Arch Canyon Trail

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona

Trip Date: Sunday, December 23rd, 2018
Last Updated: Wednesday, January 30th, 2019
By Ricky Holzer

Hike Information

Rating ★★★★★(5/5)
Overall Difficulty Hard
Navigation Difficulty     Medium
Distance 2.4 miles roundtrip
Time 2 hours
Terrain Strenuous climbing
Best Seasons Spring, Fall, Winter
Family Friendly No
Dog Friendly No
Accessible No

Highlights

Hike Walkthrough

Arch Canyon was a nice surprise. Based on the information I found on the park's official site and other websites, I was expecting a flat, 1-mile roundtrip hike with views of a natural stone arch and of course organ pipe cacti. Instead, a sign at the trailhead encouraged a spontaneous decision to double my distance and climb a primitive trail to see the arch up close and personal. The National Park Service does not advertise the unmaintained latter half of the trail on their maps or website, but nevertheless it is often attempted (though most do not make it to the top). Whether you're looking for an easy but scenic trip into the canyon or a full-blown adventure up a rugged canyon slope, the Arch Canyon Trail is an ideal trip.

Although you can see the arch from the parking area, as pictured below, the hike is more than worth the small effort to travel through cactus-studded desert and into the sandstone-walled Arch Canyon. This first section slopes gradually into the canyon, so much that it will feel flat. Occasionally you'll pass through a wash, where you'll quickly go down into soft gravel and back up again.

The trail as it heads into the canyon with the arch on top of high rocky cliffs

The trail as it heads into the canyon with the arch on top of high rocky cliffs

The desert is often pictured as a brown wasteland, but this place is lush with uniquely adapted plants. While the park's namesake organ pipe cacti and Arizona's iconic saguaro cacti are the principle plant interests along the trail, it's also fun to count how many varieties of cacti you see, like the recognizable prickly pear, bony ocotillo, or the several types of cholla that call the Sonoran Desert home. In addition to cacti, you'll find many kinds of shrubs and trees, like the palo verde (Arizon'a state tree) and the yellow-flowered brittlebush in the bottom left of the picture below.
Looking back to the distant mountains and yellow brittlebush flowers

Looking back to the distant mountains and yellow brittlebush flowers

As you hike into the canyon, you'll see fewer cacti and more shrubs -- a greener, lusher environment caused by the shade of the canyon walls, as pictured below. Now that you're in the canyon, you can better see the layers of rock that compose the walls, and what originally looked like one shade of rusty brown from afar now has various shades of red, yellow, and brown.
The rusty sandstone canyon walls soon surround you

The rusty sandstone canyon walls soon surround you

The maintained trail ends at the sign pictured below, explaining the trail becomes steep and rocky ahead. Turn around at this point to keep this an easy hike. Otherwise, turn and hike up the slab of rock to the right of the sign and be prepared for a strenuous climb with over 600 feet of vertical gain.
The downed trail sign warns of the dangerous route ahead

The downed trail sign warns of the dangerous route ahead

While the National Park Service does not maintain the trail beyond this point, it's relatively well-marked with stone cairns the entire way up. At the start of the incline, much of the trail is on bare rock, so these cairns are essential for guidance. Further up, the overgrown greenery growing on this perennially shady slope obscures the pathway, so take your time to spot the next cairn before proceeding. If you lose your way, follow the advice a hiking buddy of mine once told me about climbing mountains, "Up is up." You should be able to find your way with persistence and a higher viewpoint.
The lush slope on the shady side of the canyon

The lush slope on the shady side of the canyon

I wasn't joking when I said it was steep! Scenes like pictured below are the norm on this uphill climb. Especially as you near the top, you will have to use your hands to help stabilize or boost yourself up (watch where you put your hands though, there may be sharp plants or scary arachnids or snakes).
The entire latter half of the trail is steep, rocky, and overgrown like this

The entire latter half of the trail is steep, rocky, and overgrown like this

The struggle isn't over once you reach the top; you'll climb down a similarly steep slope before traversing to the arch. Since most people don't make it this far, finding the trail is particularly difficult here. Slow down and look for markers and the continuation of the trail. Your effort will soon be rewarded as you walk through the giant stone arch pictured below.
The arch looks much larger up close, and you can see a second smaller arch on top of it

The arch looks much larger up close, and you can see a second smaller arch on top of it

The arch is pretty cool, but my favorite part of the hike was the outstanding view pictured below -- you can see almost the entirety of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument from here. As your heart rate slows and you look down on the tiny cars in the lot below, you can really appreciate how far you've climbed. Beyond the green rivers of vegetation, you can see the Puerto Blanco and Bates Mountains.
This view of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument awaits you on the other side of the arch

This view of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument awaits you on the other side of the arch

While the ascent is harder physically, the descent to the base of the canyon is more dangerous and takes almost the same amount of time as you negotiate the steepest sections. Follow the stone cairns once again to stay on the safest route. Use your hands to stabilize yourself and walk with your body angled sideways and your feet perpendicular to the trail for maximum traction. When you reach the bottom of the slope and the maintained trail, the rest of the way back is a breeze.

This hike really packs a punch. With a short but difficult trail, you'll steeply ascend to a geological wonder and one of the best views in the entire park. Even if you choose not to go to the top, Arch Canyon is a beautiful Sonoran Desert landscape worth a stop while on the scenic Ajo Mountain Drive. Let me know what you think in the comments section below and be sure to use #nocoastbestcoast on Twitter and Instagram!

Important Information

As with most parks operated by the National Park Service, dogs are not allowed on this trail. The first part of this trail is certainly family friendly and a great way to leave the road behind and enter the Sonoran Desert wilderness; the second half is dangerously steep and difficult to navigate -- not a place for children.

You should avoid this park at all costs during the summer when scorching 110-degree temperatures are frequent. Instead, visit during spring, fall, and winter when temperatures are mild. Sun protection is vital during any season since there is no shade whatsoever during the first part of the trail, and ample water is essential for any desert hiking trip. If you intend on hiking all the way up to the arch, pants are highly recommended to protect your legs from the overgrown, itchy, spiky scrub lining the steep incline -- even when it's warm out, I suggest sweating in pants over shredding your legs in shorts.

The trail is relatively popular, and you'll definitely see others while on the flat section. While many attempt to reach the arch, most turn around either because they are too tired to continue up the steep grade or because they are unable to find the primitive trail. As such, you are likely to have the arch to yourself once you reach the top.

Directions

From Phoenix, take Interstate 10 west, then go south on Arizona Highway 85 towards Gila Bend and Interstate 8. In Gila Bend, follow signs to stay on Arizona Highway 85, turning right just before Interstate 8. At some point south of Gila Bend it's likely you'll encounter a Border Patrol checkpoint (I passed through two on Arizona Highway 85 on my way from the park to Phoenix). Continue straight through Ajo and Why and you'll reach the park.

From Tucson, take Interstate 19 south the Arizona Highway 86 (Ajo Way). Continue straight until you reach Why, then turn left onto Arizona Highway 85. You may encounter a Border Patrol checkpoint at some point along Arizona Highway 86, and possibly again on Arizona Highway 85 just before the park (I passed through two from Tucson to the park).

Once in the park, turn right to stop by the Kris Eggle Visitor Center to pay your entrance fee if you need to use a credit/debit card, otherwise turn left onto Ajo Mountain Road. The road becomes a narrow, one-way gravel road that may be rough in places, though it's perfectly doable in a sedan if you drive slowly. In any case, it's worth it to drive slow just because the scenery on Ajo Mountain Drive is absolutely fantastic and in my opinion better than what I saw on Puerto Blanco Drive. You'll pass gigantic old organ pipe and saguaro cacti as the road winds up and down through washes into the scenic Ajo Mountain Range. About halfway through the 21-mile scenic loop drive, you'll reach the small parking area for Arch Canyon.

Google Maps Directions

Parking, Fees, and Facilities

All vehicles must pay a $25 entrance fee good for 7 days, payable at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center (cash, card, or check) or the self-service stations at the beginning of Ajo Mountain Drive (cash or check only). Annual passes for Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument are available for $45; Interagency Passes are also accepted here and cost $80. More information about entrance fees is available on the park's website. There are no facilities at this trailhead, but there are restrooms and picnic tables at the Estes Canyon - Bull Pasture Trailhead further down the road.

External Links

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