Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Organ Eye-Peña Blanca Wilderness Study Area

The Peña Blanca Wilderness Study Area, I would guess, is the least visited of the Organ Mountains three WSA's.  The only trails are the unofficial ones in Achenbach and Ladera Canyons. Private property along Ladera Canyon Road and Peña Blanca Loop blocks access from maintained roads. Two unmaintained roads, one on the southern boundary and one on  the eastern leave a lot to be desired.  All these reasons, plus the fact that it lacks a "destination" feature combine to keep it's nearly 5,000 acres very wild. Why it is still just a study area, I'm not really sure.
  I've known about the Organ Eye for several years and finally took the plunge to find it on the second day of my spring break. The eastern boudary road into the trailhead  starts just past the Sierra Vista trailhead on the county road. It was my first adventure of several that day. Let's just say it's not great and if you don't have high clearance and the option of four wheel drive, find someone who does.
 I haven't been out to this area in several years, and had forgotten how scenic the southern Organs are. Massive ribs of pock-marked volcanic tuff, immense rusty red towers and jagged formations that puncture the soft curves of the hillsides, though not comparable to the world class Needles a few miles to the north,make the ridgeline south of Achenbach impressive as a desert range on its own.

 I started out from the trailhead  situated between the foothills of the ridge and a small detached mountain. There was a trail patted down in the grass and still curled poppies. It followed and crossed the arroyo and then headed up a ridge between the main canyon on the south and smaller  side branch. The the trail disappeared. For reasons( other than the lack trail, which the readers of this blog  know doesn't deter me in slightest) that don't reflect well on your author, I  ended up going back downhill. I  decided subsequently  to climb a steep hillside on the south, thinking there was natural arch there to be seen. Nothing doing, but nice views, although none of the Organ Eye. I then angled my way down  and began up the main canyon, which I thought of dubbing " Fool's Canyon" because only a fool would want to go up it through the spanish dagger, catclaw, whitethorn, mesquite and octotillo without even a trace of trail.There was an odd sort of dwarf forest of soapberry trees just beginning to leaf out which brought some sweetness to the unrelenting thorniness of the vegetation.

 I spotted a very small arch and climbed up,around and then behind it to get a look. I thought there was a larger arch beneath, but no dice. Now I continued up the hillside and got my first look of what I thought was the Organ Eye, looking from that vantage point like the entrance to large cave.

 It was getting hot already and I still had 500 feet of elevation gain to go, but I decided to give it shot. I sidehilled on  deer trails, in and out of gullies, careful not lose any significant elevation as made my way toward the dry cascade just below the "cave." Eventually I was directly across from the massive fin of rock and the Organ Eye, at its base, was visible for the first time. I edged my way slowly across the bedrock of the waterfall and a ledge and then I was in the Eye, grateful for the first shade of the day.

 The Organ Eye is the largest arch formation I know of in the Organ Mountains Desert Peaks National Monument.  It is not well known, and from the lack of graffiti, trash and evidence of campfires it seems to have very few visitors. I was happy to be there and took many photos to commemorate the occasion.

I decided to go out the northern entrance and then down the steep slope. When walking down rough, treacherous terrain like this, it's best to forget taking anything resembling a straight route. Any direction that allows a few free steps that aren't uphill works. Just keep moving  generally where you want to go and  don't be afraid to find a better option.
 I went over a low saddle and found  a couple of cairns and soon was back on my original path from several hours before. The poppies were open now and it made me smile to see them after so many years absent.

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