By David Kier
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, there was genuine fear that the Japanese would strike California next. In those years, Baja California was sparsely populated and void of modern roads or communication. There was an actual fear that the Japanese could have secret airfields and submarine bases in Baja California, and Mexico would not have a clue of their existence.
Once we gained the permission from Mexico, the United States built airfields in Baja to support the defense of California, including those at Ensenada (El Cipres), Camalu, El Rosario, and La Paz. To serve as an early warning, radar stations were placed at Punta Salsipuedes (20 miles north of Ensenada and later moved to Alisitos), Punta San Jacinto (125 miles south of Ensenada), and Punta Diggs (later known as ‘Punta Radar’, near San Felipe). Radar Station B-97 (near San Felipe) was operational from the summer of 1942 to 1944, when the threat of Japanese invasion had diminished.
To have secure communication with the new radar base, a 150+ mile telephone line was installed from Ensenada to San Felipe. Where it crossed the uninhabited regions that were void of roads needed to access the line for construction and maintenance, a road was built. This ‘Pole Line’ road followed the terrain and was well removed from the normal, shortest route to San Felipe. Perhaps this was to help conceal its location from Japanese spotter planes?
The Pole Line Road ventured away from the Ensenada/San Felipe auto road and went east of Mission Santa Catalina using a pass to the desert called ‘Portezuelo de Jamau’. The 1942 road dropped steeply into the desert from this pass which has been used for Baja off road racing since the 1970’s and referred to as ‘The Summit’. The bottom of the grade is in Arroyo el Sáiz, and while the off road race route headed north here, the 1942 road went east and intersected the Mexicali/San Felipe highway (also built by the U.S.) about 35 miles north of San Felipe.
The first recorded travel log and map of the Pole Line Road was in the 1962 edition of the Lower California Guidebook describing the route from Arroyo Grande west to Portezuelo de Jamau. Several years ago, desert explorer Neal Johns awakened an interest in this road and that started several group excursions over it, led by Ken Cooke.
On Easter Sunday, 2015, 12 vehicles caravanned together to follow the line road from the bottom of Portezuelo de Jamau grade to Arroyo Grande, then east out to Highway 5 at Km. 106.5 (1 km. south of La Ventana).
We accessed the Pole Line Road by entering Mexico at Mexicali and then driving west some 20 miles on Hwy. 2 to Laguna Salada. A second option was the graded road signed for Cañon de Guadalupe, a couple more miles west. Being that the weather was dry, the 24 miles drive on a dry lake was preferable to the same distance on a ‘washboard’ graded road. A surprise we encounter leaving the highway was a private toll both set up at the highway fence opening by a lady who claimed to be the owner of the land this short road to the lake bed goes over. The request to pass was 100 pesos per vehicle. Apparently she only sets up on weekends because when we drove by 4 days later, nobody was there. The dry lake bed is only 0.6 mile from the highway, making this the most expensive kilometer in all of Mexico!
Where the dry lake road to Guadalupe Canyon leaves the lakebed is easy to see, but finding the road on south may be a small challenge as a farm community is driven through, without any signage. 48 miles south from Highway 2 brings us to Cohabuzo Junction, which is just a large flat area where the Baja race road towards San Felipe turns east. We are met by two other vehicles wishing to join our caravan who were waiting for us there. It is 25 more miles south to the Pole Line Road, at the bottom of the grade from the summit of the Sierra Juarez. A locked gate blocks the original Pole Line Road going east, but a rough detour route passes to the west of the gate, and brings you back to the old road in 1.9 miles. We set up camp in this arroyo, a mile past the locked gate. One of the two vehicles that met us at Cohabuzo Jcn. had a transmission issue, so those two plus one of ours (for support), went back out the next morning.
The Sunday Pole Line caravan was led by Ken Cooke in a Jeep Wrangler Rubicon and he was followed by Ed (Jeep Rubicon), Huitzi and Agustin (Jeep Rubicon), Will and Elite (Ford Bronco), Larry and Alma (Nissan Frontier), Tom (Toyota Tacoma), Joe (Toyota Tacoma), Mike and Sheri (Toyota Tacoma), Harald (Mercedes G Wagon), Karl (Mercedes G Wagon), David (Toyota Tacoma), and Chuck (Jeep Rubicon). This group had heard about the trip on one of the Internet sites Ken invited people to join in.
The road is a challenge for four wheel drive vehicles as the wrecks of a Chevy 4 door truck on Basketball Hill and a Suzuki Samurai attest to that. Full size trucks or large SUVs are not advised to attempt the entire run. Some vehicles needed spotting to negotiate rocks in the two most difficult sections: Cañada de Enmedio and ‘Basketball Hill’ (named for the rocks in the road).
Our caravan of a dozen 4x4s was moving by 9 am Easter Sunday, and once we negotiated the locked gate using the detour, the Pole Line Road was a joy to drive. It is not done fast, so the beauty of the desert in spring is enjoyed. The weather was excellent as well, and not hot at all. The only questionable fork in the road is a left branch for us. One cattle fence gate is opened, and closed by the last vehicle through. In a few more miles we see the first example of cobblestone paving in the road. I counted 4 cobblestone sections, others on the run saw more. Driving over rocks is no uncommon occurrence on this road! We stopped for lunch in Cañada Enmedio, 11 miles traveled so far this day, in 3 1⁄2 hours!
Basketball Hill was next, and it offered up some bigger than basketball size rocks we had to wiggle around. A group photo was taken at the top, and then it was a fun but slow drive past full length poles, more cobblestone, and more beautiful desert until the Ford Bronco died. All attempts to revive it failed (even going back to the wrecked Suzuki to get its coil), so it was towed, until darkness made finding the road where it leaves Jaquegel impossible. Camp was set up, no wind was blowing, and life is good! Lunch stop to camp site #2 was 21 miles traveled in 7 hours.
The next morning, we saw were the road leaves the arroyo and it was right where we camped. The bottom of the climb was washed away requiring some road building to pull the Bronco out. Good teamwork by the able bodied members and the road was made passable and Tom with his Tacoma pulled the dead Bronco to the top of the grade. Larry with his diesel Nissan took over from there and all made it out of the desert. Tom, Joe, Harald, Karl, and I stayed in the desert an additional day to do some more exploring up in Arroyo Grande. A 13 minute video of our weekend, with an emphasis on Basketball Hill, can be watched on You Tube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xi65xOxhjcM (or search: PLR 2015).
The Pole Line Road offers the fun of technical four wheel drive to negotiate the deep sand, rocks, and steep climbs as well as the historically interesting construction and telephone poles installed in 1942. Those with four wheel drive, good tires, and over 9” of clearance, wishing to see the 1942 road will find the most direct access is from Hwy. 5 at Km. 106/107 (just south of La Ventana). The following log runs the opposite direction from our trip in 2015, is the shortest access point to the old road, and no locked gate to get around unless you go to the very end:
Road Log HWY. 5 west to and on the Pole Line Road
(GPS MAP DATUM: WGS84)
Total Miles/ Partial Miles:
0.0/ 0.0 HWY. 5, KM. 106/107 (La Ventana + 1 km.). 31°43.900', -115°03.900'
6.0/ 6.0 Junction, turn right (follow power line west).
8.1/ 2.1 Race Course crosses road, continue straight.
12.5/ 4.4 Well Pump, turn left follow poles (south). Grading and power poles end at second well (0.6 mi. south). Sandy road continues up Arroyo Grande (deflating tires recommended).
17.8/ 5.3 Turn right (west). The road ahead goes 22 miles to Rancho Arroyo Grande, deep sand driving. A gate may prevent passage through to HWY. 3 from the ranch. Road log turns right here onto Pole Line Road. 31°37.550', -115°15.700', elev. 800'. First 1942 telephone pole (cut) passed around Mile 21, on the left. The east side of Arroyo Grande, where the Pole Line Road continues on towards San Felipe is not visible from here.
21.6/ 3.8 Detour off the original road to right (ahead is washed out). Drop steeply into wash and go left then rejoin old road and climb out other side of wash.
22.4/ 0.5 T Junction. Remains of WWII construction camp. Ahead (NW) was once a road to Ejido
26.4/ 4.0 Briefly drop into and then back out of Arroyo Jaquegel, keeping to the left side. Road repair at bottom of drop was performed in 2015.
26.9/ 0.5 Start of steep grade up to a mesa. Many poles along mesa top are off to the right of the road at some distance.
28.7/ 1.8 Top of a long grade down, named 'Bad Hill'.
29.3/ 0.6 Pass close to one full length pole, a second is in the distance.
30.2/ 0.9 Reach wide Arroyo Jaquegel, turn left up arroyo. Rocky going for nearly 1 mile. 31°35.730'/- 115°23.120'
31.1/ 0.9 Road leaves Arroyo Jaquegel to left (south). Further up the arroyo 500 feet is wrecked Suzuki Samurai. Road now crosses over hills and washes and drops back into Arroyo Jaquegel a final time.
34.1/ 3.0 Road leaves Arroyo Jaquegel with a cobblestone paved ramp at bottom of grade. Palms are up Arroyo Jaquegel to the left and can be seen from a ledge above.
35.5/ 1.4 Top of 'Basketball Hill'. A steep grade down so named by Neal Johns for the rocks in the road.
Cut phone poles seen going down. A wrecked truck is also halfway down.
35.6/ 0.1 In a small ravine, bottom of 'Basketball Hill' grade.
35.7/ 0.1 Cañada de Enmedio (aka ‘Arroyo Jamau’) with very rocky conditions for next 2 miles.
38.1/ 2.4 Cobblestone paving.
38.6/ 0.5 Long Cobblestone paving.
40.9/ 2.3 White Tank. 31°36.820', 115°30.070', elev. 2,300'.
41.6/ 0.7 Short cobblestone paving.
43.6/ 2.0 Fence gate (re-close after passing).
44.6/ 1.0 Y Intersection, keep right. Left to Rancho Jamau. Road had previously climbed to top of mountain, no longer.
46.3/ 1.7 Road to right to Rancho Huatamote, go straight.
46.4/ 0.1 Fork, keep right. Left is a new/ second summit road to top of mountain. 31°37.140', - 115°34.740
46.8/ 0.4 DETOUR road turns left. Ahead is original road, was blocked by locked gate in 0.6 mile.
47.3/ 0.5 DETOUR road turns sharp right, downhill, rough.
48.7/ 1.4 Cross Pole Line Road in Arroyo El Sáiz, Locked Gate on right, original ‘Summit’ road goes up to left (2.3 miles to top). 31°37.815', -115°35.145', elev. 2,900'.
Cohabuzo Junction is 25 miles north and Highway 2 is 73 miles north.