Updated: Jan 15
Epic desert bluffs and craggy mountains, ancient craters and massive dune fields, Saguaro Organ Pipe cacti alike. The Craters and Cacti Trail is unlike any overland route in the Southwest. Get your papers and passport and head down to Arizona's borderlands!
Adventure Rating: Epic
Trip Length: 299 miles, 3-5 days
Season: Recommended October - May to avoid excessive heat during warmer months.
Technical Rating: Green
Typical Terrain: 70% dirt, 30% pavement. Most dirt roads are graded and in relatively good condition.
Recommended Vehicle: 4x4 with all terrain tires.
Adventure Vans: Yes! Sprinter 4x4s are good to go.
Alternative Routes: Yes! See bottom of route details for info. Passports, Permits & More: You will need a passport and Mexican vehicle insurance to cross the US-Mexico border. Be prepared to pay entrance fees at both Organ Pipe Cactus NM and El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve. Camping and driving the self-guided crater tour at el Pinacate requires filling out paperwork at the Schuk Toak Visitor Center. Occasionally the crater tour is closed to the public. Please call ahead or check el Pinacate's website to confirm the status of the self guided crater tour.
The Sonoran desert stretches from the borderlands of Southern California and Southern Arizona into the northern Mexican state of Sonora. On the norther side of the border, mountains with craggy bluffs and buttes abound, and to the south, a series of ancient craters bordered by a massive dune fields of the Gran Altar Desierto to the east. The route travels through parks and can be driven in either direction. On the American side of the border, the route passes through the impressively scenic Ajo Mountains within Organ Pipe National Monument. And to the south, you'll traverse what seems like a martian landscape as you make your way through the various lava fields and ancient volcanic craters of El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve. The parks conjoin as part of a much larger UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Sometimes referred to as "Arizona's beach", the popular resort town Puerto Penasco marks the official start of the route (which can be done in the opposite direction as well). Over the last decade, Puerto Penasco has seen a considerable amount of construction to attract stateside tourists, so unfortunately, there's not much wild camping along the beach (check Bahia la Choya), unless you go further north of south. Take the highway to El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve. You'll need to check in with the information center (Schuk Toak Museum) and fill out a form before you're authorized to drive the dirt roads that make up the Craters Route. You can also make arrangements to reserve a campsite at El Pinacate, as backcountry camping is not permitted within the reserve.
Pinacate comes from Náhuatl language word pinacatl, for the Pinacate beetle, a stink beetle endemic to the Sonoran Desert. Despite its proximity to the US border, few Americans have ever heard of Pinacate, which remains a hidden gem. During your travels through el Pinacate, you'll pass by four major craters within the reserve. Crater Elegante is the larger, at over 1 mile wide and 800 feet deep. Cerro Colorado is distinguishable by the color of its red volcanic rock, whereas the other caters come in hues of volcanic black (except for Rojo Cono, which translates as "Red Cone"). Don't expect anything technical while exploring the Craters Tour, as 2wd passenger cars are permitted on the dirt roads. If you want to explore the massive dune fields to the east of the craters, check out the
Sonora Backcountry Discovery Trail. From El Pinacate, head north, where Organ Pipe National Monument awaits across the border. With its desert plains interrupted by craggy buttes and mountains, Organ Pipe embodies the classic desert landscape of the Sonoran desert in Arizona. The park is home to an extraordinary number of different types of flora and fauna. If you're lucky you might catch glimpse of a pygmy owl, bobcat, coyote, mountain lion, or big horn sheep. The National Monument also happens to be one of the few places in the United States where the Organ Pipe cactus grows in the wild, which can grow up to 26 feet in height.
Compared to other national parks and monuments in the Southwest, Organ Pipe sees relatively few visitors (about 260k per year). Highway 85 bisects the national monument running north to south. It is from this stretch of pavement that you'll explore the various dirt roads and trails that travel the backcountry surrounding the Ajo Mountains. First up you'll explore the dirt roads that run along the border to Gachado Line camp (DP10, an old well) and Dos Lomitas Ranch (DP11), where the old adobe ranch house still stands. From Dos Lomitas Ranch follow your tracks back to highway 85 and take the dirt up to Senita Basin, which is a great place to break for lunch or explore on hike (there are various hiking trails in the area). Once again, trace your tracks back to highway 85 and head north for the Ajo Mountain Loop. Ajo Mountain Loop is an incredibly scenic dirt road that loops through the Ajo Mountains and below Ajo Peak (DP15, elev. 4,811'). It's also probably one of the most popular areas within the park, but don't expect see throngs of visitors. One more time, you'll head north on highway 85 headed for Alamo Canyon. If you are seeking a camping experience that is a bit less developed, consider making reservations at Alamo Canyon. Consider taking the short hike into Alamo Canyon (DP16) that also leads to the ruins of an old ranch and line camp. Once you depart Alamo Canyon and head south down highway 85, you'll be headed into the true backcountry of Organ Pipe NM. Along the way you'll pass old wells, mines, ranches, and natural springs. The trail is relatively mild for the most part, and the most you're likely to face is some sand (be prepared to air down). As you veer right to head towards Bates Well Ranch, the track traces the historic el Camino Del Diablo trail, which translates to The Devil's Road.
El Camino del Diablo is an ancient 250 mile long trail has been in use for at least the last thousand years. The road was originally established as a footpath among various aboriginal groups that inhabited the region. El Camino Del Diablo also happens to be a favorite overland route in Arizona's southern corridor. A few miles north of Bates Well Ranch, the route moves beyond the boundary of Organ Pipe NM. Once you're past the boundary, dispersed camping is permitted. The route ends just outside of the town of Ajo, at pavement of highway 85.
Those seeking a shorter adventure and who may not wish to cross the border can easily do the Organ Pipe Cactus NM portion of the route. We recommend setting aside 2-3 days for exploring the park and traveling the route. By cutting out the Mexican portion of the route, the mileage is cut in about half.
Dispersed camping is not permitted with Organ Pipe Cactus NM or el Pinacate Biosphere Reserve. For Organ Pipe, we highly recommend making your camping reservations in advance, while at el Pinacate, you will need to fill out paperwork (no advance reservations) if you'd like to stay at one of their campgrounds. Dispersed camping is permitted on el Camino del Diablo north of Organ Pipe NM.
Alamo Canyon Campground
Bahia la Choya (beachfront camping)
DP1 - El Malecon Fish & Shrimp Market
DP2 - Bahia la Choya
DP3 - Schuk Toak Museum
DP4 - el Pinacate Sand Dunes
DP5 - Rojo Cono
DP6 - Crater El Elegante
DP7 - El Tecolote
DP8 - Crater Cerro Colorado
DP9 - US-Mexico Border
DP10 - Gachado Line Camp
DP11 - Dos Lomitas Ranch
DP12 - Victoria Mine
DP13 -Double Arch
DP14 - Ajo Mountain Drive
DP15 - Mt Ajo
DP16 - Alamo Canyon
DP17 - Dripping Springs
DP18 - Golden Bell Mine
DP19 - Bonita Wel
DP20 - Pozo Nuevo
DP21 - Bates Well Ranch
Maps + Navigation
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