Explore One of Mexico's 13 Natural Wonders with NaturArte Ecotours

Explore One of Mexico's 13 Natural Wonders with NaturArte Ecotours

Mexico CEDO

By Cheryl Butner, CEDO


In the middle of the Sonoran Desert lie an enormous dormant volcano and the largest "sea" of sand dunes found in North America. Welcome to El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar Biosphere Reserve, the fourth largest land reserve in Mexico, where you will find some of the most diverse and fascinating ecosystems in the Sonoran desert. In addition the awesome volcanic landscape and expansive dunes, you will also find vast fields of cholla, saguaro, senita, and ocotillo cactus, and rare animal species like the Sonoran Pronghorn antelope. Located only 48 kilometers north of Puerto Peñasco, Sonora and close to the the US/Mexico border at Lukeville, Arizona, the Reserve is conveniently located for tourists to explore.


El Pinacate is a massive (50 kilometers/31 miles long), dormant shield volcano. The volcanic features you will find within the Reserve are 8 giant Maar craters, 1 tuff cone, and over 400 others like cinder cones and a’a and pahoehoe lava flows. The lavas range in age from more than 1.7 million years to 1.1 million years ago and are overlain and flanked by younger cinder cones, lava flows, and craters.


It is also a site of much cultural and historical interest. The native O'odham peoples believe that the summit of the Sierra Pinacate is the mythological place of their creation. In the 1600s Father Eusebio Francisco Kino, founder of the Kino missions in Sonora and southern Arizona, surveyed the area.


While leading the first ground expedition from this region to Baja California, Father Kino explored El Pinacate, and from its great heights, was the first person to correctly determine that Baja California is a peninsula, and not an island as was previously believed. Much more recently, from 1965-1970, thirty NASA astronauts undertook geological training in El Pinacate to prepare for collecting moon rocks during the Apollo missions.


On the west side of the Pinacate volcanic field, the landscape is inundated by a sea of shifting sand dunes that reach up to 200 meters in height. This is the Gran Desierto de Altar, which means "the great desert shrine". This is the largest active dune field in North America, covering about 12,400 square kilometers. Virtually all of the sand in the Gran Desierto derives from the ancient Colorado River Delta and the upper Gulf of California, material carried to the area by prevailing westerly winds during the last tens of thousands of years. Rocks eroded from the Grand Canyon in Arizona were the source for much of the sand found here!


Despite the harsh environment, El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar supports a remarkable amount of biological diversity: at least 506 species of vascular plants, thousands of species of invertebrates, 2 species of native freshwater fishes, 4 species of native amphibians, 44 species of native reptiles, 237 species of resident and migratory birds, and 38 species of native mammals. The most famous animal in the Reserve is the endangered sonoran pronghorn antelope, the fastest land mammal in North America.

NaturArte Ecotours

NaturArte Ecotours offer opportunities to explore this fascinating Biosphere Reserve through three ecotours to El Pinacate and Gran Desierto de Altar.

  • Pinacate Adventure (half-day): You will skirt the rim of El Elegante, one of the world’s largest Maar-type craters, as well as visiting the Tecolote Lava Flow, where you will feel as if you are walking on the moon. The tour also explores Cerro Colorado crater, a one-of-a-kind tuff cone of beautiful red rock. Exploring these areas with experienced naturalist guides, you will learn first-hand the geological processes that created the landscape, while taking a closer look at the fascinating flora and fauna of the Sonoran Desert. In addition, you will learn about the different species of trees, wildflowers and cacti, while keeping an eye out for wildlife such as snakes, tortoises, pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, desert birds and amazing insects. Don’t forget your camera on this scenic desert safari!
  • Destination Dunes (half-day): Join this challenging, but highly rewarding trek into the "sea of sand" just north of Puerto Peñasco, and you will, with the help of local experienced naturalist guides, begin to understand the the region’s fascinating geology in action, while also learning about its unique flora and fauna. Stand in awe before beautiful “star” dunes and be taken aback by the Saharan landscape! Once you have reached the top of the dunes, you will be rewarded with a gorgeous 360-degree view of El Pinacate volcano, the Sierra Blanca mountains, and the sparkling blue Gulf of California.
  • Pinacate Adventure + Destination Dunes (full-day): A combination of both of the great ecotours listed above!

>> Learn more about the NaturArte tours

>> To book a tour or ask questions, contact naturarte[at]cedointercultural.org or call (520) 320-5473 in the U.S. or (638) 382-0113 in Mexico.

More About CEDO

Located in Puerto Peñasco, Sonora, CEDO (Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans) works closely with visitors, local communities, and the government to understand and minimize human impact on local environments and species through research, education, and conservation. In 2010, CEDO is celebrating its 30th Anniversary of promoting conservation and sustainable use of the natural and cultural resources in the Northern Gulf of California and surrounding Sonoran Desert.


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