Mission Santa María
An Adventure East Of Cataviña
Article and photos by David Kier
One of Baja's most rugged roads is the four wheel drive trail to the oasis mission
of Santa María de los Angeles. The beauty and remoteness of this region has lured
many to return many times despite the likely occurrence of vehicle damage or
personal injury. One author has called Santa María: 'Mission Impossible', as it
indeed is nearly impossible to get to!
The question arises as to why would the Padres build a mission in such a remote,
inaccessible place? The far easier to reach site at Calamajué had abundant water.
Alas, it was found unusable being too full of minerals. Nothing would grow from
it, and a new site was needed.
The Cochimí Indians showed the Jesuit Padre Victorianio Arnés a place they called
Cabujakaamung. The new site had sweet water in a grove of palm trees, and the
fine bay of San Luis Gonzaga was just down the mountain. Calamajué was nearly
30 miles distant, but there just was no other source of good water with some land
to plant crops. The Calamajué mission was moved in May of 1767, and given a
new name for a new beginning.
The Jesuits were only at Santa María for seven months when orders from the king
of Spain expelled them from the New World, and sent them all back to Europe.
Not until August of 1768, did the Franciscan Padres arrive on the California
peninsula to assume control of the mission system (started 71 years earlier by the
The adobe ruins at Santa María were built during the next several months, under
Franciscan direction. Just one year later, poor Santa María was reduced from
being a full mission to a 'visita' (visiting station). The new Franciscan mission of
San Fernando de Velicatá (founded in 1769) was just 40 miles distant and so much
more promising to develop.
Santa María continued on as a visita, assigned to the San Borja mission, until 1818
when San Borja was closed. Santa Maria would slowly crumble once the palm leaf
roof vanished. The ruins at Santa María fared much better than the other adobe
missions to the north, due to the dryer weather and difficulty to reach by treasure
hunters. Yet, treasure hunting has damaged even remote Mission Santa María.
Arthur North who traversed Baja California via mule in the early 1900's told
an intriguing story about Santa Maria. In his book 'Camp and Camino in Lower
California', he tells of an American who arrived at Santa Maria in 1893, with a
secret agenda. The stranger dropped a cord from the old mission's ridgepole,
made a mark three-foot above ground, and then disappeared. The next morning,
after he had made a hurried departure from the area, natives noticed a newly
excavated hole in the wall.
Walt Wheelock, a more contemporary Baja explorer, tells another version of
this tale related to him by a hunting guide from San Quintin who, as a boy, had
worked as a guide for Arthur North. According to this story, an Indian took an
Ensenada businessman to the mission. After sighting along the ridgepole of the
secondary building, adjacent to the chapel, the merchant measured two yards
from the corner. He dug a hole, and retrieved a metal box containing $40,000
in placer gold and pearls. After receiving a share of the treasure, the Indian
promptly drank himself to death.
The stories of treasures, lost missions, and hidden booty are likely nothing more
than fantasy. The damage done to missions by treasure hunters is a real shame.
The treasure really is seeing the works of the Padres and their neophyte laborers
done so long ago, in a land so remote and rugged.
The next people to work hard for Santa María were the folks of Rancho Santa
Ynez, a mile south of Cataviña. In the 1950's, ranch foreman Fred Hampe began
to build a road from Santa Ynez to the mission, and then on to the gulf coast at
Punta Final. By the 1970's they reached a point two miles beyond the mission at
the edge of a big canyon down which the Santa María arroyo flows to Gonzaga
Bay. That is where the road building effort was abandoned. The 1973 paving
of Highway One in central Baja ended the need for a short cut through a most
The Fred Hampe road has since become a real Baja adventure and four wheel
drive 'proving ground'. The distance to Santa María from Santa Ynez is 14.5 miles,
but even in a well equipped four wheeler one can expect to take close to 3 hours
for the drive. Large rocks, very steep grades,
deep water and mud bogs, even
palm tree logs are all in the mix on this road. Large tires, extra ground clearance,
limited slip or locking differentials are all advised. Going in alone is not a good
idea, so find others who want to test their vehicle and driving skill against some of
the toughest road that Baja has to offer.
Begin in front of Rancho Santa Ynez, go around the north side of the compound
to the back of the ranch. The road continues east then and crosses a big sandy
arroyo. Beyond the other side of the arroyo is a fork, go left and climb up a long
hill. At 1.8 miles from Santa Ynez will be your first four wheel drive (Low Range),
deep arroyo crossing. If you are comfortable after this, then you passed the first
test. Compared to what's ahead, it really isn't that bad, but is a good obstacle
placed not far from the ranch that screens out many from getting into deep
The road is fairly easy for the next 8 miles, crossing beautiful granite country and
a few palms along the way. Boojum trees and other Baja desert species are all
over, to decorate the landscape. At 9.9 miles you will have reached the peninsular
divide with a spectacular view of Punta Final on the Sea of Cortez. From this point
the road drops down, down, down and your concern will be if you can make it
back up! As you drop down from the divide, notice a trail leading off to your left
towards the east. This is the cargo trail to Gonzaga Bay built for Padre Serra to
bring supplies to his new mission of San Fernando. It was shorter route than using
the Camino Real via Santa María, from the bay. The Padres had a warehouse on
the bay (midway between Papa Fernandez' and Alfonsina's camps, the foundation
can still be seen).
The road from the summit to the mission is over 'El Camino Real', the mission
road and the route through California before automobiles. Mules or burros might
have been a wiser choice than the four wheel drive you would use. 13.3 miles
from Santa Ynez is the top of the 'widowmaker', which is one super-steep grade
that drops you to the first palm oasis. The loose, big rocks and steepness will be
the challenge on the return (going up) stage. Some people park their rigs here and
walk the last (1.2) mile to the mission.
From the bottom of the 'widowmaker' you will soon enter the palm grove and if
it has been a wet winter, you will drive in the water filled bog with water holes up
to 3 feet deep. It will be time again for your locker(s) or traction control system to
be on. Once you commit to the bog, just move steadily between the tall palm tree
trunks, until you drive out of the water (2010 was a very wet year, 2003 a distant
second). Other trips, it was mostly dry (1999, and 2007). Next, you will drive out
of the bog and over a rocky ridge to the valley containing the mission. This final
half mile has some very steep, short drops. Two of us on the last trip severely
bent our back bumpers, on a steep drop.
Drive up to the plateau the mission is built upon, and at 14.5 miles and you made
it! The main church was the primary structure and to the side, in the back corner
was a two room building that is nearly melted all the way down. The side walls of
the mission are mostly gone. The front and back faces of the church still standing
tall. The doorway is on the east face and the altar was on the opposite west end.
Irrigation canals were just below the mission. Not far up the west hill is a large
stone corral and other livestock pens.
Driving past the mission the road makes two steep drops and enters the sandy
arroyo, 1 mile from the mission. Camping can be down in the palms to the west at
a large pool, or head further down the big arroyo. Tracks end in a palm grove near
the rocky drop into the canyon. However, at Mile 1.3 from the mission, look for
a pair of small cardon cactus to the left (north), above the arroyo. These cactus
mark were the bulldozed road leaves the arroyo to climb up the canyon ridge, the
road was hidden by a low palm tree. A half mile from the arroyo, the California
El Camino Real climbs up from this road at the base of the hill, switch-backing to
the top and then following the canyon's north rim to where it reaches the desert
floor. At the end of the bulldozed road is a view into the canyon, petroglyphs on
rocks, and an Indian trial that leads down into the canyon. This was the first El
Camino Real route, but it was so dangerous in the canyon, a new trail was made
staying in the hills above the canyon.
Lions, Bighorns, coyotes, rattlesnakes all live here so keep your eyes open and
watch your step...you're not in Kansas anymore!
Updated: Oct 26, 2017 02:08 PM