Ajo Mountains.  If you do any hiking in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, this should be on the top of your absolutely-must-do list.

The park itself is named for the abundance of organ pipe cacti that grow in the park.  This type of cactus grows further south than many other species that grow in the Sonoran desert, so you don’t usually see organ pipe cacti much north of the Mexican Boarder.  However, there is also an abundance of saguaro cacti, with the giants towering over all of the other desert foliage, except for an occasional errant ocotillo plant.  There is also other desert vegetation such as teddy bear cacti, sage brush, elephant trees, etc.

To get to the park from the west, from I-8, take exit 116 at Gila Bend.  Then take Hwy 85 south for approximately 52 miles (83 km) to Why (that’s an interesting name for a town!).  From here, continue on State Hwy 85 south to Organ Pipe Cactus, about 5 miles (7 km).  If you’re coming from the east, from I-8, take exit 174.  Then follow Indian Rt. 15 (Chuichu Rd) south for about 53 miles (85 km) to Hwy 86 (Tucson-Ajo Hwy).  Take Hwy 86 west to Why, about 39 miles (62 km).  From there, take State Hwy 85 south about 5 miles (7 km) to Organ Pipe Cactus.  It is about 22 miles (35 km) from the Why to the visitor center.

Looking down on Estes Canyon from Bull Pasture

Almost across the road from the visitor center (which will be on your right if you’re coming into the park) is the beginning of the Ajo Mountain Drive.  This is a well-maintained dirt/gravel scenic drive that will take you to the edge of—and even into—the Ajo Mountains.  It is a one-way loop, so be prepared to have to drive all the way ‘round the loop to get back to someplace you passed by accident!  The Estes Canyon Picnic Area parking area is about half way around this loop, and is stop #15 on the auto tour.  Here there are picnic tables and a pit toilet—the only one on the entire road.  The road itself is passable by a low-clearance vehicle at most times of the year, but check at the visitor center for current road conditions.

The Estes Canyon-Bull Pasture Trail begins across the road from the picnic area.  The parking area fills up quickly, at least on New Year’s week, so plan accordingly.  The 4.1 (6.6 km) round trip trail is fairly strenuous; the elevation gain is about 800 ft. (244 m).


The trail starts to climb almost as soon as you start.  After about ¼ mile (½ km) the trail splits.  You can either go left and go through Estes Canyon first, or you can go right and climb up above the canyon.  Going left, you will hike a fairly flat trail along the bottom of a canyon.  If you go right, you will climb to the rim of the canyon, and walk along that.  The trail is a loop, so it really doesn’t matter which trail you take, although going right will get you to the Bull Pasture Trail faster.  We went right, and the trail continued to climb.  After a while we reached a ridge, where the views were quite nice.  The trail continues along the ridge for a little while, and then it comes to where the Bull Pasture Trail branches off.  You can either go down into Estes Canyon or up to Bull Pasture.  By my recommendation, you won’t do this trail without hiking up to Bull Pasture.

Looking down from Bull Pasture on the road that goes into Mexico

Before the area was a national monument, ranchers corralled their cattle up here during the winter, thus the name, Bull Pasture.  The views from here are incredible, probably the best in the park, so it’s worth the climb and extra mile or two to get up there.  You can see south into Mexico, west into the rest of the park (although there is a rock blocking some of the view in that direction), and north into the Ajo Mountain Range.  Up above you is Mt. Ajo, one of the tallest peaks in the park at 4,808 ft (1,466 m).  I am sorry that I didn’t take better pictures of the view, because it was very nice.  In the pasture itself, there is quite a bit of room to eat lunch, enjoy the view, or just sit and rest after your climb.  There is also enough room for quite a few people, although in the week after Christmas we didn’t see very many people.  We saw quite a few more people on the Estes Canyon Trial, so they must not have bothered to come up to the pasture.

After you climb back down to the Estes Canyon Trail, turn right and start hiking down that trail.  The trail drops to the canyon floor, then winds through the canyon back to the parking lot.  This would be a very hot area at a warmer time of year because the canyon and foliage trap the sun’s heat, so even in the winter it was almost oven-like, with no breeze to break through the mesquite trees.  There were also a few damp patches in the canyon that might be dry or very wet at other times of year.

So if you want to do some hiking in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, check out the Bull Pasture Trail…I don’t think you’ll find a better view in the monument, at least on an established trail!

By the way, the junior ranger program at the park is open to children of all ages…even if they may be well over 60 years old!  I love it when all of the “children” in our group can participate in earning junior ranger badges!  You can pick up your junior ranger booklet at the visitor center.  After you have completed the required activities for your “age group”, return it to the visitor center to receive your junior ranger badge!

Fees: $8 per vehicle, good for 7 days.  Organ Pipe Cactus Annual, Interagency, Senior, and Access passes are also accepted.

Trail ★★★☆☆

Road ★★★★☆

Signs ★★★★☆

Scenery ★★★★★

Overall Rating: ★★★★☆

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  1. Pingback: Celebrating 20 Years of Family Vacation - Anne's Travels

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