The Lost Mission Of Santa Isabel
Article and photos by David Kier
The thing that makes going to Baja California so appealing is the nearly endless amount of activities available there. To most visitors, Baja means world class fishing, diving or surfing. Photography, hiking, beach combing and off road racing also fall into the list of popular activities.
To a few of us, the history and mysteries found in Baja are an attraction with so many Spanish missions, old mines, and lost treasure tales. Lost missions have been an interest to many for over 100 years and include such mission names as Santa Clara, San Juan Bautista, Dolores del Norte, Santa Maria Magdalena, and the most famous lost mission of all: Santa Isabel.
The legend of Santa Isabel is routed in the events of 1767-1768 when the Jesuit padres were forcibly removed from the New
World by order of the king of Spain. Rumors had been flowing into the Spanish royal court that the padres were accumulating vast treasures and not sharing them with the king. These rumors were undoubtedly false as the padres spent every moment just trying to raise enough food to stay alive.
The legend says the padres had been tipped off of their upcoming evacuation of the peninsula and they quickly built one final mission, to store their loot. Located in a canyon somewhere beyond their most recent established mission of Santa Maria, they would return someday to retrieve their wealth. The native Indian builders were sworn to secrecy, but word still got out.
One of the published Santa Isabel stories told in 1967 tells of a 1932 meeting with a local at the spring of Mezquitito, about 15 miles north of San Luis Gonzaga Bay. This old timer had fresh fruit that he said came from only 12 miles away. There he tells of fruit trees and 'one big house', with a cross on the top! The 1757 Jesuit map shows a water source in this area north of Gonzaga Bay, and it is named Santa Isabel!
Today we have satellites that can see objects the size of automobiles (or smaller with government clearance) and one member of a popular Internet Baja forum was searching along the 12 mile radius and thought he saw some man made structures in a remote canyon. As it turns out, a mine access road crosses this watercourse 4 miles from the site. Could this be the Jesuit ruin of Santa Isabel? The person was not able to travel himself, so he asked for volunteers to check it out, and eight of us came forward to take on the quest.
Our base camp was in Arroyo El Volcan, four miles from the abandoned onyx mine of El Marmol. Large rocks in the arroyo prevented our four-wheel drives or even a quad ATV from getting to the lost mission site down the wash. We would be walking four miles down (and back) in the sand and rock riverbed.
The geology of the canyon was fascinating and that made the hike all the more interesting. The prime target of our quest was just off the main wash in a side ravine, we had the exact GPS location for the possible mission building. There were other sites nearby seen on the satellite images, including a large corral area and irrigation systems to channel and hold water.
A final challenge to reaching the site was a dry waterfall we had to climb in order to enter the side ravine that the mission was built next to. This made it quite interesting and possible that the prospectors and others who must have traveled down the Volcan Wash for years never saw it.
The site was reached, and alas no lost mission. However, the rock cliff was quite unusual and did stand out from the surrounding terrain. We all very much enjoyed the hike and experience even though it took a couple of days to recover from the adventure! In addition to the lost mission search, that afternoon we also visited the Olvidada barite mine with a spectacular view of the Sea of Cortez and the Enchanted Islands far below.
The next morning we made a short walk to El Volcan, which is Baja's famous cold-water geyser that erupts once a month. Between eruptions, the spring at its top bubbles like boiling water, but it is an ice-cold 'soda spring'. When we reached Highway One, we stopped in at Rancho Sonora (Km. 149), where crafts made from onyx are sold for some trip souvenirs.
Searching for the Lost Mission of Santa Isabel, just another item in my bucket list of Baja adventures completed!