Baja. That single word holds much more than just one collection of letters. It’s a wild untamed frontier. It’s a wilderness that can be both stunningly beautiful and destructively rugged. It’s ranches and farms, villages and cities. It’s pine forest-covered mountains that soar to 10,000 feet, it’s hot dusty deserts, cool lakes, babbling brooks, miles upon miles of coastline, and azure oceans. It’s also a place of good food and good people.
The founder of Camp4Lo has been racing through and exploring the backcountry of the Baja California peninsula from tip to border for more than 30 years, and the company’s expertise in navigating the region’s roads, trails, accommodations, customs, and peculiarities is well developed. Camp4Lo offers a handful of adventures, two of the most popular being wrapped around and leading up to the largest off-road races held there, the Baja 500 and Baja 1000. Best of all, you drive your own Jeep.
A visit to this small cave (it was about 100 feet deep) on the coastline near Punta Colonet offered a nice break after the fast run up the beach. The beach offered well-packed sand, and was a blast to drive on, but at high tide the water came all the way up to the cliffs. Proper timing of your visit to the cave and beach at Colonet is essential.
Having explored Baja and been involved with off-road racing for many decades, I was intrigued and wanted to learn more about Camp4Lo. As it turned out, my discovery was well timed. Camp4Lo was in the planning stages of a dual-purpose adventure: to locate and run the Pole Line Road (a new route for Camp4Lo), traverse the width of the peninsula through the mountains from east to west, and end up in the perfect place to be a Baja 1000 spectator.
The Pole Line Road was built in 1942 when the U.S. Army believed that the Japanese Army might make beach landings in Baja and march north to attack San Diego, the largest naval base of operations on the west coast of the United States. Two radar stations on the Pacific coast near Ensenada, one on the Gulf (of California) coast near San Felipe, telephone poles to link the two sides, and a dirt road to help erect and maintain the poles and lines were created. Within a few decades, the road and its poles were all but invisible due to erosion and weathering. However, some intrepid Baja explorers had found traces of it, and were driving it in 4x4s for pleasure.
Two of the three rigs on our trip were a ’95 YJ Wrangler belonging to Big Limey (with your author in co-dawg seat) and a ’01 TJ Wrangler owned by Yolo, with Yeti sharing the wheel when not navigating. Crockett brought his ’07 Taco’ (but we liked him anyway) with our Camp4Lo host/guide/navigator Tubs in the passenger seat, and Chopper as passenger. While much of the off-roading was on mixed-surface dirt (photo on the way from Mike’s Sky Rancho to Rancho El Coyote), the terrain during the trip ranged from graded roads and deep silt to sandy washes and rock-pocked trails.
Here was a chance to see new territory and watch the most famous off-road race in the world from the side of the racecourse. I was in. So were six other people. On the Monday of race week, we crossed the border at Calexico and headed south in three 4x4 vehicles. As with any great adventure, within hours, we had all been tagged with nicknames.
The crew consisted of an already adventurous couple living an off-grid lifestyle, “Yolo” and “Yeti,” in her ’01 TJ; “Big Limey” (a Brit who calls California home and is no novice to Baja in his ’95 YJ) and “Lens” (your author); and “Crockett” driving his ’07 Taco’ with two passengers, “Tubbs” (the Camp4Lo honcho/host/chief navigator) and “Chopper,” a Calgary, Canada-based motorcycle enthusiast not new to the paved roads of Mexico, but about to experience his first off-road adventure in Baja. To say we had a good time would be ridiculously understated, and we’re already talking about going again. For more information on Camp4Lo Baja adventures, check out camp4lo.com.
Much of the trail we followed that was once the eastern terminus of the Pole Line Road was now nearly indistinguishable as a road, or even a trail. The GPS coordinates told us we were on the right track, but approximately 75 years of weathering have obliterated much of it.
We knew we were on a portion of the Pole Line Road when we came across this fragment of glass insulator on the trail. The dirt road was cut through the mountains from San Felipe to Ensenada in 1942 to support radar stations and a telephone line because the U.S. Army feared the Japanese would invade California through Baja.
We found remnants (including what was left of this telephone pole) of the eastern entrance to the Pole Line Road that crossed the Baja peninsula. However, years of flash floods had carved away the road leading into a deep canyon. The sheer 50-foot drop that remained stymied our efforts, and we lost the better part of a day looking for a go-around.
We spent the first night on the trail camping on the shoulders of the Sierra Las Pintas mountain range northwest of San Felipe. We’ll come back to find the rest of the Pole Line Road’s eastern entrance, but we had other objectives on this trip and a schedule to keep.
Our first night’s campsite was dwarfed by the immensity of the Baja desert plain stretching eastward from the foot of the Sierra Las Pintas. The solitude and quiet of the vast desert was a welcome respite from the busy lives we had all left behind for a few days.
The second day of our Camp4Lo Baja Adventure included some highway time. Our destination was Valle De La Trinidad, a ranching and farming community in the mountains between San Felipe and Ensenada. The Baja 1000 was starting that week, and racers were out pre-running the course, so a racecar on the highway was a common sight.
When in Baja, tacos are the main course, authentic, and found almost everywhere. The premier taco stand in Valle De La Trinidad was Asadero El Rancho. “Chopper” (passenger in the Taco’, rock stacker, lone Canadian, and surprisingly the most fluent in Spanish of the group) and “Yolo” checked out the menu, and then placed orders for the entire crew. This is a popular stop, especially during races, and the tacos are a 10.
The other great thing about our stop in Valle De La Trinidad was the high number of welders available in the very small town. A healthy sized boulder had been struck causing a crack to begin forming in a front lower link bracket of the TJ the day before, but a local with good skills (you’ll find plenty of that in Baja) fixed it in a matter of minutes.
After our lunch stop at Valle De La Trinidad, we pressed on to Mike’s Sky Rancho. The trail was long and dusty, but splashing around in the stream crossing at the entrance to Mike’s made us forget about all the dirt in our teeth. We enjoyed a brief stop for refreshment at Mike’s bar, and then hit the trail for Rancho El Coyote Meling.
The trail from Mike’s Sky Rancho to Rancho El Coyote Meling was long, and while relatively easy for most of its length (seen here as the sun was setting), we came across some tough stretches in the dark. We had good lighting on our vehicles, and we suggest you do the same for any Baja adventure.
Seen here in the light of the next morning, Rancho El Coyote Meling is a working guest ranch that sits at about 4,000 feet elevation in the heart of the Sierra De San Pedro Martir. The main ranch house offers a large dining room in which home-cooked meals are offered.
Our crew enjoyed dinner upon arrival, and a bountiful breakfast the following morning in the dining room of Rancho El Coyote Meling. Clockwise from lower left are Chopper, Tubs, Big Limey, Crockett, Yolo, and Yeti.
A handful of bunkhouses at Rancho El Coyote Meling offer real beds, wood-burning stoves, and porch-side parking. A clean bathroom and shower make them extra nice. Refrigerators are not available, but a cooler full of ice (refreshed earlier in Valle De La Trinidad) worked just fine for our purposes.
After leaving El Coyote, we traveled over a few miles of dirt, many miles of highway, and then a few more miles of dirt, arriving finally at Cuatro Casas Hostel on the Pacific Ocean, our abode for the next two nights. While it’s a classic “hostel” with a home-sized facility with multiple bedrooms and a single bathroom/shower, there are few private rooms upstairs. A large dining room is also upstairs where home-cooked meals are available.
Cuatro Casas sits out on the northern point of a large bay, and is miles from the highway and the town of Colonet. The cliff-side parking lot offers a sensational ocean view. A wooden staircase leads to the cobblestone beach below, and it’s no surprise that for decades this has been a favorite spot for off-roaders.
Arriving at Cuatro Casas in the early afternoon allowed us time to explore the local sites. An easily accessible coastline exists west of Colonet, including a small dune complex and many miles of beach to drive on.
South of Cuatro Casas is a famous sight along this stretch of the Baja peninsula. It’s called Shipwreck’s at Punta San Jacinto. It’s an actual shipwreck on the cobblestone beach that has deteriorated over the years. While there’s a vestige of the ship left, the corrosive effects of wind, sun, and seawater are eating it away at a rapid pace.
The final full day of our Camp4Lo Baja adventure was spent watching the high-horsepower race trucks, and dozens of race buggies and other vehicles, competing in the Baja 1000, the world’s most famous off-road race. The racecourse ran within a quarter-mile of Cuatro Casas, making it the perfect location for spectators.
Our last night on the Camp4Lo Baja adventure was spent hanging around the campfire with new friends, and watching the incredible sunset in the sky above and the crashing waves on the beach below.
After nearly a week four-wheeling through Baja, we were sad to leave, but we began the drive home with a run through the deep silt bed that all the Baja 1000 competitors had plowed through the previous day. That made us very happy. Good times!