As a prelude to adventuring in Baja, consider getting off of the freeway to enjoy these roads near the US/Mexican border. Motorcyclists especially will enjoy the scenic swoops through a rural California landscape of hills studded with oak trees. If you’re headed down the Baja peninsula on MEX 1, this makes sense. Not so much if you are coming from the east headed for one of the two Mexicali border crossings although it’s worth the detour. Maybe you can catch what you missed on your return to the US.
THE BORDER ROUTE
A lot of travelers cross into Mexico at Mexicali and head west. It isn’t pretty and there are lots of big trucks so instead I suggest staying on the California side to enjoy rural Route 94. Click on my interactive Google map to get your bearings.
East of Tecate, off of Old Highway 80, you’ll find the reasonably-priced, pet-friendly, clothing-optional Jacumba Hot Springs Resort (spa, restaurant, bar, and hotel). (See Yelp reviews.) Interestingly, Jacumba used to be a escape for movie stars at the turn of the 20th century. Borrego Springs, on the route I’ll describe further down the page, was also a celebrity hideaway for stars as prominent as Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby, and John Wayne.
Farther west, after Hwy 80 meanders north through the ghost town of Bankhead Springs (video) and becomes Hwy 94, you might want to stop at the little town of Campo with its three museums: Motor Transport Museum, Gaskill Brothers Stone Museum, and the Pacific Southwest Railway Museum. (Check out this video.)
Northwest of Tecate you’ll pass through the quaint, western towns of Barrett Junction and Dulzera. Stop at the Barrett Junction Cafe for a taste of Mexico and last chance for camping supplies north of the border. Sit out on the porch and watch the motorcyclists zoom by.
BORDER CHECKS IN CALIFORNIA
This area is understandably under heavy patrol by border guards. One day I was surprised by a guard climbing out of a ditch while, on the other side, another guard emerged from beating the bushes. Don’t worry. It’s rare to be stopped southbound and common for northbound travelers. If you are stopped, just be polite, flip up your visor, and take off your sunglasses. Consider this a practice run for the military checkpoints in Baja. As explained in the Driving Mexico page:
Don’t be frightened; they’re there to find contraband and drugs. As you approach the checkpoint, slow down & roll down your window. They might ask you a few questions about where you’re going and where you’ve been and may ask to do a routine check of the vehicle. It’s likely that they will not speak English so be prepared to hear phrases “Adonde va?” (“Where are you going?”) and “De donde viene?” (“Where are you coming from?”). Be courteous and cooperative and you’ll be on your way in no time.
They may also ask you to get out of the vehicle or say that they want to search it. If they want to search your vehicle, be cooperative, but be sure to keep an eye on them as they search through your belongings. These young men are from all over Mexico and for novice Spanish speakers you may have trouble with the accent. Mostly (southbound) they’ll say adelante, which sounds like “al-on-tay,” usually with a waving motion that means, go ahead.
A note for off-road travelers: Border patrol may warn you away from the many off road routes near the border but you have the right to use them if you wish. Do not trespass on private property. Many locals enjoy the hunting and fishing and, in the season, some residents may be protecting their grows.
OTHER SCENIC TOURS NEAR THE BORDER
For motorcyclists, I highly recommend taking the half-day (without stops) tour in California mapped below. This rough figure 8 includes the Anza Borrego Desert (the largest state park in the USA) on one side adjacent to the Cleveland National Forest and on the other side, the Laguna Mountains. This area is a huge playground for nature lovers, hikers, bikers, motorcyclists, campers, and travelers of all kinds. There are lots of RVs tootling around, too. Be warned, if you tend to get carsick you’re not going to enjoy this route. Click the interactive map to figure out how to get there from your location.
I’ve marked points of interest on the map. Motorcyclists will especially love the twisties and sweeping curves, along with the rises and falls in elevation. Pack your cold weather gear, it can get chilly on the Sunrise Highway. (The Pacific Coast of Baja can also be chilly and foggy at times.)
You’ll also notice that Joshua Tree National Park is nearby. The town Joshua Tree is a rather funky, artsy town and it’s definitely worth a stop for further exploration, especially if you go in for UFOs and tie dye.
You may be intrigued by the Salton Sea as well, but this former pristine watersports playground in the desert of California is now an environmental disaster. The mighty Colorado River used to feed the lake, emerging on the other side, but now it is a dismal pond surrounded by commercial agriculture, whose shoreline is laced with flopping, dying, stinking fish. Created by a crack in the San Andreas Fault, you can see that sometime long, long ago that it was part of the Sea of Cortez.
Borrego Springs is a funky little desert town and a great base for exploring the parks. It’s one of the few dark sky communities worldwide, so bring your telescope or join a tour. (I would argue, however, that most of Baja is equal or superior because of its lack of city lights, though it’s hard to find an astronomer to guide you.)
Other Borrego attractions include Galleta Meadows, a collection of huge metal sculptures of prehistoric creatures both real and imagined, a visitor center with a short hike to get up close to the desert landscape and Bighorn Sheep, free camping anywhere in the park, and a swank RV park and campground with a big salt-water pool and four hot springs open all day and night.
Up in the hills, get a taste of Baja to come at Mister Manitas Taco Bar and Fruteria at Julian Station. Leave room for dessert and coffee at the Julian Pie Company a few miles down the road in Santa Ysabel. Stock up on supplies at Don’s Market next door. They’re famous for their butcher shop and supply the other groceries and restaurants in the area. Oh… and study the Mexican import rules before you shop. Beef, poultry, and fish, even packaged and sealed, are not allowed across the border. Find out more, here. (You can shop at Costco, Sam’s Club, Walmart, and other big stores in Ensenada, instead.)
THE TECATE CROSSING
The Tecate crossing is easy. Get your FMM Tourist Card and have it stamped at the crossing, along with vehicle insurance (in advance). Navigate Tecate (here are directions) and head down MEX 3, recently paved and beautifully smooth all the way through the Valle de Guadalupe wine country to Ensenada.
Your first stop on the road can be in the Valle, down the road in San Quintín or Coyote Cal’s motorsports, surf, and fishing center. (See previous posts Adventure Hangouts in Baja and First Night in Baja: Adventure Stops from San Diego to San Quintin.)
HEADING THROUGH SAN DIEGO?
If you’re heading through San Diego during business hours, consider a stop at Discover Baja, located between Highways 5 and 805, to get all your questions answered, your tourist card and insurance needs met, and browse the amazing selection of books, including the new Baja Moon Handbook by Jennifer Kramer. (You can also order books, maps, stickers, and other cool stuff in their online store.)
YOUR EXPERIENCES, THOUGHTS?
Got questions, or a great borderland routes or destination you’d like to share? Please do, in the comments below.
Carla King is a longtime adventure travel journalist, author, and motorcyclist who spends much of the winter in the Mulegé area on the Sea of Cortez. Her next book is the Baja Adventure Guide.