Destination: Picacho del Diablo
Exploring the Furthest Reaches of Baja Mexico
Photos and Text by Scott Brady
Snow in Mexico? Believe it, hombre.
The snow began to accumulate against the roof of my tent, pressing the walls against my heavy down sleeping bag and stirring me awake. I was trying to take a short nap, as was most of the climbing team who were recovering from our attempt to reach the summit of Picacho del Diablo. Wanting to see just how bad the storm had become, I stepped out of the tent into the driving snow, and found my travel companions huddled tightly around the fire, attempting to fend off the increasing cold.
Our trip into Baja started under much warmer conditions as we crossed the border from California into Mexico at the massive border town of Mexicali. I have always found the greatest navigation challenges in Mexico are in the border cities, where heavy traffic and poor (or no) signage makes it difficult to lead a group through the maze of turns and detours. Routes are nearly always referred to by the next “town” accessed by the road, not the highway number, as we are accustomed to in the US. Of course, all of these challenges add to the sense of adventure, and we were quickly on our way south towards San Felipe on MEX 5.
Save for one Jeep, our group was comprised entirely of Toyotas, which have proven to be the solution of choice for extended expedition travel. The party included three Tacomas, a generation two 4Runner and an FZJ80 Land Cruiser. Although it is unusual to find challenging trails in Baja, the extreme remoteness, and lack of services on much of the peninsula requires a highly reliable or easily serviceable vehicle. Since most of us would prefer to enjoy the fantastic scenery over spending time working on the trucks, we preferred to use Toyotas.
English Daisy and Owl Clover carpet the hillsides.
We drove south for nearly 90 miles on MEX 5 before turning east on MEX 3 and climbing away from Laguna Seca and the Gulf. MEX 3 crosses the Sierra de San Felipe and into the Valle Santa Clara before making the granitic flanks of the San Martir visible. We topped off our fuel in Valle Trinidad and started south to Mike’s Sky Ranch, which is a route frequently used by the Baja SCORE races. Mike’s Sky is a famous stop for Baja travelers, with comfortable accommodations, eclectic visitors and home cooked food. The elevation at Mike's Sky is 4,000 feet, making it the highest resort location in Baja. The rancho is surrounded by pine and cottonwood trees, and is situated next to a perennial stream, the Rio San Rafael. Mike’s Sky is also a launching point for other adventurous routes further south, like our intended trek to Rancho Meling and on to the San Pedro Martir National Park. The road from MEX 3 to Mike’s Sky can easily be traveled by a 2wd truck or van, and is well maintained and wide to allow for easy passing.
The real adventure starts with the trail leading west out of Mike’s Sky and into the foothills of the Sierra San Pedro Martir. Within a few hundred yards of the Rancho, we had the vehicles in low range, and were slowly negotiating the heavily eroded climbs. Crossed axle ruts and loose ascents defined the first several miles of the trail, including a tight shelf road along Cerro Blanco, with several large boulders in the path providing a tight tolerance between the rocks and the track's edge.
At El Coyote, tall grass and cattle are the prominent features.
After the shelf road the trail turns south, and crosses several streams. The perennial streams of the San Pedro Martir are full of native rainbow trout, so it is critical to cross the streams slowly, preserving their habitat. The hillsides along the Sierra la Corona were thick with wildflowers and the air strong with their scent. There were several points that the group stopped at to enjoy the rich bouquet surrounding us.
As the group tracked closer to the foothills, the terrain became more challenging, with deep ruts caused by the heavy winter rains. One 50-yard section was deeply eroded, requiring the vehicle to straddle the two-foot deep rut, and then drop a tire into the hole to take the exit line. This caused several of the shorter wheelbase trucks to lift a tire and claw for traction before clearing the edge and leveling out. On these longer treks, it is typical for the vehicles to be loaded to near GVWR, which adds to the challenge on hill climbs and cambered sections.
We continued further south, traversing the Sierra La Corona, and entering the grasslands surrounding Rancho El Coyote. This area is a rich cattle zone, with Oak Trees, tall grass and large cattle herds. From El Coyote the trail conditions improve, reverting to a wide, graded dirt track leading to the intersection with the observatory road. We turned east, and began to climb into the Sierra San Pedro Martir, quickly gaining elevation as the road winds towards the park. The steep grades over 7,000 feet were a real challenge for the loaded trucks, requiring several of us to shift into second gear to keep progress up the mountain. As we climbed, the grasslands gave way to scrub oak and juniper before turning to thick stands of pine. I would have never imagined such a healthy forest in Baja, which is more commonly known for its arid landscape than pine trees, deer and bald eagles.
A view of Picacho del Diablo.
Our group was greeted at the park entrance by the ranger, who took our vehicle information and provided details of available camp spots. The temperatures were in the 50’s as we continued through the park’s entrance gate, and drove the seven remaining miles to our base camp. Inside the park there are large meadows, which were full of deer and wide streams, carrying water to the valleys below. We arrived in camp late, with just enough time to set up the tents before dark.
After a warm morning, thick clouds accumulated above the mountain, obscuring the sun and keeping the temperatures in the mid 50’s. At 9:30 am, I left base camp with the rest of the climbing team on our journey towards the summit of Picacho Del Diablo. The others, who stayed in camp, enjoyed the great hiking and 4wd exploration on the established mountain trails. There are several mild 4wd trails in the park, including a trek to the summer occupied Rancho Viejo, and the very scenic Venado Blanco trail, which leads to large meadows and perennial streams.
There was unusually deep snow on the route. Despite the early return from the mountain, we had planned to spend another night at base camp, and just relax from our trek to the Devil’s Mountain and successful climb of Cerro la Botella Azul (Blue Bottle). However, within hours of our return, the temperature dropped and snow began to fall, covering the camp. We had just a few hours to decide to stay on the mountain or leave for the Pacific Coast, and warmer conditions. The decision became easy once the snow had accumulated to over an inch, and showed no sign of stopping. We worked quickly and broke camp in the freezing conditions, the wet snow penetrating our thin gloves. Within thirty minutes, we were all loaded up and driving down the trail, where I was rewarded with making the first tracks across the fresh snow.
I was breaking a snow shelf into the steep slope, with Robb on belay (photo courtesy of Greg Stephens).
As we drove down the mountain we could see thick storm clouds a thousand feet below, pushing against the mountains flanks. The sun was setting above the clouds on the distant Pacific Ocean. We stopped once again to marvel at this beautiful place, a “sky island” in the desert, a place where adventure still lives.
Picacho del Diablo is a classic granite peak, rising over 10,000 feet above the Valle San Felipe. The mountain was first climbed in 1911, and has become a hard won prize of Baja travelers due to its remote location, long approach, and unpredictable weather. Our attempt of the mountain was made via the traditional western route, which leaves from our base camp at 8,000 feet and climbs to Blue Bottle Saddle at 9,200 feet. There is no established trail, and a distance of 4.5 miles is required before you can even see the peak. The lack of visible land features requires detailed navigation and route finding for the first five miles of the hike. The total distance of the trek is 15.5 miles, with an elevation gain and loss of over 16,000 feet. This adventure is not for the faint of heart (literally).
Our team made good time to Blue Bottle Saddle, and began the traverse of the northeastern slope of Botella Azul. This is where the true challenges began, requiring the group to navigate several steep snow shelf traverses. The exposure was so severe that we needed to belay each climber across the short spans, costing precious time.
The group also slowed at a 50’ long, 5.5 rated rock traverse with over 100’ of jagged exposure. Due to the deep snow and technical climbing, we made only a half mile progress in nearly three hours. The turning around point was at an 80’ traverse with no anchor points. We had insufficient equipment to safely span the gap across an overhanging cornice of snow. The Devil had stopped us this time, but we will return…
Uwe traverses the granite face of Cerro la Botella Azul.
As featured in 4WD Toyota Owner, September/October 2005
GPS Coordinates (DATUM: WGS 84)
Turn West from MEX 5 to MEX 3- N31 26.041 W115 03.079
Turn South from MEX 3 to Mike’s Sky Ranch- N31 20.291 W115 34.424
Mike’s Sky Ranch- N31 06.620 W115 38.035
End of trail from Mike’s Sky to the Observatory Road- N30 58.616 W115 45.948
Meling Ranch- N30 58.258 W115 44.938
Martir National Park- N31 01.010 W115 28.326
Camp- N30 59.931 W115 27.050
During this trip, I was testing a GPS base map program formatted for the Garmin units. LBMaps (www.lbmaps.com) is the first detailed digital base maps for Baja available for uploading into the GPS units. I found the software to be very accurate and a great addition to the Baja traveler’s navigation resources.