california coast

Gran Desierto de Altar Featured Destination:

El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve
Sonora, Mexico

There's a place just south of the Arizona border where a field of 400, four-million-year-old volcanic craters dent the earth and sand made from rock as far away as the Grand Canyon cascades down dunes over 300 feet tall. This place is El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere, also known as Sierra Del Pinacate.

This place is the antithesis of a tourist trap. It's the kind of place that draws extreme adventurers like astronauts needing a place to train in lunar-like conditions. But in these seemingly desolate, pockmarked surroundings, Pinacate is booming with biodiversity. Fringe-toed lizards skim the sizzling sand and the Costa's hummingbird braves the desert to suck from native, nectar-filled ocotillo plants, alongside close to 300 species of mammals, birds, reptiles and amphibians, not to mention over 500 plants. In fact, the area gets its name from the foul-smelling Pinacate beetle.

Adventurous spirits will want to start their trek to Pinacate from its sister park at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, where the staffs of both parks keep a protective eye on the Sonoran pronghorn. Head south on Arizona's Route 85 and continue down Mexico's Federal Highway 8 to the reserve's main entrance for unparalleled hiking, climbing and biking.

Best Time to Visit:

Pinacate is in the hottest part of the Sonoran Desert; so visiting in spring and winter would be best. If you time your visit with a visit to Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, its most popular months are December through March when temperatures are in the 60s.

What to Do:

Just 12 miles from the entrance of Pinacate, get as close to a lunar experience as you can by hiking along the rim of El Elegante, a mile-wide, almost-perfectly-round, 800-foot-deep crater. NASA sent their space men here to train for Apollo missions in the 60s and 70s. The view of the volcanic scarred terrain from here may feel as foreign as being on the moon. Other nearby craters worth a visit are Cerro Colorado, a caldera that may reveal the eruptive beginnings of this place, Crater Molina, distinguished by its clover-leaf shape and the Sykes Crater with an opening a mile deep. Get Directions

Other Gran Desierto de Altar Destinations:

  • Volcan Santa Clara (Pinacate Peak). This striking ancient shield volcano marks the highest point in the biosphere reserve. Additionally, several cinder cones formed by smaller eruptions can be viewed on this peak. Get Directions
  • Pinacate Lava Fields.The area is marked by hundreds of craters and cinder cones caused by volcanic activity and can be accessed from the park entrance off Highway 2.Get Directions
  • Cerro Elegante. The most accessible of the Maar craters, Elegante is also the largest crater in the Pinacate volcanic field. A well-marked path leading up to the crater offers a stunning view at its summit. Get Directions
  • Schuk Toak. Dedicated to conservation and sustainable tourism, this site serves as the visitor center for El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve. Visit the museum within Schuk Toak to learn about the reserve's history, culture, biology and geology. Get Directions
  • Dunes of Gran Desierto de Altar. Located on the western side of the Pinacate volcanic field, the Gran Desierto de Altar is the largest active dune field in North America. Get Directions

Explore the Gran Desierto de Altar:


TRAVEL NORTH AMERICA: Alaska-St. Elias Range | Aleutian Islands | Appalachian Mountains | Black Hills and Badlands | California Coast | Canadian Prairies | Coast Mountains | Costa Rica's Parks and Beaches | Death Valley | Everglades | Florida Coast | Glacier National Park | Gran Desierto de Altar | Grand Canyon | Grand Tetons | Great Basin Desert | Great Plains | Kodiak Island | Labrador, Canada | Mid-Atlantic Coast | Mississippi River | Monument Valley | Sierra Nevada Mountains | Sonoran Desert | Yellowstone National Park | ALL TRAVEL LOCATIONS

Maps powered by MapQuest

More on
North America