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El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar

El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar, Sonora
by Beverly Arrowood

El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar is located around the cities of Puerto Peñasco, Sonoita and San Luis Rio Colorada in the state of Sonora. From the United States it is a mere 3.5 hour drive to the Reserve on Mexico 8 to mile marker km 51. From Mexicali it is about 4 hours via the new Coastal Highway. It is here you will find the official office to the Reserve, the Biological Station and the visitor center. Soon there will be a new state-of-the-art visitor center a few miles south. The drive will be well worth it!

The Natural Protected Areas are a priority of the Mexican government in order to conserve the biodiversity and the natural resources as well as to stop the deterioration of the environment.

Keeping this logic in mind, and as a result of several attempts carried out since the 1970s to create a Reserve in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, in June 1993 a presidential decree established the Biosphere Reserve of Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar in the northwest region of the state of Sonora.

Throughout history this is one of the driest and inhospitable regions of the Sonoran Desert. El Pinacate, as it is known by locals, is extremely rich biologically. Between the volcanic shield and both the stabilized and active sand dunes that surround it, the Gran Desierto measures 714,556 hectares. The region is characterized by an unusual beauty and a great biological diversity, and with the recent volcanic activity, it has been transformed into an open-air laboratory and has peaked the interest of both researchers and tourists from around the world.

The landscape of the Reserve and the wonderful scenery, without a doubt, make El Pinacate Reserve y Gran de Altar one of the most interesting tourist attractions in the world and is an excellent and representive sample of the ecosystem of the Sonoran Desert.

The craters range in size from 1,150 feet across and 35 feet deep to 5,100 feet across and 800 feet deep. The largest, El Elegante, is the most visited. It takes about a two- to three-hour hike to reach the crater; but once you see the awesome view, it will be well worth your time.

Lending to the awesome scenery is an enormous dune field of approximately 500,000 hectares, more than 100 ash cones, and a volcanic shield with 10 giant Maar type craters, which are extremely rare in the world due to not only their numbers but concentration.

El Pinacate is so unique, with its moon-like craters, lava tubes and sleeping volcanos, there is no other place like it in the world. In 1970, the Apollo astronauts trained at El Pinacate for their lunar landing as it was the closest match to the moon's surface.

With a great biological diversity, El Pinacate has close to 18 percent of the plants registered in the state of Sonora (553 species). Of the most important and protected are the towering saguaros, ocotillos, chollas and the long-living creosote bush.

It is amazing that despite the 110-degree weather in summer, and the lack of rain, there are 41 native mammal species and 5 introduced species. Five species are on the protected list: Prong Horned Antelope, Desert Bighorn Sheep, Badger, Desert Fox and the Long Nosed Bat. Between migratory and resident birds, there are 237 species such as the Golden Eagle, Burrowing Owl and Red Tail Hawk. The Reserve has registered 45 species of reptiles and 4 amphibians. At least 21 are under protection such as the Flat Tail Horned Lizard, Desert Turtle, Scorpion and Gila Monster. Fish are also represented in El Pinacate, 3 are native species and 2 are introduced; of these, 2 are near extinction.

When you plan your visit, please remember you are in the desert, so long pants and long-sleeve shirts are best, along with hats and sunglasses and plenty of water. Temperatures can range from 86 down to 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Most importantly, bring your camera to have all the wonderful memories of the trip. Remember there is no hunting or collecting of animals or flora. The main roads are passable to cars, but four-wheel drive is even better.

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