The Desert Around Ajo Part 1

Red-tailed Hawk.

April 16 – April 20.

It was around 3 years ago when we were driving from Gila Bend south to visit Organ Pipe National Monument. The terrain was flat scraggly fields with a few creosote bushes here and there and mountains lining the horizon in the distance. And then suddenly all that disappeared. Flanking the highway, rising up from nothing were these beautiful rock formations. Awed by their amazingness, we pulled over and got out of the van. I walked among them as far as I could get to take some pictures but was stopped from getting much distance from the road by a barbed-wire fence and a sign saying, “Danger USAF Gunnery Range Do Not Enter”. Kind of creepy. We moved on.

Back in the van, we continued our drive towards Organ Pipe until we hit the cute little town of Ajo. We were ready to find our campsite a little further down the highway on some BLM land outside an even tinier town called Why, AZ when we saw a sign for the Ajo visitor center and decided to stop in. We talked to the visitor center lady, grabbed some brochures, and thought we’d return.

And so we did. After our visit to Organ Pipe, we came back to Ajo and spent an afternoon there. We did a walking tour of the town past old churches, learned about Ajo’s mining days, and the people who lived there, photographed lots of fun, thought-provoking, informative, and optically illusory murals. We ended our afternoon with a driving tour into the desert that surrounds the town. The landscape was stunning, almost magical. And from a map that I had seen on the wall in the visitor center I knew that most of this land was managed by BLM and allowed dispersed camping. I put Ajo on my mental list of places I wanted to return to.

Soon after our visit to Organ Pipe, I discovered that the area with the beautiful rock formations is part of the Barry M. Goldwater Range, a military range named after the late 1970s Arizona Senator and despite the menacing barbed wire, you can actually camp among those lovely rocks. All you need is a permit. This permit, which is free and can be obtained online, allows you to camp in several different areas of the BGR as well as in the Cabeza Prieta National Wildlife Refuge.

If you open up Google Maps, the Cabeza Prieta NWR is that big blank area west of Organ Pipe, southwest of Ajo. I swear at one time it used to be a big green blob like most National Refuges but at some point, it just disappeared off the map. Kind of curious. Of course, I wanted to go there too.

And so this is where we headed after our long stay at Madera Canyon. We left the forest, the streams, and the long uphill hikes to go out into the desert permits in hand to discover what mysteries waited for us in the stunning and intriguing landscape surrounding the little town of Ajo.

* This is the first of two posts about our stay in the public land around Ajo. There are just way too many pictures for one post. This first post contains pictures from the 4 days when we camped on BLM land outside of Ajo – though since we were within walking distance from Cabeza Prieta some of the pictures were actually taken in the refuge. If you like these pictures, I promise you part 2 is in some ways even better.

** As always you can click on the pics to enlarge and view in a slide show.

Our campsite on BLM land in the desert outside of Ajo.
Ash-throated Flycatcher.
Black-headed Grosbeak.
Western Kingbird.
Western Kingbird on the left and Mockingbird on the right.
Narrowleaf Four O’Clock.
Notch-leaf Scorpion Weed.
Notch-leaf Scorpion Weed.
Teddy-bear Cholla.
Pepsis Thisbe.
Clasping Pepperweed.
Fish Hook Cactus.
Curved-billed Thrashers.
Sagebrush Sparrow.
White-winged Dove.
Buckhorn Cholla.
Mojave Desert Star.
Fairy Mist.
There is a big red button on this weather station you can push if you need emergency help. A diagram shows someone bringing water to the victim. (It doesn’t show Border Patrol hauling you off afterward.)
Big Bend Patchnose Snake.
Gambel’s Quail.
Common Stork’s-bill.
Fremont’s Pincushion.
Nesting Red-tailed Hawk. Mom and Dad left the nest for a while. We saw three chicks, but couldn’t get a good picture.
Varied Bunting.
Hairy Prairie Clover.
Coulter’s Globemallow. Perhaps this bee overdid it a bit with the pollen?
Gila Woodpecker.
Black-tailed Jackrabbit.
Wolf’s Cholla.
Blooming Saguaro and Ocotillo branches.
Hoary Asher.
View of the desert.
Zebra-tailed Lizard.
Chain-fruit Cholla.
Scott’s Oriole.
Engelmann’s Hedgehog Cactus.
Panorama of the desert.
Gila Woodpecker. Here you can see the distinctive red dot on its head.
Gila Woodpecker.

12 thoughts on “The Desert Around Ajo Part 1

  1. Wonderful pictures! What do you use as an id resource? Do you have books or online? I have a hard time finding good bird books.
    Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thanks! We use the iNaturalist app. We have have an account and I meant to add a link to the blog but forgot – will do so next post. The app makes it easy – up load the picture and it gives us suggestions and pics to compare to.

  2. Hi Duwan and Greg, It is such a pick-me-up to look at your wonderful photos of the desert birds and flowers! Your photos of the birds are stunning; we’re just glad to get them in the field glass! This is a favorite part of AZ for us, too, as is Madera Canyon. I’m so glad you are out having wonderful adventures during this hard time.
    Stay safe and hope you have found a cool spot to land.
    😘 Meredith and Ed

    1. Thank you! Birding has been so much fun. Photographing birds is a challenge but it is making me a better photographer.

      We are in Prescott now – so much cooler and in new territory for us. Arizona is amazing wherever you go.

      Hope you are staying cool in Tucson!

  3. Audubon and Merlin {Cornell Lab} are both great apps for IDing birds.
    iNaturalist is a great one for keeping track of all kinds of things that you have seen, and their related app Seek is great for quickly IDing stuff.
    I’ll look for y’all on iNaturalist!

  4. These are amazing photos! Wow, wow, wow! That last one is still my favorite, but I love, love, love the blooming saguaro. I’ve never seen this in real life. It seems a bit early for them to bloom (a friend of mine claimed they bloom in the summer when it’s too hot to be around them), but I’m glad you witnessed it.

    Ajo is such a little surprise of a town. We just walked around for an hour and loved the vibe. We never boondocked around there but did stay at the dispersed campground near Why – the one closest to Organ Pipe. I wouldn’t mind returning and checking out the military area one day. Others had told us about it last year, but we never looked it up. Sounds intriguing!

    1. Thanks!

      When we first got to Ajo we saw a bloom here or there on a Saguaro but by the time we left – when it was getting too hot to stay – they were really blooming out. You will see this in part 2 of the post. So your friend is probably right – it is just that summer starts at the end of April here.

      Barry Goldwater was interesting. The area we were in wasn’t very large but we saw other parts of the range we could have camped in as we were heading out. Getting the permit was easy – so I definitely recommend it.

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