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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.

In the morning, we wake to frozen water bottles despite being perched on the Tropic of Cancer. Slivers of ice shower me as I unzip the tent to look out across a meadow surrounded by oak forest with scattered pines. Everything is green, except the drying grass and occasional blue lupines and red phlox. A tinkling stream winds through our enchanted landscape. I’d swear we were in the western Sierra Nevada foothills except for that 15-foot-tall boulder brightly painted with the Madonna.

Over a warming fire, Jay, a man who has hiked as far afield as Nepal’s Annapurna Circuit and Washington’s Olympic mountains, sings the praises of yesterday’s hike. “The surprise is what I like best. Yesterday morning we were down in the Baja desert,” he gestures expansively at the unlikely scenery around us, “and now look!”

He’s planning to hike up Picacho de la Laguna, at 7,090 feet the high point of southern Baja and right at the edge of the range’s 5,500-foot western escarpment. Perched over the abyss itself is an outcrop that promises a dizzying perspective. Rachel hopes to find swimming pools in the granite-lined canyon that drains the Laguna meadow. Sleeping Ken must be waiting for the sun to warm his tent before deciding how to spend the day. And I’m playing donkey today, accompanying Adele and Siena back to the truck and returning by evening. They’ll spend three days playing on beaches and sleeping in beds before driving dirt roads into the eastern Sierra, hoping to intersect our path when we emerge from the mountains.

Everyone is happy. We’re all getting what we came for.

“This is where I tried to find a trail yesterday,” Jay tells me as we scout the wood’s edge, searching for a clue about where to start our cross-country journey. “Nada. Nothing but walls of thorny brush.”

While I was escorting Adele and Siena back to the trailhead, Jay spent part of the time attempting to locate a pathway into the unyielding forest. Our next steps, at the mysterious end of the topo map’s dashed trail markings, will launch the beginning of our “real” Baja adventure-if you define adventure as “a journey with uncertain outcome.” In our clutches is a guidebook with vague directions and a map full of tightly squiggling trail-less lines. I’m a bit uneasy about the unknown territory ahead and have my fingers crossed that our walk won’t be a bushwhacking fiasco.

Luck smiles on our wandering souls this morning, and soon a faint path emerges like an apparition. We jump on it quickly before it has a chance to fade back into the duff. Still, a few minutes later, the trodden earth dissolves before our eyes and we’re meandering through waist-high thorn bushes.

Then a shout: “I’m lovin’ life!” It’s Jay, just ahead, a big smile curving under his red mustache. The rest of us rush over. We have developed a simple strategy for maintaining our route: Each time the trail fades, we fan four-abreast. Within a few dozen paces someone shouts the equivalent of hallelujah and we’re safe again for another few tenths of a mile. In a couple of hours, we’ve contoured onto the forested ridgeline that we hope will lead us down the southern rim of the San Dionisio Canyon. Smug with our navigational talents, we pause for lunch.

Two hours later, we’ve followed a plunging cow path 700 vertical feet into the bottom of a narrow canyon. There’s no trail in sight, and the terrain is wicked steep. Cactus spines have replaced oak leaves. Occasional tall palms reveal there must be moisture somewhere under this desiccated ground. We’d hoped at least to find water and a cow path down here, but the seasonal streambed courses dryly over massive boulders in a tight, stair-stepping ravine. Sometimes we’re forced to snake through the brush with 50-foot drop-offs yawning beneath our skidding feet.

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