For two months, you've put up with my reminiscences of Baja. I'd like to tell
you about one more trip down there and then I'll stop. Back when Tom McMullen was president of McMullen Publishing and I was at the helm of 4 Wheel Drive & Sport Utility magazine, Tom wanted to check out Baja California between the Sierra Juarez and Laguna Salada, ending up at Agua Caliente, an obscure oasis in the desert hills. There were a number of interesting canyons and oasis to explore along the way. We invited a number of people to come with us, so had quite a group of vehicles including trucks, Broncos, and Jeeps.
We met on a Wednesday evening in Ocotillo, California, and after a final (?)
dinner at Denny's, Tom suggested we head south from there and check out a place
he knew about. It was well after dark, but we hopped in our vehicles and took
off. We wasted precious gas traveling down two canyons that turned into slots,
then ended in high rock waterfalls. Backtracking a bit and heading east, we
found a large break in the hills with a wide wash going south and a BLM route
marker on it. We all took off down this wash, spreading out until we could only
see the glow of each other's lights every once in a while bouncing up and down
through the desert.
After a few miles of this, I saw the lights of a power station and a highway up
ahead. It turned out to be Highway 2 in Baja California. We had passed no
border fence, line, or anything else to indicate we'd passed from the United
States into Mexico. Things have changed since then. So, we regrouped on the
pavement, went east a little ways, then turned south on the dirt road that
paralleled Laguna Salada. Now it was time to really move. We tried to go much
faster, but ended up going about 50-55 mph, as that was all our archaic
suspensions and shocks could take. When we finally stopped to make camp for the
night, my shocks were too hot to touch and had burned the labels off!
The next morning, we checked the map and the brand new GPS unit Mark Gonske had brought from his day job as a Major in the USAF Space Command and pinpointed where we were. This was the first time any of us had seen a GPS unit. All the satellites weren't up yet, but it still worked very well. Anyway, it showed
that we were near El Palomar, one of the canyons we wanted to explore, so off we
went. The beginning of El Palomar turned out be a beautiful, wide flat wash
with white sand and palm trees along it. The sand ended in big boulders, where
we dismounted and hiked a ways, marveling at the prehistoric rock art all along
the canyon. We went back to the vehicles and backtracked to the dirt road,
heading over a ridge to the next canyon.
Tom McMullen was a character. He couldn't wait to go on a trip, then couldn't
wait to blast through it and get home. Tom was having a fit because we didn't
want to just go straight to Agua Caliente, then straight home. We told him that
we hadn't come all the way down to Baja to not look around, so we headed up the
next canyon, leaving Tom to pout at the canyon's mouth. As we followed the
track up this canyon we soon encountered a rushing stream, criss-crossing it as
the road crossed the canyon from side to side. We rounded a corner and a
fantastic view met our eyes. Hundreds of palm trees filled the canyon, growing
around a series of springs that fed the rushing stream we'd been following. It
was very beautiful and a great place to eat lunch. As we were eating, Mark
brought the GPS and map over and showed us that we had actually reentered El
Palomar further up, so this was the same canyon we had explored earlier that
After lunch, we started back down the canyon, helping a few in our party who
high centered and got stuck in some of the stream crossings. At the mouth of
the canyon, we found that Tom had finally let his impatience get the better of
him and had left for home. His adventures on the trip back are another story.
We turned south and headed for Agua Caliente. Mid-afternoon, we heard Rick
Russell of Sidekick Off-Road on the radio. We contacted him and it turned out
he had brought a few friends down to Baja and was poking around just as we were.
We told each other where we thought we were and tried to meet. After about an
hour of going up and down washes and over ridges, we were sitting in a wide
sandy wash and were about to tell Rick we'd see him at home, when I looked up,
keyed the microphone and facetiously said, "We're right under a circling hawk."
Rick immediately came back with, "We're under a hawk, too!" It turned out they
were on the other side of a small berm with Ironwood trees that were blocking
our view. Our parties joined up and we commenced our trip to Agua Caliente.
A few miles south we came upon an interesting looking side canyon so, of course,
we headed up it. As the walls got higher and the canyon narrower, imagine our
surprise as we rounded a bend and came upon a villa perched high on one of the
canyon's walls! There was a swimming pool, veranda, heliport, and no road to
it. Being fairly foolish and curious to see what was up there, Charlie Currie,
John Currie, Raymond Currie, and I took our Jeeps and climbed the steep talus
slope up to the pool deck and parked by a veranda. Luckily, no one was there,
as this turned out to be the Governor's hunting lodge. The rest of our group,
looking small on the canyon floor, turned around and started back down. We slid
our Jeeps down the slope and followed.
That night, we made camp and enjoyed watching Kent Anderson of Rancho Suspension make Margaritas using and air impact gun and a blender. There was wood everywhere, so we built a giant campfire and spent the evening telling tall
tales of past off-roading adventures. That is, all the tales were tall except
mine, which were, of course, all true. One of our party, Dennis Fulton, snored
so loud that we looked for places to sleep that were far away from where he was.
I went across a wash, up a hill and found a flat spot overlooking the valley to
camp. I still didn't sleep that night as the sound of Dennis' snoring reverberated around the valley and off the cliff walls.
The next morning, Mark's GPS showed that we were very close to Agua Caliente.
Off we went, finally arriving at two anemic palm trees with a few shacks under
them that a member of our group and self-proclaimed Baja expert said was Agua
Caliente. I thought that this was a pretty sad place to make a destination, until Mark said that the GPS showed we still had to go 3.8 miles southwest to the Agua Caliente on the map. Our Baja expert stated that where we were was the Agua Caliente they had been visiting for years. The rest of us said let's go see the real place. After rounding up Frank Currie and FOJ, who'd been racing each other up and down a broad sandy wash, we found a small track over some cactus-covered hills and entered another valley filled with hundreds of palm trees. There was a Spanish church and a graveyard that were so old all the inscriptions had weathered away. We gave the old man and his burro, the only inhabitants we found here, food and water, relaxed, had lunch, then discussed how we were going to get home.
One of the group suggested we follow the Baja 1000 race course from the year
before that was just south of us and went over the mountains to Independencia.
That sounded good, as all of us were getting low on gas. As we traveled the
course, we came upon broken wheels, torn tires, and other evidence that a desert
race had taken place here. The course here wasn't rough at speed we were going,
so we had a chance to enjoy the view of the fantastic Baja scenery of giant
cactus, pine trees further up the slopes, and vistas that stretched for hundreds
of miles. I was not enjoying, though, the view of my fuel gauge that now showed
empty. As we started down the mountainside toward Independencia, my engine
sputtered, coughed a few times, and died. Rick Russell drove up and we siphoned
a couple of gallons out of his tank, enough to get me off the mountain. We
gassed up in Independencia and hit the paved road north toward the United
I have always remembered this trip to Baja, as has almost everyone else who were
fortunate enough to go along. One of these days we're going to do it again
(except for the border part, of course). There are many reasons why we like to
go off-road, but exploring and seeing new and remote places are, in my opinion,
two of the best. No matter what we drive, if it gets us out there and back,
it's great. It's Off-Roading.