Cerro Pinacate is the highest point in the Pinacate Biosphere Reserve. This reserve is located in the state of Sonora, Mexico, and covers more than 600 square miles of a unique desert landscape that includes volcanic cones, lava formations, and Sonoran desert plants. The region is named after a native insect, the Pinacate Beetle. This desert stinkbug is famous for raising its rear end high in the air when threatened and emitting a foul odor.
The Pinacate Desert is a hostile landscape. This black, barren desert is a seemingly endless stretch of heat and inhospitality. There is virtually no surface water, little rain, and temperatures can approach 120º F. In recent millennia, more than 400 volcanoes erupted here, spewing forth black pumice, rock, sand, ash, and creating giant lava tubes. What remains today is a moonscape of cinder cones, volcanoes, and nine massive calderas, some of which are almost a mile wide and 750' deep. Scattered along the dark landscape are lime-green cholla cacti, which serve to illuminate the desert with their bright colors and give the Pinacate its distinct surreal character. The much taller senita and saguaro cactus are also present here, and tower over the landscape like desert sentinels. In February and March, the desolation turns into a kaleidoscope of colors as the wildflowers bloom. The southernmost section of the reserve is known as the Gran Desierto de Altar. The unique peach-beige colored sand dunes here stand in stark contrast to the black Pinacate.
Volcan Santa Clara, a shield volcano, is the main feature in this area. This ancient mountain has long, gently-sloping sides that were formed by repeated eruptions over the millennia. Several fairly young cinder cones sit atop Volcan Santa Clara. They were created by smaller eruptions that occurred long after the mountain was formed. The highest of these cones is Pinacate Peak, with nearby Carnegie Peak a close second.
Nine giant volcanic craters, called “maar” volcanoes, dot the landscape of the Pinacate. They were formed during the same time period as the cinder cones, but their structure and creation are different. Their origin is not fully understood. However, it’s believed that most of them began erupting like the cinder cones, but suddenly the nature of their eruption changed and became violently explosive. This change was precipitated by hot magma coming into contact with ground water, creating huge steam explosions that blew out the earth and created huge voids. The subsequent collapse of the ground into the voids created the craters. Crater Elegante is the largest and most famous of these craters.
Although the Pinacate is possibly one of the most hostile environments in the world, this unique area has its own special beauty. The rough lava fields, majestic cinder cones, elegant craters, and graceful sand dunes are symbolic of a true desert landscape, and serve as a beacon for the desert traveler.
From the Mexican city of Sonoyta, just south of Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona, drive 32 miles southwest on Mexican Route 8 to KM post 51. The Park Headquarters is located here. Turn right, and drive about 14 miles northwest on the main road to Red Cone. A high clearance vehicle is required. Red Cone is the starting point for an ascent of Cerro Pinacate.
You should check in at the Park HQ before you start driving up the road towards Red Cone. You may be expected to give a donation at that time. The phone number to the HQ is 011-62-159864. The International Sonoran Desert Alliance (ISDA) in Ajo, AZ may also have some good information about the Pinacate. Their number is 520-387-6823.
Maps: The ISDA sells a map of the Pinacate Biosphere Reserve for $5. This may be the only map available for the Pinacate.
According to the information in the attached links, there are two campgrounds: El Tecolate and Red Cone. Red Cone CG is the starting point for an ascent of Cerro Pinacate. This is a primitive campground located in a lava field, and has a few tables and nothing more. You better plan on bringing everything you need because there are no services in the Pinacate.