Photo: Pinacate Biosphere Reserve
The Pinacate Reserve and the abutting Gran Desierto de Altar Reserve are less than a day’s drive from the U.S.-Mexico border.
Together, the two contiguous reserves protect the sea, coast, and inland desert. El Pinacate stands out for its easier access and its surreal beauty.
Located in the state of Sonora the region contrasts sandy coasts with rugged volcanic cones – the region is a 30-mile wide volcanic field. The region is named after a local species – a beetle that when threatened, sits vertically on end and emits a foul odor. More loveable wildlife includes puma, deer, antelope, wild boar, the Gila monster, bighorn sheep, pronghorn, quail, and red-tailed eagle. Visitors to the park will find a rustic vistors center.
There are few paths in this region and you can climb on the volcanic cones to observe the craters. You are urged to travel with someone who knows the region or hire an experienced guide and explore the area in a four-wheel-drive vehicle, as the roads are of dubious quality.
Guide information can be obtained through the visitor’s center. Be aware that this area is uninhabited and presents many dangers. Make sure to bring along extra water.
The park’s chief attraction is its bizarre and mind-boggling scenery. About 3 or 4 million years ago, an erratic series of volcanoes erupted in what is now the Pinacate lava field. Hundreds of blank cinder cones and craters mark the surface. You can visit some of the largest, including El Elegante, from the park entrance off Highway 2.
The largest crater, El Elegante, is also the most visited. It takes a two to three-hour hike to reach the crater, and the path is well-marked. There, the view is simply awesome. The crater is 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) from rim to rim and 140 meters (460 feet) deep.
There are also places in the reserve where it hasn’t rained for years. The park’s dune fields can be accessed via Highway 8 and a 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) dirt road the heads west near the Kilometer 73 marker.
Some of these lava fields were used to train U.S. astronauts heading to the moon during the Apollo space program.
While the craters definitely evoke an otherworldly terrain, what is amazing is not the sterility, but the fertility of the land. You’ll see many cacti, including saguaro, ocotillo and chollo. The desert blooms in February and March after the spring rains. Dune sunflowers, verbena and desert lilies blossom in the sand, and if you look, you might see the tracks of bighorn sheep.
Birth of a reserve
Mexico declared this area a biosphere reserve in 1993, at the urging of Ezekiel Escurra, then-director of Mexico’s protected areas. Escurra had performed his graduate research here years ago and knew the importance of the local biodiversity as well as the park’s larger role in the region of the Sea of Cortez.
Management authority for El Pinacate rests with IMADES (Instituto del Medio Ambiente y Desarrollo Sustentable del Estado de Sonora), an institution created in 1996 as the result of a merger between Sonora’s Center for Investigation and Development of Natural Resources and the Centro Ecologico de Sonora (Sonora Ecological Center, or CES). IMADES is headquartered in the ecological park in Hermosillo.
El Pinacate and well as the Upper Colorado Gulf in the Sea of Cortez to west were jointly declared biosphere reserves. One of the reasons was to protect the vaquita and totoaba species. The totoaba resembles white bass and is considered a delicacy, and consequently, overfished. The vaquita has perished in fishermen’s nets, and is now one of the rarest marine mammals on earth.
The area is also the spawning grounds of a highly commercial fishing industry that thrives in the middle portion of the Sea of Cortez. By protecting the breeding grounds, officials hope to be able to sustain future marine production.
The entrance to El Pinacate is 50 kilometers (31 miles) west of Sonoyta, Sonora, on Highway 2. If you’re approaching the park from the United States, be sure to visit the Organ Pipe Visitor’s Center on the Arizona border for up-to-date information.