Hiking Arch Canyon Trail in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: Everything You Need to Know

Are you looking for a unique and memorable hiking experience? The Arch Canyon Trail in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Southern Arizona might just be the perfect fit for you and your family. This trail is full of stunning views, interesting terrain, and plenty of surprises along the way. Here are some tips to help you get the most out of your adventure!

Although Buddy has lived in the Sonoran desert his entire life and I have visited nearby Ajo, AZ for work, this was our first time visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. An almost 3 hour drive from our home in Tucson down a two lane desert highway, the national monument was always a bit to far away for a weekend trip. However, the weekend we visited marked the end of Buddy’s Spring Break. And since our work schedules did not allow for the international Spring Break vacation we were hoping for, we decided to spend the weekend camping and hiking in our home desert.

A teenage boy walks way from the camera in the Sonoran Desert. Arch Canyon Trail in Organ Pipe Cactus. MPA Project Travels

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The details: Arch Canyon Trail in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

The Arch Canyon Trail is one of many desert hikes in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. The official trail is a 1.2 mile (1.9 kilometer) round trip out and back trail rated as easy by the National Park Service. However, the unofficial trail to the arch itself, titled the primitive route at the Arch Canyon trailhead, is another 1.2 miles (1.9 kilometers) round trip. This unmaintained trail gains 600 feet in 0.6 miles and is rated as difficult because it is very steep and slippery.

In our experience, most hikers only trek the official trail. However, for those of you that are interested in climbing the Ajo mountains, we hiked that trial for you and are happy to share our tips!

The Arch Canyon Trail is in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. For up-to-date information, including entrance fees, please visit the website. Interested in camping at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument? Book your site today!

Our hike on Arch Canyon Trail in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

We hiked the Arch Canyon Trail (and then some!) during the second day of our weekend getaway to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. That morning we woke up, ate some campfire pancakes, packed up the tent and headed on Ajo Mountain Drive for a hike before heading home to Tucson.

We chose to hike Arch Canyon Trail the day before after arriving at the park and taking the scenic Ajo Mountain Drive. Once we saw the arches, Buddy and I decided that we had to hike that trail! And after hiking the easy Desert View Trail at sunset the night before, Buddy said he wanted a more challenging hike. He did get what he wished for!

We began our hike at 11:30am and finished at 2:45pm. This includes a quick snack break on top of the mountain. All in all, we hiked 5.7 miles, which is longer than the official trails. We walked circles on top of the mountain looking for the path to the arches!

Information about Arch Canyon Trail at trailhead. Arch visible in the background. Arch Canyon Trail in Organ Pipe Cactus. MPA Project Travels
Arch Canyon Trail Head

Everything You Need to Know about Hiking Arch Canyon Trail in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

1. The Arch Canyon Trail is on Ajo Mountain Drive

The Arch Canyon Trail is located off Ajo Mountain Drive in the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. Ajo Mountain Drive is a 21-mile road that winds through some of the most beautiful desert scenery imaginable. It is a scenic road that takes around 2-3 hours to complete. There are picnic areas and four trailheads on this drive, including the Arch Canyon Trailhead. Ajo Mountain Drive is a must see when visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument.

If you plan on hiking Arch Canyon Trail, plan on doing the Ajo Mountain Drive as a part of the hiking experience. That way you can see both the scenic route and get in your hiking adventure in one drive!

Because we were being spontaneous and did not plan our Sunday hike until after arriving at our campsite, we ended up having to drive the Ajo Mountain Drive twice just to do the hike! If we would have planned our hike in advance, we would have done the Ajo Mountain Drive and the hike on the same day rather on two separate days, which led us to having to do the Ajo Mountain Drive twice.

Although it is a beautiful drive, we also live in the Sonoran desert. As Sonoran desert dwellers, we weren’t as jazzed about the views the second time around, especially because we had to drive home later that day. So don’t make our mistake! If you plan on hiking Arch Canyon Trail, do it the same day as you do the Ajo Mountain Drive.

Pro Tip: Ajo Mountain Drive is a one way drive!

Ajo Mountain Drive turns in to a one way shortly after it begins. When leaving the Arch Canyon Trail, do not go back the way you came! We saw a visitor make this mistake and drive off in the wrong direction. Only to return to the parking lot in reverse a few minutes later.

Yvonne and Buddy on top of the Little Ajo Mountains. Arch Canyon Trail in Organ Pipe Cactus. MPA Project Travels
At the top of the Little Ajo Mountains

2. Hike to the arch, or not

As we mentioned in the details, there are two versions of this hike: the is the official trail and the unofficial unmaintained primitive trail. Please note, it is not necessary to hike all the way to the arches to enjoy the beauty of the desert. Most visitors to the park hike the official trail only. Some visitors explore near the end of the official trail, and only a few hike up the mountain to the arches. It’s completely up to you!

Because we hiked both, we will be sharing the experiences of both trails so that you can decide which is the best fit for you and your family. Whatever path you choose, it will be a fun and beautiful desert hike.

This is the map of the official trail.

Great for: Hikers and families with people of all ages and experience levels, including littles.

And this is the map of the version of the unofficial trail that we hiked.

Great for: Experienced hikers and visitors sense of adventure.

Spoiler alert: We did not find the arches!

3. There are no trail markers on Arch Canyon Trail

There are no trail markers. But no worries! For the official trail they are not necessary. The path through the desert on the official out and back trail is clear and the signs at the end of the trail that signal the end of the path are also very clear as well. It is a very clear-cut path. However, an offline map is always recommended.

For the unofficial, unmaintained trail up the mountain to the arches, there are no trail markers either. However, the path is lined with cairns, or stacks of stones, left by fellow hikers to mark the path. Sometimes it is easy to follow the cairns. Other times, the path fades and the cairns are hard to find. But in general, the cairns marking the path up and down the mountain are fairly straight forward and clear.

A cairn sits on a rock surrounded by octotillo growning on the side of a desert mountain. Arch Canyon Trail in Organ Pipe Cactus. MPA Project Travels
A cairn on the unmaintained trail

Pro tip: If you are hiking the unofficial trail and you are looking for a cairn to help guide your way, look up!

Since you are climbing up a mountain, sometimes the markers are above you!

Once you get to the top of the mountain, however, the cairns become confusing and unclear! They are all over the place! As there are several trails to different lookouts on the top of the Little Ajo Mountains, it becomes confusing.  So, use your Spidey senses and memorize the paths you are taking because it is easy to get turned around at the top of the mountain.

Which brings us to our next tip.

4. You may not find the arches

Because the unofficial trial is unmaintained and without clear and consistent trail markers and that offline (and online!) maps are not very clear on the unmaintained trail on the top of the mountain, you may not find the arches.

I know, I know, it is a bummer!

We followed about four different paths on the top of the mountain, all lined with cairns, and we never found the arches! And we were not the only ones! On the way up the mountain, we met a disgruntled couple and a cute dog hiking the unofficial path down the mountain saying that they hiked all the way up and saw some scenic views but never saw the arches either. They wished us luck, but I thought we did not need it. I was wrong. We too hiked all the way to the top and did not find the path to the arches.

I was sure we would find them. But neither our downloaded maps were not helpful and when we tried to use our phones to help navigate, the service was spotty so they were not helpful either. After more than an hour searching we decided to call it quits and eat a snack before hiking down the mountain.

Even though we did not find the arches, we hope you do!

Either way, it is a very fun (and exhausting!) hike.

View of the Sonoran desert and mountains from the top of Little Ajo Mountains. Arch Canyon Trail in Organ Pipe Cactus. MPA Project Travels

Pro Tip: Do not hike the unmaintained trail alone

It is important to note that when we visited, there were very few hikers on the mountain. And by few, I mean we saw only two groups of hikers, the disgruntled couple, and a trio of hikers from Canada, the entire time we were on the unmaintained trail. We were on top of the mountain alone! I would not recommend hiking this trial as a solo hiker.

Bring a buddy because it is a very quiet trail, and you could easily get lost. Also, there can be nefarious activity in the area (more on that later), so stay with your hiking buddies!

5. When to visit Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

The best time to hike the Arch Canyon Trail is during the spring when the wildflowers are in bloom! In the spring, the temperatures are warm during the day but chilly at night. And the wildflowers are incredibly beautiful with shades of yellow, orange, white, purple, and red.

Another great time to visit is during the fall when temperatures are also mild. Or winter when the reptiles are in brumation (a state like hibernation) and you do not have to worry about sharing the trails with reptile friends like snakes or Gila monsters.

Do not visit in the summer. The temperatures in the Sonoran Desert can be fatally hot. This hike can be dangerous at high temperatures. Hiking in the summer months is not recommended.

Why Spring is the best time to visit Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

A teenage boy in black pants, a black shirt, and black hat walks away from the camera on a trail flanked by a multitude of yellow desert wildflowers. Arch Canyon Trail in Organ Pipe Cactus. MPA Project Travels
Buddy hikes among a sea of yellow desert wildflowers

Desert wildflowers in the Sonoran Desert!

As Sonoran desert dwellers, we purposefully chose to do this hike in the Spring while the temperatures were nice and the wildflowers were in bloom. Although we usually do our desert hiking in the winter, the wildflower super blooms in the Sonoran desert this year were incredible and we wanted to get out and see them.

The wildflowers were on the main attraction on the Arch Canyon trail. There were a lot of fellow hikers taking photos of the flowers on the trial that morning. There were a lot less spring flowers on the unmaintained trail up the mountain. So, if you do not hike the more difficult trail in the spring, you are not missing out on any blooms.

Regarding springtime reptiles, we did not see any snakes or Gila monsters on our hikes, only lizards. However, we did see a very large Arizona Diamondback Snake crossing the Ajo mountain Drive on the way to the hike. It was slow moving and we stopped to allow the reptile friend to cross. So even though we did not see snakes on our hike, they are out in the spring.

6. Plan on no facilities at the Arch Canyon Trailhead

Unfortunately, there are no facilities at the Arch Canyon Trailhead. In fact, the nearest restrooms are at the Kris Eggle Visitor Center. Given that the Arch Canyon Trailhead is in the middle of the Ajo Mountain Drive, a drive that takes between 2-3 hours, if you have to go, you may be holding it for a long time!

Our recommendation is to make sure you go before you come. Especially as you will be hiking in a desert where there is not a lot of large trees or bushes to hide behind. In case of an emergency, practice leave no trace. And if you do have to go, the unmaintained trail more large rocks and a lot less people for privacy. But definitely plan accordingly!

7. What to bring to hike Arch Canyon Trail in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument!

When hiking Organ Pipe National Monument’s trails, make sure that you come prepared for desert hiking. Below are our suggestions for what to bring for desert hike.

Lots of water and a refillable water bottle. It is the desert after all and it is hot and dry. Even in the spring with temperatures in the high 60s and low 70s, it is still very dry. Bring lots of water.

Sunscreen, a hat, lip balm, moisture wicking clothing, and long sleeve light coverups to protect yourself from the sun (most of my stuff is from Stitch Fix). Even in the spring, the desert sun is powerful. Despite wearing (and reapplying!) sunscreen, a hat, and a light long sleeve coverup, I still got sunburned on the Arch Canyon Trail. Where might you ask? On the back of my hands and the backs of my calves! Make sure you are ready for the hot Arizona sun!

A man and a teenage boy hike down a mountain with the blazing sun at their back and organ piple cactus at their side. Arch Canyon Trail in Organ Pipe Cactus. MPA Project Travels
Buddy and Sal hiking beneath a bright Sonoran Desert sun

Sturdy hiking shoes, preferably shoes with good ankle support. These are my hiking shoes, and these are the shoes that Buddy wore on the hike.

A hiking back pack filled with electrolytes and snacks. We ate a snack at the top of Little Ajo Mountains and indulged in the Electrolytes both before and after the hike.

A simple first aid kit, a whistle that also has a compass and thermometer, a pocketknife, some tissue, and bear spray. All these items are just in case. Unlike Saguaro National Park East, who has warnings about mountain lions at some of their trail heads, or Madera Canyon, who had warnings of black bears in recent years, the Arch Canyon Trailhead did not warn of any large predators. However, given the lack of fellow hikers, it is better to be safe than sorry and carry some bear spray just in case!

8. Yes, you are on the international border in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is on the U.S./Mexico international border. The Visitor Center and Twin Peaks campground are about 7 miles away from the border. At night, you can see the lights from Sonoyta, Mexico from the campground. And if you are journeying to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument from places like Tucson, you will pass through at least one, if not two, border patrol checkpoints on your drive.

There are signs in the monument warning of possible smuggling and immigration. The notice says be aware of surroundings and to not travel alone in remote areas. One such sign is posted at the end of the official Arch Canyon Trail.

For the most up-to-date border safety information, visit the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument website.

A man and a teenage boy walk away from the camera on a trail. In the foreground are two trail markers. One says Arch Canyon Trail in white letters on a brown background. The other is a yellow caution sign with small black writing. Arch Canyon Trail in Organ Pipe Cactus. MPA Project Travels
Buddy and Sal on the unmaintained trail, walking past the end of trail signs and warnings.

That said, I felt completely safe the entire time we were at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. We did not see any border patrol or coyotes (the humankind) during our visit. And chances are, visitors to the park will not encounter any illegal activity as those engaged in it stay off the beaten path as they don’t want to be seen or heard.

The only thing we did see atop the Little Ajo Mountains was a drone that hovered for a quick minute. It could have been from the park rangers, border patrol, a fellow guest, or nefarious actors. But it quickly sped away and left us alone.

Is Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument safe?

In my experience, yes. I would feel comfortable camping there on my own. And I would hike the main Arch Canyon Trail on my own. Keep in mind that I often work in the sister cities of Douglas, AZ and Agua Prieta, SON and often bring Buddy with me, so we are familiar the culture of the border. If you are not from the area, seeing Border Patrol might take some getting used to, but overall it is a safe place to visit.

A teenager’s perspective of Arch Canyon Trail

This is a fun hike and it a difficult hike.  You go to end of the maintained trail and then it is an insanely steep hike up a mountain. And there are no trail markers but there are these little rock pyramid things people leave everywhere. We followed all the rocks and hiked to the very top. Once you get up there the rocks are very misleading. There are a bunch of trails the rock pyramids led to. We walked around for a while, but we never found the arch.

This hike is not for the faint of heart. You will be climbing a lot. The view from the top is spectacular. But, I do not recommend it if you are afraid of heights.

My recommendations, take a lot of water and maybe a snack or two to eat once you get up there.

Do I think teenagers will like the Arch Canyon trail? Well, if they really like hiking, they will. The trails are good exercise. But if you are not into hiking then no, I don’t think that they would.

And we did not film a Movement Postcard on this hike. Though in retrospect, the multicolored rocks at the top would have been a great spot for it!

A view of saguaros and organ pipe from atop Little Ajo Mountains. Arch Canyon Trail in Organ Pipe Cactus. MPA Project Travels

Your hike on Arch Canyon Trail in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Exploring the Arch Canyon Trail in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is an excellent way to spend quality time with friends and family while enjoying nature’s beauty at its finest. Be sure to bring plenty of supplies such as sunscreen, hats, snacks, water bottles and whistles so that everyone stays safe while exploring this stunning area! With these tips in mind, go forth confidently into your adventure at Organ Pipe National Monument – happy trails!

Are you planning a trip to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument? Or have you visited recently? If so, let us know in the comments below!

Do you have questions about family travel or traveling with teens? Feel free to reach out! We are happy to chat and share our experiences! We look forward to connecting with you.

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Hello! We are Yvonne & Buddy and we create family travel blogs based on firsthand knowledge and experiences of a destination. Our goal is to inspire teens, parents, and families to share time together engaging in new experiences whether the destination is near or far from home. Come join us on our travels!

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21 thoughts on “Hiking Arch Canyon Trail in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument: Everything You Need to Know

  1. The views on the video are awesome. I think I’d like easier trail you mapped out. I used to go to Arizona quite often but I never got to this park.

  2. Niiice! You may not have found the arches, but it looks like you had a great time anyway! I wonder why there are so many non-useful cairns!? Maybe people just made them for fun, not realizing their piles of rocks will send other hikers off in the wrong direction!

    • I was wondering the same thing and I think that people did just make them for fun and it was very confusing at the top of the mountain. Too bad. One day, I hope to return and find the arches, but either way, it was a fun family hiking adventure with beautiful views!

      • Yeah, I’ve seen arguments in hiking groups about cairns like that that people build for fun. Lots of people count building them as problematic for leave no trace, so they advocate knocking them over.

        I find them problematic, as we so often end up following trails with cairns. BUT I’ve never been led off in the wrong direction from them.

      • Yes, I can see how the cairns are not leave no trace friendly. I am not a big fan, especially after being lead astray! I am hopeful that the National Park Service might maintain this trail in the future and replace the cairns with trail markers.

  3. That’s a bummer you didn’t find the arches but love your enthusiasm and persistence. Thanks so much for this guide to Arch Canyon Trail in Organ Pipe Cactus Monument. I typically hike solo so greatly appreciate your tip that this trail is more suitable for a buddy hike since it’s not well populated. I’ll let you know if I find the arches!

  4. so beautiful! I keep reading more and more about AZ NPS sites and need to get out there… impressive that you hiked mid day and it wasn’t too hot..spring weather helps!

  5. Looks like a fun hike! I’ve never heard of this national monument, but someday if I’m in the area I’d love to hike the trail. 🙂

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