By Greg Niemann
It’s rare that an entrepreneur switches from one type of business to another, and rarer yet when the change is a drastic one. But 45 years ago Mike Leon did – from the bright glitter of Tijuana nightlife to the dark skies and twinkling stars of Baja California’s highest mountains, the San Pedro Mártir.
Leon, an American citizen whose family had come from Jalisco, Mexico, had owned a couple of bars in Tijuana, including one called Mike’s Go Go Bar. While American revelers in TJ made money for Mike, by the mid-1960s he’d had enough of the demanding grind and began looking for a more pastoral setting.
In 1967, he bought several thousand acres and opened Mike’s Sky Ranch, a guest resort in the high foothills of the San Pedro Mártir. The ranch sits on a knoll above the San Rafael creek in a picturesque and wooded valley.
Steep, brush-covered mountains rise in the background to the pine-covered 7,100-foot summit of Cerro San Matìas, visible off to the east. The crystal-clear San Rafael stream winds through the valley floor and must be forded to reach the ranch.
Sycamore-shaded campsites are snuggled both upstream and downstream from the incoming road. The San Rafael is one of the few trout streams in Baja California, yielding small rainbow trout. There’re even photos on the walls at Mike’s of people holding trout caught in the stream. Hunters to the area will find deer, rabbit, quail by the hundreds, and mountain lion.
In addition to the occasional hunter and angler, it has always been off-road racers who have been attracted to Mike Leon’s dream in the sky. Mike himself was quite a racing proponent, driving a desert racing Volkswagen bug and also an Isuzu in the SCORE races which have now become part of Baja folklore.
As several of the Baja SCORE races still go through the area, including the Baja 500 and on some years, the Baja 1,000, Mike’s fills up on race weekends and the campground becomes a large pit stop. For weeks in advance of the big races, riders stop by Mike’s while out prerunning the course.
The racers leave their mark, too. The tranquil vision of a restful mountain hideaway, complete with swimming pool and well-manicured grounds, changes on busy weekends. The community building offers the best vestiges of its regular inhabitants. The sala (living room), bar, dining room and recreation room are all covered with off-road business cards, stickers, posters, T-shirts and photos.
Racing lore decorates walls
On the front door is a signed poster of Honda’s former off-road motorcycle star Johnny Campbell. There are several signed posters of top Baja 500 and 1,000 drivers through the years, including Toyota’s Ironman Ivan Stewart. There is one Mike’s Sky Ranch 1996 Commemorative T-shirt hanging on the wall that would be quite a souvenir. That one shirt is signed by the famous drivers and riders Corky McMillan, Curt Le Duc, Ivan Stewart, Larry Roeseler, Rod Hall, Jeff Lewis, Rob Gordon and a few others.
Mike Leon was not only a racer’s friend, he too shared their enthusiasm. For Isuzu, Leon took a first place in the 1984 Baja 1,000 SCORE off-road race, and followed that feat six months later with another victory in the 1985 Baja 500 Internacional. An Isuzu T-shirt hangs in the bar at Mike’s commemorating those victories and adding "In Memory - Mike Leon, A Baja Legend."
Leon, who rarely left the ranch, was unfortunately killed in a traffic accident in 1990. Other mementos of his largesse grace the crowded walls of Mike’s Sky Ranch. In one corner of the bar behind a large glass frame is the actual door from Leon’s racing Volkswagen, a bright red door with No. 519 markings.
In the large adjacent dining room complete with six or seven family style dining tables under soporific tropical fans, another vintage photo of Mike Leon hangs just above a pot-bellied stove. And across from that is a framed photograph of a waterfall just two kilometers upstream on the San Rafael, with the inscription, "In Memory of Mike Leon Sr. May his memory be as fresh as the Rio San Rafael."
Groups arrive every weekend
It’s a new breed of tourist that has not only rekindled the off-road spirit but brought continued profitability to the legendary Mike’s Sky Ranch. Off-road "wannabees" are brought in by tour group operators every weekend in groups ranging from a handful of riders to upwards of 60.
Baja Tours, Trail Boss Tours, Baja Off-Road Adventures (BORA), Baja Bound Adventures, Go Baja Riding, Baja Trail Rides, and others all lead people up the mountain for a weekend of outdoor fun and off-roading.
There are 27 sleeping rooms, including singles, doubles and triples, at Mike’s, all surrounding the refreshing swimming pool. Breakfast and dinner are included in the per person rates and meals are large and wholesome, usually featuring steak and served family style. There are no phones and the power goes off each night at 10 p.m.
I should have brought fishing tackle
During the week only an occasional traveler passes by, and I enjoyed the beauty and quiet of the high country during my last visit. I walked down to the San Rafael half-wishing I had brought some fishing tackle. But I dismissed the thought, realizing the trout were probably an anomaly and the place had been fished out for years. Just then movement caught my eye. Three small trout darted across a pool to an overhang on the other side. I’ll be darned. They’re small, but they’re there.
The bad road to Mike’s from the south had finally been graded during the summer of 1999, and for a while even a few passenger vehicles came through. Winter rains and slides through the years since have again made that route difficult. The easiest way to Mike’s Sky Ranch is still the better 22-mile dirt road from Highway 3 near San Matias.
The high country hideaway is about two hours from the seaport town of Ensenada, but seems a world away. And it’s light years away from the Tijuana honky-tonks that got Mike Leon his start.
Greg Niemann, a long-time Baja writer, is the author of Baja Fever, Baja Legends, Palm Springs Legends, Las Vegas Legends, and Big Brown: The Untold Story of UPS. Visit www.gregniemann.com.
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