By Graham Mackintosh
For over 20 years I’ve been enjoying summer camping and hiking in Baja’s oldest National Park – the spectacular Parque Nacional Sierra de San Pedro Mártir.
I even spent four months up there with two street dogs and no vehicle in the summer of 2001, an experience which gave rise to my third book: Nearer My Dog to Thee.
The mountain range in Northern Baja comprises meadows and undulating granitic and metamorphic ridges, mostly at an elevation between 7,000-9,500 feet, with Baja’s highest peak, the 10,124-foot Picacho Diablo (or more officially Picacho Encantada) rising just outside the park to the east.
The forest of the San Pedro Mártir is a prime example of a healthy, naturally managed, pristine old-growth forest. Many of the trees are huge, much larger than their counterparts in California. Jeffrey and Ponderosa, lodgepole and sugar pines, aspens and white firs are common. The big trees are widely spaced, and there’s relatively little understory to impede hiking, or to fuel catastrophic wildfires. Lightning started fires are common but tend to burn themselves out and do little damage.
Along the eastern edge, the mountains drop precipitously to the San Felipe desert below. And it’s an awesome drive up from the west, leaving Highway Mexico 1 at km 141 just south of the Pemex at San Telmo. Late afternoon, the light reveals ridge after ridge ascending from the often socked-in Pacific to the sun-kissed volcanic slopes of the park.
The San Pedro Mártir is about a 200-mile drive from the border. It’s sixty miles from the highway to the end of the paved road at the observatory. The famed Meling Guest Ranch is roughly midpoint on the drive. Many times, leaving the San Telmo valley, I haven’t seen another vehicle till I reach the park entrance. Indeed, if you keep your eyes open, you’re more than likely to see a condor. I’ve been fortunate to see as many as eight standing beside the road ready to launch into the valleys and canyons below. There are currently 39 condors in the park, including six that were born there.
There is a gate and ranger station at the park entrance where you’re required to stop and pay a fee – currently 64 pesos per person per day, which includes camping facilities. There is the option of buying an annual pass which grants entrance to all the parks and protected areas in Mexico for less than $20 US. The last one I bought was 333 pesos. Sometimes they have these annual “pasaportes” available at the gate; if not, they can be obtained in Ensenada at the Administration office for the park. (Tel: 011-52-646-172-3000 ext 3229).
I’ve always found the rangers to be helpful and accommodating, making a visit even more relaxing and enjoyable. The park promotes the idea of tranquility and the experience of undisturbed nature, so motorcycles and off-road vehicles are banned. And dogs need to be well-behaved and not likely to impact the peace and relaxation of other guests.
There are several named camping areas around the park entrance and just off the paved road; they come with tables, bench seats, trash bins, enclosed pit toilets, and fire pits usually with plenty of wood to burn.
National Parks in the US have a reputation of being “loved to death.” In spite of being served by a new paved road in recent years, the Parque Nacional de San Pedro Mártir is still relatively little visited. Midweek, you may have any of those camping areas, and sometimes even the whole park, to yourself. It is possible and maybe increasingly likely you will run into a church or school group singing around the campfire on the weekend, but my experience has been there are plenty of other camping areas if you want to be by yourself.
If camping is not your scene, cabins are also available at the entrance. Small cabins that sleep up to 4 people rent for 700 pesos; larger cabins that can sleep 8 in 2 rooms are 1,700 pesos a night. Bookings and information can be made using the number mentioned above.
I’ve enjoyed staying in these campgrounds but when I have a dog, I’ve often camped several miles to the east, at the trailhead for hiking to Botella Azul, the high point within the park, and for those attempting to ascend Picacho Diablo. There are very few facilities, so you need to bring everything with you, including tables and chairs, and remove your trash to one of the many bins scattered around the park.
Summer brings different seasons to enjoy in the Mártir. May and June typically have sunny warm days – but be prepared for nights that can be below freezing. Scarlet snow plants dot the forest, and there may be residual snow and running streams.
July and August brings the chance of booming midday monsoonal thunderstorms with possible hail and flash floods. Fortunately for the astronomers at the observatory, the billowing clouds largely dissipate by sunset, leaving cool, clear, starry nights. The forest is often carpeted with rose sage and mushrooms. And nighttime temperatures rarely drop below 40 degrees.
By September, lightning and precipitation are less likely unless a tropical storm or hurricane is impacting Baja. September is usually a dry, pleasant, photogenic time to camp with the aspens turning yellow and gold.
Pili, my corgi, has been a happy camper up there for eight years. Some years she gets to visit twice. It’s always fun to share her excitement when she smells the fresh scent of the pines and knows she’s going to be running free for a week or two.
I usually pitch a tent and Pili gets to sleep on the front passenger seat of the car. After a long day of hiking and having fun, as the temperature drops, she’s ready to get inside and doze. Master takes a little extra settling, enjoying a camp fire and a couple of cold beers and gazing wondrously at the dark night sky. Mosquitoes are often present at dusk, but with dressing for the night and a cursory application of repellent, I’m rarely bitten.
As there’s a real danger from falling trees and limbs and lightning strikes, I always set up camp in the shade of small trees, well away from the tall pines and firs. And I always check which way those trees are leaning before feeling secure.
I haven’t seen a rattlesnake or scorpion inside the park in all the years I’ve been visiting. But certainly rattlers are present. Anti-venom is available at the park entrance.
Among the supplies I take to the park, I usually bring a few cartons of Mexican longlife milk, and of course it has to be Nutra Leche. By coincidence, the cute cow on the carton is named Pili.
Part of my park experience is to just sit quietly and patiently in the shade and let nature show itself. The air is soon lively with bluebirds, violet-tailed swallows, juncos, mountain quail, woodpeckers, flickers, and noisy flocks of raucous, squabbling pinyon jays. For animal company, apart from grazing cows, there are squirrels, bobcats, deer, mountain lions, big horn sheep, and coyotes.
Pili has no trouble amusing herself. She could spend all day stalking the bolder squirrels and juncos and trying to dig up chipmunks, always without result. She’s my eyes and ears, and knows enough not to go after the coyotes which pass singly and in packs day and night. She simply stares and alerts me to their presence, or barks if they invade the camp at night.
The booming daytime lightning and torrential downpours hardly faze her as long as she’s with me inside the vehicle.
The observatory usually welcomes visitors at the weekend between 10 AM and 1 PM, and often offers a fascinating tour of the main telescope building. There are superb views across to Picacho Diablo and down to the desert, and beyond the Sea of Cortez to Sonora.
Midway between the park entrance and the observatory there’s an excellent modern museum (Centro de Cultura para la Conservación) which was inaugurated with great fanfare a few years ago, but unfortunately is usually only open holidays and some weekends, or by special arrangement.
Just south of the observatory, there’s a strenuous steep hike up to a metal viewing platform projecting out over Canyon Diablo—follow the signs to Mirador al Altar.
I’ve enjoyed all those, but for me the greatest attraction of the San Pedro Mártir is the peacefulness, the freedom, and the openness of the forest, especially hiking with Pili anywhere along “Observatory Ridge” with its breathtaking views at the eastern edge of the park.
I never tire of strolling among the rose sage, Indian paintbrush, and other wildflowers, nibbling on wild onions, then picnicking and gazing at Picacho Diablo.
It’s a perfect mix of relaxation and excitement, meditation and healthy exercise. Pili and I can’t wait to return… and when there, we’re rarely in any hurry to leave.