The Pinacate & Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve is considered one of Mexico’s priority regions because it is immersed deep in the entrails of the Sonoran Desert, the most biodiverse desert in the world. It covers parts of California, Arizona, Baja California, Sonora and Sinaloa.
It is a magical place, with desolate beauty, unusual creatures, unique plants and notable geological characteristics. Part of the largest extension of mobile sand dunes in America (including the rare star shaped dunes) run right through the Reserve. The volcanic shield (500,000 Acres) is composed by 10 giant Maar type craters (the largest concentration in the world), more than 400 volcanoes, lava flows, lava tunnels and caves.
Although it is often thought that a desert is a life deprived place, the dark lava formations contrasting with the white sand dunes create multiple habitats with numerous biodiversity. You can find more than 560 species of vascular plants, 41 species of mammals, 200 species of birds, 43 species of reptiles, and amphibians and fresh water fish as well. Endemic, endangered, and threatened species exist in the Pinacate.
The Reserve is a vast heap of archeological remains that go back more than 20,000 years. It is an important cultural site for the Tohono O’odham people, who consider the Pinacate Mountain the place where the creation took place.
Because of all of this, the Mexican government, innumerable environmental groups, scientists, and the general public, decided to declare The Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar a Biosphere Reserve in June of 1993, with a surface of 1,765,706 Acres.
The Pinacate is part of the Man and Biosphere program of UNESCO since October of 1995, and a Ramsar Convention on Wetlands Site since September of 2007. It also forms part of an international brotherhood of biosphere reserves here in Sonora and Arizona.
The Schuk Toak (sacred mountain) visitor center is located only 20 minutes away from Rocky Point, you take highway 8 northbound towards Sonoyta, at kilometer 72 (10 miles from the old port) you will see a series of signs and the only paved road that takes you west into the desert. After you make a left turn you will drive 4 miles alongside the Sierra Blanca, a granite structure 300,000,000 years old.
When you get to the visitor center, you must register and pay 50 pesos or 4.50 USD per person. Then the personnel will gladly address an opening lecture on the Reserve and on the existing activities both in English or Spanish. You will get to see a series of photographic exhibits, and in addition there is a display of the Pinacate’s collection of archeological remains. You will hike through a couple of short informative trails that describe the biological and geological aspects of the reserve. In the audiovisual room a short documentary by Mike Foster will be projected for you, also available in English or Spanish. You can enjoy the view from the terrace overlooking the Gran Desierto de Altar, or if you want, you can drive an extra 2 kilometers to the base of the first sand dune and hike until you see the Sea of Cortez from the top.
The vehicle route’s entrance is located on highway 8 halfway between Rocky Point and Sonoyta (half hour drive) at kilometer 52, once you pay at Schuk Toak visitor center there is no need to do so at the vehicle route, you do however need to register your car, and read the rules for this circuit. You don’t need a 4×4, or huge all terrain tires for this, although it is a dirt road, the employees often give maintenance to these paths so they won’t be as bumpy or loose as they would normally be. You will be given a map with the course and its places of interest. You can visit El Elegante Crater, with a mile in diameter and 700 feet deep, El Tecolote campground for a picnic, El Cono Mayo volcano with a trail that takes you to the top where you can see a panoramic view of the area, El Colorado Crater, ten informative vehicle stations and much more to see. You need from 2 to 4 hours to enjoy the vehicle route.
Another campground is El Cono Rojo, normally you register in the afternoon, you set up you camp, enjoy the star filled sky at night, and very early in the morning you hike your way to the Pinacate Peak (or Santa Clara Volcano) 4,000 feet high. It takes about 6 hours to get to the top where you can witness how Baja California unites with Sonora. It takes another 6 hours to get to Cono Rojo from the top. We recommend doing this particular activity in the fall to spring months, as the heat can get unbearable and potentially dangerous.
Both the Schuk Toak visitor center and the Vehicle Route are open every day of the year (including Christmas and New Year), and our operating hours are from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm.
For more information we invite you to email us at:
Or give us a call at:
(011-521-638) 108-0011 & (011-52-638) 383-1433
You can also visit:
http://visitaelpinacate.com and http://elpinacate.conanp.gob.mx/