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July 2011 4Word - Editorial

Posted in Features on July 1, 2011
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For two months, you’ve put up with my reminiscences of Baja. I’d like to tell you about just one more trip down there.

Back when Tom McMullen was president of McMullen Publishing and I was at the helm of 4WD&SU during my first stint as editor-in-chief, Tom wanted to check out Baja California between the Sierra Juarez and Laguna Salada. We ended up at Agua Caliente, an obscure oasis in the desert hills. There were interesting canyons and oasis to explore along the way. We had invited a number of people to come with us, so we had quite a group of vehicles.

We met on a Wednesday evening in Ocotillo, California, and after dinner at Denny’s, Tom suggested we head south from there and check out a place he knew. It was well after dark, but we hopped in our vehicles and wasted precious gas exploring 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 took off down this wash, spreading out until we could only see the glow of each other’s lights occasionally as we bounced 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 or anything else to indicate we’d traveled from the United States into Mexico. Things have changed since then. We regrouped on the pavement, went east, then turned south on the dirt road to the west of Laguna Salada. Now it was time to step on it. We tried to go much faster, but ended up settling on 50 to 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 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. The GPS 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 and flat wash with white sand and palm trees along it. The sand ended in big boulders, where we dismounted and hiked, 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 go straight to Agua Caliente, then straight home. We told him that we hadn’t come all the way down to Baja go immediately home, 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 and crisscrossed it as the road traversed 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. While we were eating, Mark showed us on the GPS and map that we had actually reentered El Palomar further up.

After lunch, we started back down the canyon, helping a few in our party who high-centered and were stuck in 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. He had brought a few friends down to Baja, and they were 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 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, climbed the steep talus slope up to the pool deck, and parked by the 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 watched Kent Anderson of Rancho Suspension make blended drinks using an 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 I looked for a place to sleep that was 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 a self-proclaimed Baja expert said was Agua Caliente. I thought that this was a sad place to make as 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 a friend nicknamed FOJ (who’d been using precious gas 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 palm trees. There was a Spanish church and graves that were so old all the inscriptions had weathered away. We gave an old man and his burro, the only inhabitants we found here, food and water. We relaxed, had lunch, then discussed how we were going to get home.

Ray Currie 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 wasn’t rough at the speeds we were going, so we had a chance to enjoy the view of the fantastic Baja scenery, which included giant cacti, 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 States.

I have always remembered this trip, 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.

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