Made up of over 600 square miles of lava fields and sand dunes, the Pinacate Biosphere Reserve reaches from near the U.S. border to the Sea of Cortez. This World Heritage site preserves one of the harshest and most solitary wilderness areas in the world.
The Reserve is made up of two distinct portions of the Sonoran Desert. To the west are the dunes. Winds crossing the mouth of the Colorado River Delta pick up particles of the mud that has eroded in places like the Grand Canyon up north. Grain by grain, the blowing dust has built the Sahara like Desierto de Altar, the largest area of dunes in North America. Mountains of sand, the dunes move with the wind. Like slow motion waves on the nearby ocean.
To the east, sand gives way to jagged black rock. The result of violent geologic activity, the heart of the Pinacate is a landscape of lava flows and giant craters. Inaccesible and very dry, this area is home to most of the wildlife that lives in the Pinacate. Bighorn sheep, Pronghorn Antelope, and desert tortoise are some of the species found here.
Cholla cactus, creosote and other common Sonoran desert plants are here, and are almost identical to ones found in Organ Pipes National Monument just across the border. Set against the black earth, everything has a distinct and unusual look. Springtime can see huge fields of colorful wildflowers. It is a place that is supremely photogenic.
While access to the Reserve is controlled, it is not difficult to experience this wild landscape. An access road a few kilometers north of Rocky Point takes you to the Schuk Toak Visitors Center. Exhibits about the Pinacates’ natural and human history can be found. Speak with an expert, or head out to the interperative trail. A short drive past the center, over ancient lava flows (suitable for most vehicles) is the starting point for a moderate intro hike into the Dunes that leads you to a point with views to the ocean.
Spending more time in the Pinacates is possible. Registering at Schuk Toak first is reguired to access deeper into the desert wilderness. There are roads to tour by car, or to get to trailheads that lead to the top of the giant volcanic craters. Overnight camping is limited to specific areas.
With the recent World Heritage Site designation, local businesses that offer tours to the Pinacte have seen travellers from Asia and Europe start to makea regular appearance. As time goes by, the Pinacates will continue grow as a world class destination for ecotourism.