Adventures in Baja Hiking

Our hiking adventures on the Baja got off to a rocky start. For that matter, they continued to be pretty rocky the whole time, just more literally than figuratively. And steep and rocky has continued to be the theme. For two lovers of hiking and backpacking trying to instill the love of hiking in two young kids with still-short legs, it has been a somewhat frustrating prospect. But the fun part is that we have found something new and unexpected around each bend, and the irony is that the extra challenge has made the successful attempts that much sweeter. Even the I’m-going-to-whine-about-how-hot-and-tired-I-am-even-before-we’ve-started Andy is now (sometimes) completing three hour hikes with nary a complaint. I call that success.

Forgoing the scramble for enjoying the beach at Isla San Martin, a day’s sail south of Ensenada

Our first attempt at hiking at a park on the outskirts of Ensenada resulted in our Uber driver turning us around after decoding a sign at the park that said something about noxious poisons and fumigating for bugs. Back to Ensenada we went. Our second attempt – on Isla San Martin – resulted similarly in a decision to stay on the beach because taking two young children on a rocky, cactus-strewn bushwhacking scramble up a steep mountain after an overnight passage required more energy and patience than we had that day.

Flowers on the brush at Bahia Santa Maria

Our third attempt – in the beautiful Bahia Santa Maria two-thirds of the way down Baja’s Pacific coast – was a little more successful. We walked along the trail and marveled at the array of purple, pink, and yellow flowers sprouting tiny and brilliant on hillsides that, from a distance, had looked so lifeless, dry, and endlessly brown. However, our efforts to get us all back to the boat safely after that short hike resulted in the children being ferried on my shoulders out past the crashing surf while Sara and Tom, chest deep in the water, tried to hold the dinghy steady in the swell (no pictures, we were a little busy and wet). The next day, despite a strong desire to go back ashore for a longer hike, we examined landing spot after landing spot and decided the surf was far too big for us to navigate safely. It was a disappointed afternoon we spent aboard the boat that day.

Dinghy-eating surf at Bahia Santa Maria

We were excited to land on the red volcanic islands of Isla Espiritu Santo and Isla Partida, which are part of Mexico’s National Park system and boast a few marked trails and plenty of unmarked scrambles. But our first attempt at the hike in Ensenada Grande showed us what to expect on those so-called “trails.” A cairn marked the start of a trail, and the first 50 yards offered a narrow and over-grown, but still clear trail through the brush. Then the boulders began. The remainder of the trail was marked with little posts, saying turn right, turn left, or go straight. Under normal circumstances, that might be useful, but when you’re facing an canyon full of massive red boulders, “go straight” isn’t entirely straightforward.

Kids scrambling up the boulders at Ensenada Grande

Much clearer was the similarly bouldery hike a few anchorages south in El Mezteno. Instead of vague signs, it actually was well-marked with cairns. Even an hour up my climb into the canyon, which I had ventured into alone armed with water, a half a packet of crackers, and a radio, there were still clear cairns marking the trail, or um, way. Only at one point, in a grove dense with brush and cacti and even a few trees, did I have to poke around a little and elevate myself on a rock to find the next cairn. Making a mental note of the landmarks around me at that unclear spot, I continued on and never lost the path again.

Our first real (i.e. free of boulders) hike came in La Paz. After weeks there and desperate for a little wilderness, we went in search of a nearby hike, which we found at Cerro de la Calavera (the trailhead is near Marina Palmira). We couldn’t find a bus that would go there, but we shelled out the $3 for an Uber to take us and gave vague directions that we had found online. The driver asked where to drop us. “Um… maybe there,” was my totally unsure response, looking forward at a dirt road that looked more like an entry into a private construction site than a trailhead. But the directions online said the trail started a little way down the road, and once we could see it up above us on the hill, we scrambled up a steep, rocky escarpment. The rest of the trail was fairly easy and pleasant, with the one exception that we had chosen to do the hike right smack dab in the middle of a 90 degree day. But the hike was short and worth the view, so I guess that means it was worth the whining.

Hiking at Cerro de la Calavera in La Paz

Another proper hike came at Caleta Lobos, an anchorage just north of La Paz. It’s only vice being a colony of flies and bees, Caleta Lobos is a beautiful and fun anchorage with plenty to keep everybody busy. We could see the trail snaking up the hill behind us, and the way to get there was – you guessed it – a steep, rocky cut in the hillside. Sense the theme? We scrambled and climbed up it using all four limbs, then proceeded along a refreshingly normal trail that gave us a beautiful view over La Paz’s little peninsula in both directions as well as the deep green mangrove lagoon below.

The kids taking a digging break on the trail out of Caleta Lobos

Isla San Francisco, where we holed up for three days to wait out a northerly wind storm, offered plenty of fun exploring. We bounced our way across the salt flats, tasted salt from the salt ponds, and examined the vast array of cacti on this dry, protected island. As we meandered up a benign-looking hillside and neared the top, we heard Dylan scream “Andy, stop, don’t go any further! Andy get down!” And he grabbed Andy’s life jacket and made him sit on the ground. Ten feet from them, right where the trail continued along the ridge, was a cliff going almost straight down to the rocks and crashing waves below. Hurray for our safety-boy. We praised him for his quick thinking and automatic response, though it gave him nightmares for days. That hike was, however, very worth the view, as we could see the raging white caps in the San Jose Channel and our little Korvessa tucked into the protected (though not totally calm) waters of the big bay.

Korvessa anchored in protected waters of Isla San Francisco while the San Jose Channel is white with large waves.

Not precisely a hike, but a long walk out to the salt pond on Isla Carmen proved a playground of rusty, sharp fun for all the boat kids. A salt mining operation on the island had shut down in thee early 1980’s, and the remnants of that once bustling industry sat rusting in the flat sand. For any of us, it may be a sad sight, but for kids it offers only hours of fun and play.

A day later, in the anchorage of Punta Perico also on Isla Carmen, we took a long walk up an arroyo (a wash, or small canyon), where we found a dead turtle and lots of bighorn sheep bones. The kids played “run ahead and hide then jump out and scare the adults” the whole way up. I didn’t see my little 4-year-old for most of the way up the arroyo. But Andy is learning to keep up with the big kids, and I saw that the rockiness this time was actually a help to him rather than a hindrance. Our big mistake on this hike was not bringing enough water. Even on a relatively cool day in Mexico, the midday sun can be scorching, especially when you get into the still air of a canyon. Yes, we were out hiking in the middle of the day again.

Our most recent hike was in Puerto Escondido, a port just south of the town of Loreto. We ended up having a little trouble finding the trailhead, so we started our hike from the end rather than the beginning (though I guess that depends on which way you’re facing). We saw a roughly drawn map showing that the “view trail” would be 1.3 kilometers. Sounded good to us, especially since we were only armed with 3 water bottles and a bag of chips. But we soon learned that that 1.3 km was only half the trail. Once we hit the end of that trail and had to turn, we still had another 1.5 or more km to go to actually get off the trail and back onto the road. Oops. And it was midday. Again. Why do we keep doing this? Seriously. The reality is that getting kids ready to go in the morning is as hard (if not harder) than getting them ready to go on land, and we inevitably are more focused on getting them out the door (um, hatch) with shoes and lifejackets on rather than thinking about the long term plan. And when what is supposed to be a one hour walk turns into a 3.5-hour steep hike, you just have to roll with it and stay positive.

Sandi on the ridge trail at Puerto Escondido

But there were multiple joys in this particular hike. First, there was a rudimentary map with distance estimates. Even though it was a little misleading, it was still something! Second, Andy and Dylan delighted at finding painted rocks all along the view trail. It made it pretty easy to keep them moving. Actually, that wouldn’t have been hard. They both pretended to be the “Thunder Mountain Railroad” train as they raced along the beautiful trail with bluffs plummeting down to the blue water below. We trusted all the brush and cacti would halt their fall. Third, In the three and a half hours of hiking, I think I only heard one complaint from the boys. I heard more from Tom, who was hungry and hot. The kids just kept trekking along as we made our way up and down the rocky ledges to the safety of the valley below.

Kids happy with one of their first painted rock finds. Andy kept calling them surprise eggs!

Hiking on the Baja hasn’t always proved straightforward. It’s not as simple as finding a trailhead, parking your car, and making your way up a nicely maintained and clearly marked trail. But the difference is refreshing. Even Tom was intrigued to see some non-reinforced steps on one of the trails that in the Pacific Northwest would have turned immediately into a waterfall, but here in this more barren land works pretty well. We see something new every time we venture up into each arroyo or canyon or salt plain. We’re learning to be prepared for rocks and boulders and to look out for snakes and cacti. And one of these days, eventually, we will learn not to venture out during the hottest part of the day!

Scrambling down a steep and rocky trail near Puerto Escondido
View Trail at Puerto Escondido
View over Coyote Point to Isla Danzante (right) and Isla Carmen (left)
Tired kids enjoying a cold drink after the long hike
A rare successful family selfie
The salt pond at Isla Carmen
Bighorn sheep bones on the hike up the arroyo at Punta Perico
The bluff at Isla San Francisco
Andy on the hike at Ensenada Grande

6 thoughts on “Adventures in Baja Hiking”

  1. Sorry my directions to the Puerto Escondido weren’t too helpful but very glad you found your way! That’s one way to get the kids to sleep well at night, good for you!

    1. Roberta, I revisited your directions after the fact, and they were just fine. Honestly, we just didn’t look hard enough or pay enough attention on the way out, because the person at the marina said we had to walk around the hill first. No worries! The kids (and we) definitely slept well.

    1. Thanks, Ben. Yes, they are loving the outdoor experience. Our oldest, in fact, is at his prime in the wilderness. He enjoys cities for a spell, but really prefers being outdoors in the wilds.

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