Arizona desert cactus trip

Saguaro National Park and Organ Pipe National Monument

View to a SaguaroOut of interest to photograph the Sonoran Desert, Steve had a recent opportunity at the completion of a business trip in the Phoenix area of Arizona on a weekend in June, 2010. Leaving on Friday afternoon from Phoenix he reached the Eastern Rincon region of the Saguaro National Park near Tuscon before sunset of that evening. He photographed in the park that same evening for sunset and at sunrise the next morning from the Cactus Forest drive loop. Given the park entrance does not officially open until 7:00AM during the summer, but sunrise was before 5:30AM, this created a dilema for photographing the desert during the best light at sunrise. After googling around that evening from his motel room, Steve noticed a relatively undocumented hike-in entrance used by the locals for access into the park (click on this map link). This entrance is accessed from East Broadway blvd. about 1/2 mile from the eastern end of the road (you will see a parking area in the center divide of the road). 

After photographing at both sunset and sunrise, Steve felt the photography for Saguaro National Park seemed better in the evening. This may have been partially due to more clouds in the sky for that particular visit, and a golden hour that lasted relatively long (I think part of this is because there was more dust kicked up from the afternoon winds that helps create a more diffused lighting in the sky). But it was difficult to cover much of this vast area, having just dropped in that evening without any pre-scouting.  Ideally more time would be needed here to identify the most interesting locations ahead of time and then prioritize the shooting for the best light.  The photography the next morning was more challenged due to clear skies and again having to scramble at dawn under limited light to find some interesting compositions as the sun began to rise.  Given the lack of clouds, the good light did not last nearly as long.  The park is nice for the locals that happen live nearby, as it seems popular with the runners and cyclists that tend to be out in large numbers in the morning hours before it gets too hot. Coming from Sacramento and the hot summers you get there, I can appreciate the early morning schedule for those trying to get in an outdoor workout.  You could say for Tuscon that this park is equivalent in the type of use it gets; comparable to the American River Parkway found in Sacramento and its popularity.

Being more familiar with the deserts of Southern California, Steve found the Sonoran desert of the Saguaro National Park (and Organ Pipe) to be a bit more precarious to what he is used to out in the Mojave where the vegetation tends to be more sparse.  You definitely have to have your wits about you more in this terrain, especially when going off-trail.  The density and variety of cactus plantlife and wildlife seems to be much higher. In some cases the density was high enough, that a path would be blocked for hundreds of feet, having to find alternative routes to get safely around some of these cactus fields. Similar to diving in a coral reef, you need to be more alert of your surroundings and watch every step you take due to getting jabbed by the dreaded Teddy Bear Cholla or one of dozens of other prickley cactus variety.  You will also find a number of birds and insects that can be startling when they fly out of some hidden hole in a saguaro as you walk by them. And of course there are the Africanized honey bees (aka Killer bees) which are common here and can often be seen in hives created in holes of the upper reaches in some of the cactus. (Unlike the more common European honey bees where only a smaller subset of guard bees will chase away an intruder that disturbs their hive, for Africanized honey bees the entire colony will empty out to defend the hive and will pursue you over a much longer distance).  Steve tried to give these bees a wide bearth, not wanting to try to out-run a swarm for a 1/4 mile through this field of land mines in the form of high density cactus fields.  Talking to another photographer Lewis Kemper, he recently had such an encounter earlier this year and ended up getting stung on his head multiple times as well as breaking some gear in his escape.

Organ pipe cactusLater that day after the morning photography, Steve headed to Organ Pipe National Monument about 150 miles south-west of Tuscon on the border with Mexico (click on this map link for more detail). The first impressions on the drive in to this area was the number of law enforcement related personel in terms of police with speed traps, border patrol including 2 armed checkpoints with dogs, national guard jeeps, and vigilantes with their Chevy Suburbans, ham radio antennas, and American flags. (Perhaps enforcement is riled up because some border patrol agent was shot here about a month back?).  I would loath to be a Mexican or have darker skin in this part of the country. Another word of advice: Don't speed on Highway 86. On this particular day Steve counted 3 separate radar setups to catch hapless speeders. Arizona also has a portable radar camera trailer that they setup just past some of their highway overpasses and corners in order to more efficiently automate this form of a tax collection system. These were also observed while traveling from Phoenix to Tuscon.

Cactus star trailsBut moving along, Steve found Organ Pipe National Monument to be more untrampled and photogenic. There are some scenic mountain ranges to the north/northeast that can make a good backdrop for landscape photography of the cactus plant life. There are also a large number of saguaro cactus as well as the occasional more scarce organ pipe cactus. Given the limited time he ended up taking the 24 mile dirt road loop (Ajo Mountain drive) on the east side of the highway opposite of the visitors center. This side seemed more favorable for the evening light due to the Ajo Mountain range to the north-east.  On the 5+ hours he spent out there, he did not see anybody else, apparently having this whole area to himself on a Saturday evening. The photography was very nice, feeling like a "kid in a candy store" with too much to see, and too little time with the good light.  After sunset Steve shifted to some photography using the light at dusk and then shifted to some star trail photography.  Given the limited pollution and dark skies due to the remoteness of this location, Steve was also able to shoot some images of the milky way after finding a photogenic saguaro cactus for the foreground.  While out there on this dirt road so close to the Mexican border by myself night, with the reports of smugglers and the like, I felt a bit precarious and probably not the safest place.  As a result, I took the extra precaution of minimizing my own presence by keeping any lights off and noise to a minimum during this nightscape photography.

For the morning light at Organ Pipe National Monument, the North Puerto Blanco drive would probably be more favorable for a sunrise exposure. However one should note that the road no longer is open for the wide loop down to the border due to a recent crackdown on illegal immigration and more intense activites by the border patrol.

 Saguaro classicIf one was to prioritize the two locations, Organ Pipe cactus is probably the the better of the two due to more majestic mountains for a backdrop and even wider variety of desert cactus plantlife.  But the trade-off is the location is more remote and the closest practical services will be about 40 minutes away in the town of Ajo. I stayed at the Marine Motel in Ajo and found it to be a bit spartan, but affordable and clean.  There are limited places to eat, but the place I found that seemed decent with a local flair and recommended by the motel proprietar is Marcela's Cafe and Bakery.  If you plan on photographing down at Organ Pipe in the evening light you will want to eat ahead of time, as they roll up the sidewalks in this town after 9 PM.  Likewise for morning photography you will want to shoot first, and eat breakfast later. So pack a snack and some motel coffee ahead of time to tide you over.  In the future, it would be nice to just camp at the local campground near the visitors center for a few days in order to really take in the photographic possibilities and to cut down on the amount of travel back and forth to town.

So in summary, Steve would recommend Organ Pipe National Monument and believes it is worth a special trip for photography. Saguaro National Monument did not seem as special in comparison, but worth visiting if you happen to be in the Tuscon area and can set aside time for some evening and/or morning photography.  Having some more interesting weather can certainly help to produce a more favorable outcome with either location.