Nearly Uninhabited, Baja’s Sierra La Laguna is an Oasis of Life in the Desert
I have two incredible views from the roof deck of my tiny two-story home in Todos Santos, Baja California, Mexico.
The Pacific Ocean vistas are spectacular. But the longer I live here, the more I am pulled toward the magnificent mountains called the Sierra La Laguna of Southern Baja.
Spectacular mountain views greet hikers at the entrance to Sierra La Laguna Biosphere Preserve
Fall and early winter an ideal time to go for a ramble among these pristine peaks. The weather is cooler and more comfortable. The sun is hanging lower in the sky, which provides dramatic backlighting to native plants.
MADE IN THE SHADE
Richard Scott models desert hiking attire: sun hat, SPF 50 long-sleeved shirt, sunscreen and a trekking pole. On his waist: a belt pack with water and snacks.
One of the things I love about this hike is that even at mid-day, one can walk under a cooling canopy of shady scrub-oak forest. That’s rare at lower elevations in the desert, where a hike usually means a tromp under blazing direct sunlight.
Today I’m hiking with my friend Richard Scott of Todos Santos. We’re doing a moderately challenging half-day walk beginning on the Pacific side. There’s been only one significant tropical rainstorm in Baja this year but that precious moisture has made the desert spring to life in a thousand shades of green.
Well-marked, shaded and gently graded, the lower portion of this hike is a pleasant walk.
The Sierra La Laguna is a range of high peaks stretching from La Paz in the north to Cabo San Lucas in the south, a distance of about 137 miles (220 Km).
Most who make Baja California their destination only notice the Sierra la Laguna from the airplane window. But these serene mountains are undisturbed, undeveloped and often under appreciated.
A recent census of the Sierra La Laguna lists no more than 200 inhabitants widely scattered throughout 35 ranchos. The area is vast, covering more than 112,000 hectares (276,000 acres). In 2000, the park was proclaimed a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its unique biodiversity of plant and animal life.
Martin, a forest ranger, just finished patrolling the high country on horseback. He also serves as a firefighter and trail builder
These peaks are unique among mountains in the southern half of Baja California because they’re granitic rather than volcanic. And unlike the sierras to the north, the entire Laguna range is tilted eastward instead of westward. In other words, the steepest slopes are on the west side of the escarpment rather than the east.
IF YOU’RE INTO BAGGING PEAKS
Picacho de la Laguna (elevation 2,161 m/7,090 ft), roughly in the sierra’s center, is usually cited as the highest peak in the range, although according to some sources Cerro las Casitas—approximately 6.5 kilometers (4 mi) southeast of Picacho de la Laguna and measuring 2,083 meters (6,835 ft) by most accounts—may be higher.
I haven’t yet hiked to the top of Picacho, but Richard Scott has done the climb. He tells me it’s a two-day, butt-kicking, gut-busting, leg-cramping overnight backpacking expedition. Trails are eroded, and hand-0ver-hand scrambling is necessary in some places.
As we drive up the long, sandy road towards the ranger station, we see foothills and mesas below 500 meters in elevation covered with dry, low-growing cacti, succulents, thornscrub, and abundant herbs. Common species include barrel cactus, cholla, palo verde, ironwood, damiana, and oregano. Canyon walls may be draped with zalate (wild fig).
At elevations of 500–750 meters (1,640–2,460 ft), tropical-subtropical deciduous forest and columnar cacti are the dominant flora (e.g., mauto, palo blanco, prickly pear, cardón, palo adán).
Rangers man the entrance desk in front of a beautifully made palo de arco hut. They were equipped with a visitor's log book, a portable radio, and not much else
At 750–1,200 meters (2,460–3,940 ft), live-oak woodlands (encino, madrone) dominate. This is where the drive ends and the hike begins. There’s a chain across the road, and a ranger station made of palo de arco sticks. It was unmanned when we arrived at 9:30 AM. The trail is well-marked; simply follow the signs.
At 1,200 meters a mix of live oak and piñon pine prevails–we didn’t quite make it into this zone during our 90 minute outward bound trek. The trail (actually a fire road) has a gentle grade and would be ideal for mountain biking or horseback riding as well as hiking.
At its highest elevations, La Laguna qualifies as a cloud forest during the moist summer months, when the peaks are consistently shrouded in mist or rain. During the 1800’s there was indeed a shallow laguna (lake) nestled in the peaks. However, erosion caused it to be drained out.
GETTING TO THE TRAILHEAD
The starting point for Richard and I starting is exactly 1.85 miles (2.5 km) north of Todos Santos’ only traffic light on Mexico highway 19. In years past there was a faded traffic sign pointing to Ramal a la Burrera, but it seems to have disappeared.
START HERE: From Todos Santos' only traffic light, drive 1.85 miles south on Mexico Highway 19. Look for this small white shrine to the Virgin Mary on the east side of the road.
Now the turning off point is indicated by a small white shrine to the Virgin Mary on the east side of the highway. On the Sea of Cortez side of the Preserve, the town of Santiago serves as a jumping off point.
For Richard and I, it takes about 75-90 minutes to drive east to the trailhead from the main highway.
If you are coming north from Cabo, look for the memorial in this photo, (above left) located at about kilometer 53.5.
TURN #1: Take the RIGHT HAND FORK at this unmarked junction in the road, heading towards the abandoned lookout tower on the knoll in the distance. You'll see only a small memorial marker, but no direction signs--you're on the right road.
DESERT COMMON SENSE
Observe the rules of desert travel. Make others aware of your travel plans, including expected return time. Start with a full gas tank. Wear sun-proof clothing, a hat, and sunscreen. Carry plenty of water and enough food or snacks. If you bring a dog into the park (they are welcome) , carry water for them, as well as yourself. As of this writing (late October, 2010) low elevation streams are dry.
TURN #2: At this small green shrine at the entrance to a rancho, thake the RIGHT HAND FORK in the road. The shrine is a bit tricky to see--it's slightly hidden behind foliage as you drive up the road.
BACK COUNTRY DRIVING TIPS
Richard and I drove into and out of the park just fine using only the 2-wheel drive of his Toyota Tacoma. However, the road is sandy in places and it was good to know that we had 4WD as a backup in case we needed it. At lower elevations, the road has been used as a off-road race course, so it’s somewhat rough and corrugated. For a more comfortable ride and to greatly improve traction in soft sand, you can let the pressure in your tires down to about 20 psi. This is also a good trick if you become bogged down in sand. Be sure to refill them to normal pressure when you get to a gas station.
PARK ENTRANCE FEES
If rangers are present at the main gate, they will check you in. Entrance fee is 25 pesos per person. You will receive a wrist band indicating that you have paid the entrance fee. Opposite the ranger station, there is a crude outhouse made of palo de arco sticks; you may wish to bring your own supply of TP. There is no water or electricity at the ranger station, although rangers did have a portable radio.