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Backpacker Magazine – December 1999

Baja Mexico: South To The Sun

Combine white sand beaches and gin-clear water with snow-free highland hiking, and you've got Baja, the perfect midwinter escape.

by: John Harlin


Expedition Planner: Baja California

Where To Go

The sparsely inhabited Baja countryside is nearly all unregulated desert wilderness. Drive up a dirt road as far as you can, don a backpack, and hike cross-country until you run out of water. The Sierra de la Laguna has water, established hiking trails, midwinter warmth, and allowed my family to enjoy beaches while I explored mountains. Two other popular hiking destinations (see the "Other Baja Options") are both considerably closer to the U.S. border, though they lack ocean frontage and are best visited during milder seasons.

Sierra de la Laguna: These 5,000- to 7,000-foot mountains offer the best midwinter trail hiking on the peninsula. Expect drenching and sometimes dangerous rain July through October. November and December are warm (around 70ºF), lush, and fairly dry. January and February are pleasant with possible showers and occasional freezing nights up high; daytime temps around 70ºF. March through June are increasingly warm, desiccated, and snake friendly.

There are three general categories of hiking in the Sierra de la Laguna: trails, canyons, and cow tracks.

Trails

Rancho Burrera (aka San Juan del Aserradero) to Picacho de la Laguna (author's route): The most popular overnight hike in southern Baja and the only trail shown on topo maps, this path is well signed, in places deeply rutted, and heavily used on holidays. Allow a full day to reach the meadow, or split the trip with one of two campsites: at the halfway point by a stream, or at the 1,400-meter (4,535-foot) contour line, with views but no water. Allow three days for the round-trip.

At the first obvious grassy campsite with a small stream, a side trail leads northwest to Picacho de la Laguna, the range's high point (7,090 feet). This hour-long one-way hike is a must for the vertiginous views from the cross-adorned outcrop just west of the summit.

Canon San Bernardo: This is the easiest cross-Sierra hike, cresting at 3,300 feet after a gentle 10-mile, 2,300-foot ascent from the east. The hike's eastern terminus is Boca de la Sierra ("mouth of the mountains"); west is Santo Domingo. Permanent pools provide drinking water along this 14-mile, two- to three-day route that stays in the canyons.

Canyons

Expect to find challenging boulder hopping, scrambling, wading, maybe some swimming, and searching out of cow paths that shortcut stream bends and avoid cliffs. Don't expect to make mileage, and be prepared to turn around if the terrain proves too difficult or dangerous for your taste. These are just a sampling.

Agua Caliente: Because of its accessibility, waterfalls, swimming, and hot springs, this eastern canyon near Santiago is perhaps the best known in the Sierra. Continue upstream and you'll find challenging walking, boulder scrambling, few people, and gorgeous sandy camping.

Canon Buenos Aires: This "incredible" canyon, to quote an avid local explorer, can be reached on foot from the windsurfing mecca of Los Barriles on the shore of the Sea of Cortez. Park your car in town, and spend a few days hiking up the desert arroyo.

Cow Tracks

Rugged cow paths and rancher "trails" (identified by occasional machete marks), along with good map-reading skills and a fortitude for bushwhacking, will let you travel almost anywhere in these mountains.

La Laguna to San Dionisio (author's route): Best tackled from top to bottom-west to east-this route can be immensely satisfying if carefully scouted. A large-scale (1:50,000) topo map (see listings that follow) is mandatory, along with a compass and an altimeter. With those in hand, retrace our route by following a faint path along the open contours heading due east from where the stream exits the Laguna meadow. Reach the east-trending ridgeline that defines the southern edge of the San Dionisio Canyon. Stay on this ridge until it terminates just above the 900-meter contour line. Drop due south through steep tunnels in the brush to a beautiful boulder- and palm-lined arroyo, which you'll follow to the San Dionisio River. Follow good cow and boar paths on the south bank to the dirt road.

Topo maps for Sierra de la Laguna: These 1:50,000-scale, 10-meter-interval maps-Todos Santos F12B33, El Rosario F12B23, Las Cuevas F12B24, Santiago F12B34-are essential for backcountry navigation. Available from Map Centre (619-291-3830) for $9 each.

Warning: Arroyos (riverbeds that are typically dry) are carved by fearsome floods. You don't want to be in one when the heavens open upstream, so think before you camp on a lovely sandy wash.

Guidebooks and travel maps: There are many more available, but here are the essentials. The Baja Adventure Book, by Walt Peterson (1999; Wilderness Press, 800-443-7227; www. wildernesspress.com; $18.95) provides the most comprehensive outdoor info, including regional maps. Baja Handbook: Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas, by Joe Cummings (1998; Moon Travel Handbooks, 800-345-5473; www.moon.com; $16.95) is chockfull of essential information and advice on Baja travel, including backpacking. Baja Camping, by Fred and Gloria Jones (1997; Foghorn, 800-364-4767; www.foghorn.com; $14.95) is aimed primarily at the motorhome camper, but is also the best resource for tent campgrounds. Baja Almanac Norte and Baja Almanac Sur (Baja Almanac Publishers; www.baja_almanac.com; $12.50 each) provide excellent 1:50,000-scale topos for the entire peninsula. All are available from Adventurous Traveler Bookstore (800-282-3963; www. adventuroustraveler.com).

Special thanks to Joe Cummings, Yves Garceau, Marty Hiester, and Lee Jenkins for beyond-the-guidebook information.

-J. Harlin




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