On the way to the desert oasis of Quitobaquito Springs, Puerto Blanco Drive parallels the border with Mexico for about 13 miles through Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. West of Lukeville and the Mexican town of Sonoyta, the border fence, designed as a pedestrian barrier, undulates up a hillside studded with saguaros before ending abruptly. The high mesh fence of oxidized steel then gives way to a low rail-and-post barricade intended to prevent vehicles from crossing into the United States while allowing wildlife to pass through.
Barely 80 degrees, it’s a surprisingly cool day for early May, with broken clouds filtering the sun. A steady breeze blows, refreshing and unlike the blast-furnace-like gusts that often begin by this time in spring.
The Sonoran Desert is at its most beautiful. The wildflowers of earlier in the season are gone, but blooming paloverdes fill the gaps between the saguaros, recasting miles of the tawny expanses as a garden of yellow. The saguaros are just beginning to bloom, the tips of their arms thick with mixed clusters of buds and blossoms, where cactus wrens and white-winged doves eagerly sip nectar from the freshly opened flowers.
The desert spreads unbroken across the border, toward the mountains of Northern Sonora. The national monument is undeveloped, but from Puerto Blanco Drive, there are glimpses of daily life on the Mexican side: a 24-hour restaurant, piles of tires at a tire shop, and a cement plant — as well as vehicles racing by on Mexico’s Highway 2, which runs from the Pacific coast to the Rio Grande.
Those cars and trucks on Highway 2 are the only ones I see before arriving at Quitobaquito. The bosque of mesquites that grow along the spring-fed pond, built in the 1860s to impound the water for farming, jumps out from the surrounding brown terrain. Water-loving bulrushes ring the shoreline, a grand descriptor for the edge of a pond that’s barely half an acre in area and no more than a few feet deep. But Quitobaquito is also the most dependable water source between Sonoyta and Yuma, a distance of roughly 150 miles along El Camino del Diablo, the historic route between Sonora and California.
“Quitobaquito has never ceased to thrill me,” says Sue Rutman, who worked at Organ Pipe for almost 20 years managing plant resources. “It’s just the most amazing place. And Quitobaquito only became more and more amazing as I got to know it. It’s this jewel in the hot, dry desert, with cottonwoods and willows and green. And there’s a captivating fragrance you just don’t smell anywhere else. The one overriding scent comes from yerba del manso, a plant that’s used by the Tohono O’odham for spiritual and medicinal purposes. It’s kind of a spicy, herby smell. Really strong.”
A biological hot spot, the Quitobaquito area comprises less than 1 percent of Organ Pipe’s acreage but offers habitat to a large portion of the monument’s plant species. More than 100 bird species have been spotted at Quitobaquito, and it, along with a couple of nearby spots in the Rio Sonoyta drainage, is home to creatures found nowhere else on the planet. Those are the Quitobaquito pupfish, the Sonoran mud turtle and the Quitobaquito spring snail. The latter is a tiny mollusk about the size of a grain of pepper, according to the National Park Service. Quitobaquito also attracts a rare butterfly species, the Howarth’s white, which depends on a desert caper plant found in only a few spots in the United States.
As miraculous as it may feel to stand along a desert pond, Quitobaquito is no unaltered Eden. Through a gap in the forest across the pond, I can see and hear semitrailer trucks roaring by on Highway 2. And with a human presence that reaches back 11,000 years, to the very origins of the Sonoran Desert that we know today, Quitobaquito, part of a designated wilderness area, defies conventional notions of just what wilderness can be.
“The first people to arrive in that area were seeing the desert forming, because the assemblage of plants we now call the Sonoran Desert is fairly new,” Rutman says. “The climate changed 10,000 or 11,000 years ago, and that’s when these people started to arrive. So, there is no time in Quitobaquito’s history that has not included an awful lot of change. Climatically or by humans. It’s a ground zero for cultural and natural changes.”
I follow the path around the pond, watching dragonflies flit about in their aerial ballet just above the surface. Some are bright blue with black markings. Others have reddish bodies and ruddy, translucent wings. Coot chicks whistle noisily and zip into the reeds as a black-crowned night-heron, unnerved by my approach, takes flight across the water.
It’s cool within the shade of the Quitobaquito bosque, where the fuzzy yellow blossoms of velvet mesquites sprinkle color within the canopy of green. The desert wind rustles the leaves of a stately Fremont cottonwood.
With water and shade as its eternal lures, Quitobaquito has been a crossroads and a gathering place throughout its history. Both environmentally and culturally, Quitobaquito was a borderland long before the U.S.-Mexico border was established no more than 200 yards to the south. Quitobaquito sits along the boundary between the Sonoran’s Arizona Upland habitat and the hotter, drier Colorado Desert. It’s also a place of convergence for the related but separate cultures of the Hia C-ed O’odham and Tohono O’odham peoples.
Early Spanish expeditions in the 17th century stopped here. They included that of Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, who called the oasis San Serguio. He described Quitobaquito as “a good place. … It has water which runs in many places, cienegas, tules, and ducks and birds from the marshes, and excellent pasturage for the cattle.”
Prehistoric traders came through Quitobaquito, bringing shells, obsidian, salt and other items from the Gulf of California and Sonora to the interior of the present-day United States. In places, you can still find clamshells at Quitobaquito, Rutman says.
“It was a long, long way, and Quitobaquito was a stop on the way to and from the gulf,” she says. “That kind of trading went on for a long time. I collect postcards from the early 1900s of Arizona, and I purchased one photograph of a Hopi woman, looking proud as can be, in all of her finery. And she was wearing a sand dollar necklace. I still wonder if it came right through Quitobaquito.”
People moved freely across the region for centuries, even long after the site became part of the United States via the Gadsden Purchase in the 1850s. Richard Felger, a noted botanist and researcher at the University of Arizona Herbarium, recalls traveling out to Quitobaquito for fieldwork and meeting Mexicans who had driven along Highway 2, then crossed the border fence to picnic at the oasis.
As part of his ethnobotanical research, Felger would talk to these locals about the native plants they used for medicine and food, with a special interest in the older people still rooted in the traditional ways.
I circle the pond a couple of times, then take a detour and follow the concrete-lined channel that leads to the springs. The channel was built by the Park Service as habitat for the Quitobaquito pupfish and the Sonoran mud turtle, but also to more efficiently direct water into the pond.
Quitobaquito long was used for farming by the Orosco family, Hia C-ed O’odhams who lived there for generations. When the area became public land after the Gadsden Purchase, the Oroscos had no ownership rights, and their use of the land conflicted with the Park Service’s ideas about management of the area. In 1957, the Park Service paid Jim Orosco, the last family member to live at Quitobaquito, to vacate the area. Some Hia C-ed O’odhams considered Quitobaquito (which they call ‘A’al Waippia) tribal homeland and criticized the move, according to a 2016 article in the Journal of the Southwest by Jessica Piekielek, associate professor of anthropology at Southern Oregon University.
The Park Service’s early work at Quitobaquito was the product of a different era of stewardship. Rutman says historic adobe buildings were demolished instead of being stabilized. Fields, orchards and the canal system that fed them fell into disuse and were taken over by native vegetation. Historic fig and pomegranate trees, no longer irrigated, died from drought and competition with native trees.
The Park Service also built a parking lot near the pond, and at one point drained its waters and dredged the delicate aquatic environment to deepen it, only to discover that these efforts destroyed critical pupfish habitat. A 1992 study of Quitobaquito’s ethnobotany, co-authored by Felger, concluded, “Ironically, the National Park Service, in its attempts at restoration and preservation, has probably brought about the greatest loss of biological and cultural diversity at Quitobaquito.”
Later projects proved much more sensitive and successful. The parking lot was moved, and the rebuilt channel helped stabilize water levels in the pond while enhancing the environment for the pupfish and turtles by incorporating small overhangs and islands.
But starting in the mid-1990s, Park Service studies showed that the pond was losing water, a phenomenon originally believed to be drought-related. When the problem persisted, the monument employed desperate measures to limit the losses, going so far as to temporarily remove the pupfish and turtles for two years as the pond’s depth dropped from 40 inches to less than 5 inches. A concrete wall was inserted into the dirt berm. Then, a few years ago, the iconic leaning cottonwood tree, the centerpiece of many a Quitobaquito photograph over the decades, was removed from the berm to reduce leakage. “The pond you see today is the result of a heroic effort to save it,” Rutman says.
From the pond, I follow the channel’s winding course back toward the spring, where water reaches the surface through cracks in the granitic hills. The water flows steadily through shaded, vegetated stretches and more exposed desert areas. There are a surprising number of pupfish, some swimming in place against the current while others chase away rivals. At one spot, I hear a loud plop as a sunning Sonoran mud turtle splashes into the water.
But I turn back before reaching the spring after hearing the loud buzzing of bees. A ranger at the visitors center had cautioned me to stay on the main path by the pond because Africanized bees were present at Quitobaquito. Having already pushed my luck, I’m not about to push it any further, especially since another ranger mentioned that an attacking swarm had recently stung someone 120 times.
Killer bees notwithstanding, there’s an unmistakable magic about standing in the Sonoran Desert and watching these tiny fish scuffle for territory and look for mates. But if change has been the only constant at Quitobaquito throughout its long history, it’s even more prevalent now.
Increased groundwater pumping for farming across the border has lowered the water table and depleted Quitobaquito’s life-giving aquifer. Climate change, which reduces rainfall and increases evaporation because of higher temperatures, is an even bigger long-term threat.
The trends aren’t good, says Peter Holm, an ecologist at Organ Pipe. He says in the early to mid-1990s, the spring output was around 30 gallons per minute, but it’s dropped to 12 to 15 gallons per minute, depending on the time of year. The decline probably is a result of a combination of groundwater pumping and climate change, Holm says.
“We’ve really been struggling with the declining spring output over the past decades,” he says. “The Mexican government really heavily promoted agricultural development in the ’60s and ’70s, and sank a lot of deep wells. Hundreds of wells in the Sonoyta Valley. It’s definitely drawing down the water table. We have several monitoring wells on the southern border of the monument. They’re showing a decline in the water table of roughly 1 foot per year. Pretty substantial.”
If the trends continue, this desert oasis could be lost. Time will tell. Meanwhile, Quitobaquito serves as a reminder of the things people have in common. It has always been a draw: for those Paleo-Indians, so many thousands of years ago, who came upon the spring; for the early Spanish expeditions; and for the party of boundary commissioners who stopped here while surveying the border in 1893. And it’s still true for visitors today. Because what could be more universal than the sense of wonder and hope that comes when you first see a beautiful place, with water and trees and shade, smack in the middle of the desert?
WHEN YOU GO
Quitobaquito Springs is part of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument. From Ajo, go south on State Route 85 for 33 miles to the monument’s visitors center and pay the entrance fee, which is $25 per vehicle. From there, head 4.3 miles farther south on SR 85 to South Puerto Blanco Drive, which leads west about 13 miles to Quitobaquito. A high-clearance vehicle is recommended for this road, which mostly parallels the international border.
While the monument is safe to visit, crossings and other illegal activities do occur along the border. Stay on maintained roads, do not pick up hitchhikers, and report any suspicious behavior or distressed people you encounter to the monument’s staff or the Border Patrol.
For more information, call the monument at 520-387-6849 or visit www.nps.gov/orpi.