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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.

The thermometer flatlines at zero degrees as my family loads camping gear into the pickup and I crank life into the engine. In our neck of the Oregon woods, this is serious cold. But we just laugh a good guttural guffaw at the slick frozen roads, the solid white streams, the spindrift blowing its chattering breath across the landscape. “Yeee-haw,” we shout, “we’re Baja bound!” In our minds, sharp cactus spines are already puncturing the frigid Northwest bubble.

Winter after soggy winter we’ve waved good-bye to various ashen-faced, droopy-eyed Oregon friends as they’ve left for Baja. A few weeks later, we’d greet these “same” folks, now tanned and bright-eyed, and we’d marvel at how recharged they seemed, how ready they were to face the remaining northern gloom. Finally I couldn’t take it any longer, and I started browsing Baja guidebooks for myself.

If only I’d looked earlier! Although I’ve always known that this Mexican peninsula was a water-lover’s dream destination, I now discovered that trapped between three coasts at the southern tip of the 800-mile-long peninsula is an island of green: the little-known Sierra de la Laguna, a 7,000-foot-high mountain range with a peculiar assortment of trails. That’s all it took. After an easy overnight hike with me, my wife and two-year-old could frolic on white-sand beaches, as is their passion, and I could recharge on sunny mountain trails, as is mine. And so here we are spinning rubber on black-ice roads while yippee-kay-yaying through smiles so big our cheeks begin to ache.

Four days later, we’re 1,600 feet above the sea, now joined by my Hood River hiking companion Jay Sherrerd and two of his buddies. Kenny Bresnihan has spent most of this decade’s winters in Baja and long has wanted to cross these mountains. Rachel King, by contrast, is relatively new to Baja and backpacking. This will be her second-ever overnight trip. All of us are gaping at the scale of the escarpment we’re about to climb. The next 7 miles will take us 5,000 feet farther upward to a slight break in the ridge. The one-time lake (“laguna”) for which the mountains are named lies there and will be tonight’s campsite.

Suddenly it seems like a lot to tackle in one day. As quickly as possible, toddler Siena climbs into her carrier, the rest of us hoist packs, and our feet kick up little clouds of dust. A crisp blue sky provides the backdrop for wildly branching saguarolike cactus called card-n. Our new companions, already well warmed to Baja’s charms, converse about I-know-not-what while my wife, Adele, and I, still thawing, pause time and again to hear the sweet song of a wren, to absorb fantastical images of the moon slipping behind multiarmed cacti, to marvel at yellow flowers spiking atop 20-foot-tall bushes. We can almost taste the colors in each blossom, they’re so exotic to our January-numbed senses. We turn our faces upward and close our eyes, soaking up the sun’s much anticipated warmth.

Unfortunately, our stroll in the flatland doesn’t last long. Soon we’re measuring the hike in 1,000-foot vertical gains instead of miles traveled. The deeply rutted trail proffers an occasional switchback, but mostly it contours along ridges, drops to streams, and generally goes up. And up again. Then up some more.

One by one the cactus species drop out as we climb this island in the sky. Eventually we’re down to scattered giant card-n standing guard, final sentries from the arid realm we’re rising above. A few hundred more steps uphill, a palm tree fans some shade. Eventually oaks announce our labored entry into an ecosystem more temperate than tropical. The effect is almost startling, especially when Jay tosses a pinecone at me.

Even the breeze along this 6,500-foot rimline is chilling, and Siena’s “Mommy, I’m cold” reminds us equally of the change in altitude and the lateness of the hour. Soon we’re racing the onset of darkness, pausing only occasionally to appreciate melodramatic vistas of purple- and gold-clad mountains sawing southward while the sun melts into the Pacific. I want badly to camp here and absorb this view in proper tropical leisure, but there’s not an open flat spot anywhere. It’s pitch dark and bone cold by the time we reach a clearing suitable for our tents. Breaking out of the trees, we gasp yet again: the Milky Way is dancing in sparkling brilliance, a nearly solid band across the jet-black sky.

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