Once the Nation’s ‘Most Dangerous’ Park, Organ Pipe Reopens

On a clear spring day last week, two tourists from Osthofen, Germany, found their way to a vast desert landscape during the final leg of their month-long trek in the United States.

“We saw it on a map; it was by chance,” said Stefanie Weiss, who spent the night camping there with her boyfriend before heading home. “It was a really quiet place. There are no people here, and there is some great nature.”

Thousands of hikers, nature lovers and accidental visitors are exploring and rediscovering Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument since it fully reopened to the public last September. Nearly 70 percent of the park had been closed for more than a decade.

Organ Pipe, a 516-square-mile area that borders Mexico for 30 miles, was named the nation’s most dangerous park in 2003 by a law enforcement group because of the prevalence of violent drug smugglers. To prepare for full public access, the National Park Service and the Border Patrol increased the presence of park rangers and agents, and the border’s barbed wire was replaced with a patrolled barrier fence.

Organ Pipe is fairly isolated, about two hours south of Phoenix and west of Tucson. It gets its name from the type of cactus, which is named for its resemblance to church organ pipes, that can be found throughout the park.

The closing of Organ Pipe in 2003 followed a series of serious incidents with armed drug smugglers, including the death in 2002 of Kris Eggle, a park ranger.

During the park’s closing, the smuggling and illegal border crossings continued. In 2013, the most recent year for which figures are available, roughly 100,000 pounds of drugs were recovered and more than 4,000 arrests were made in the park, according to Customs and Border Protection.

The decision to reopen the monument was in the making for a few years, said Matthew Vandzura, chief ranger at the park. Officials needed to assess visitor safety issues, like cellphone coverage and the ease of access

Mr. Vandzura said officials also had to reconsider how they would educate visitors about the park. They went from telling the public “It’s dangerous, don’t go there,” he said, to an “education-based system where we say, ‘We are going to tell you everything we can about the potential threats and dangers. We are going to give you a realistic picture of what is going on and you make your own decision.’ ” This is a practice adopted by many large-scale parks, including the Grand Canyon.

Park officials said that the amount of human and drug trafficking will always be a problem, and visitors are warned of the chance that they will see people moving through the park illegally. Visitors are asked to report what they see so that proper measures can be taken.

The reopened areas of Organ Pipe included the 21-mile Ajo Mountain Drive, the most popular scenic driving and biking trail in the park, and the full 37-mile Puerto Blanco Drive, which covers a 14-mile trail along the border. Along those loops, there are many trails that are also open for hiking.

Nancy Richeson and her husband, Tom, who have lived in the neighboring town of Ajo for about 15 years, said they missed going on lengthy scenic trails that were blocked after the park’s closure.

We did go back a couple of months ago and not all of it was open. But we were able to go up north and then eventually ended up in Bates Well, which is quite a distance, and that was fun.

—Nancy Richeson

Park visits have increased 26 percent from last year, said Sue Walter, a public affairs officer for the monument. She attributed the increase to the reopening of the closed areas, education efforts and lower gas prices. In 2014, according to a National Park Service report, the monument received 224,548 visitors who spent more than $13.5 million in the neighboring communities.

In nearby Why, Ariz., Lucia Gutierrez, who has worked at Granny’s Kitchen for about four years, said she had seen more families heading toward the camping grounds in the past year.

“I haven’t been there, but I’d like to go,” she said. “I’d like to take my grandkids.”

A few feet from Granny’s Kitchen is the Why-Not Travel Store, where Jose Miguel Garcia has worked for 17 years.

“We get tourists every day,” Mr. Garcia said. “That is what our main business is.”

He was quick to point out that the park is not a required stop for tourists. “The cactuses are on the side of the road,” he said, “so when people see them, they don’t really have to go into the park.”

But he would still recommend it. “Around here,” he said, “it’s all there is.”