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.
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.
Jay and I keep looking at the map, agreeing where we want to go, then finding that the terrain and vegetation won't take us there. Rachel's pace has slowed to a crawl, further stressing everyone. At first I think she's just tired, but slowly I begin to suspect that she's terrified at not knowing how the hell we're going to get wherever it is we're trying to go. I try every ruse in my old mountain-guiding bag of tricks to make her feel better. Me: empathetic. She: glowering. Me: gentle prodding. She: stubborn resistance. Me: rhapsodies on the joy of adventure. She: sullen silence backed by a "you've got to be kidding" stare. Then I think it must be a blood sugar problem. I offer her my Clif Bar and she grabs it, saying nothing. Finally, when I'm scouting out of her sight, Jay reveals that Rachel is furious. Her slow-down strike is aimed at the leader-that would be me-in whom she's lost all faith.
"We have to get out of this creekbed," says Jay. "It's way too difficult and dangerous for an inexperienced scrambler." Ken agrees, though he has a knack for such travel.
The sun has dropped below the western rim of the Sierra by the time we reach the ridgeline. No matter, for here, plain as the blood pooling on our arms, is a dirt trail leading right where it should along the open crest of the gently descending ridge. Our joyous chorus is answered from across the valley by the plaintive moos of errant cows. Never again will we trust bovine judgment.
Winter night falls at 6:15, sharp. Rachel is all smiles, white teeth and sparkling eyes reflecting in the glow of our lantern. There's nothing like a trail to brighten moods after a few hours adrift in untracked wilderness. Coyotes yap and howl to the north across the huge San Dionisio Canyon, while stars cap our soaring spirits. My companions are asleep by 8 after counting out the quarts of water: one each for personal rations tomorrow, plus a shared quart for breakfast. While the others sleep, my eyes burn holes in the map trying to interpret the landscape. We spent this entire afternoon covering 1.5 crow-miles. Tomorrow there's 5 to travel, and the contours look much steeper and more convoluted. We must maintain the trail. And the ridge. But what if they diverge again?
We're off at dawn. Ken is having a relapse of the flu that kept him in bed that first cold morning. His body needs sleep, but I'm too nervous to give him any rest. In no time, we reach a fork in our ridgetop path. Jay and I leave Ken and Rachel at the known trail and split to scout the two unknowns. It's a pattern we'll repeat time after time: Split, compare notes, and pick the way. The going is slow, at times uncertain, but we keep a steady pace. We're looking for paths, shown mostly by machete cuts, which are as good as blazes. Morale is high until finally the ridge cliffs out. After an hour's scouting, we find no alternative but to drop into steep brush tunnels leading straight down the hillside. What do you know, it works. Finally machete marks again, and at long, long last, a pool of water between boulders in a flat-bottomed, palm-fringed canyon. We pump our filter and guzzle water, giggling with relief.
By midafternoon, after a couple of hours of boulder-hopping and sometimes tricky scrambling down the arroyo (a dry riverbed), the wilderness finally spits us onto the blunt end of a dusty road. I have but one thought on my mind: Where are my girls? And then I hear the tinkling of Siena's voice from the shady side of a grove of palms. She gets a big hug from her smelly, unkempt dad before he flips the lid on an ice-box full of cerveza.
Rachel, sitting on her pack, is a new woman. Her bright gray eyes and huge grin scream out: "I'm alive and isn't that great!" Adele, who worried about Rachel's limited backcountry experience, asks her about the route.
Rachel turns to look back at the mountain and fairly gushes, "Wow! It was so beautiful, especially once we reached the riverbed!" She takes a cold swig, but her emotions keep tumbling out. "It was hard, but it was just so worth it. When I look back at those mountains, I can't believe what I accomplished."
"Would you do it again?"
"Oh, definitely...next year, that is!"
While we regale each other with stories of our errant ways, my eyes scan the surrounding hills. Relieved of my "leadership," I'm suddenly curious about rugged, boulder-strewn streambeds leading deep into wild exotic hills. Jay says he's up for more exploration-next year, that is. Ken is still green in the gills and has his sights set on nothing more distant than tonight's mattress.
Meanwhile, Adele and Siena spin tales of sand castles built with new friends on white-sand beaches. From their radiant smiles, I can read our destiny. Midwinter Baja migrations are already hardwired into our brains. Who knows what semifrozen glop is falling from Oregon's weeping sky. Better yet, who cares?
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.
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.
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.
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.