The Old Baja Road
By David Kier
To drive an automobile from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas was once such a rare and
amazing feat that the few who did it wrote books about it. South of El Rosario, the
road was just a single lane, pair of tracks, worn into the rocky and sandy soil.
Signage was rare or wrong and one would simply follow the most recent looking
tire tracks. The old road would split only to come back together a short distance
ahead. The Automobile Club of Southern California had placed many signs at
major junctions along the way, some year back in time. But the road changed with
flash floods, and the signs would be shot up for target practice. Only one book
gave the most details of the voyage and mileages along the way. Written by Peter
Gerhard and Howard Gulick, the Lower California Guidebook was known as the
The year was 1966 and pavement ended 72 miles south of Ensenada (near
Colonet). That was when I traveled the road in the family Jeep Wagoneer. My dad
said, “Now the adventure begins”, and he was so right. The events that began on
that day forever changed my life. I have been addicted to Baja ever since.
The next 50 miles was on a roadbed made for paving to San Quintin, but without
the asphalt added. It had a ‘washboard’ surface and gave us a jarring ride. Further
south, on top of a mesa overlooking El Rosario, was a stop sign. There the road
dropped steeply down a ravine and without a place to pull over, the stop there
allowed you to listen for any cars heading up from town before heading down.
Beyond El Rosario and all the way to San Ignacio, the main road was a deeply
worn track from the a few autos and the many trucks that supplied the remote
ranchos and fish camps. Four wheel drive was really the safe way to go, but many
got through without it, as long as it hadn’t rained! Up to now, the new Highway
used the same route as the old, but beyond El Rosario there were some changes.
The old road went a mile further east in the valley than does the highway, and the
cliff ‘El Castillo’ (The Castle) was a waypoint marking where the main road headed
south in a side canyon. The old road crosses south of the new highway at Km.
82/83 and heads to Rancho El Aguajito and an infamous grade that was the first
traction challenge in those days. The old and new roads meet again at Km. 92/93
and stay close together for some distance. At Km. 106, the ruins of Rancho El
Arenoso are just south of the highway, over on the old main road.
When the highway through central Baja was built in 1973, the villages and
ranchos who catered to the few travelers looked forward to the coming
prosperity. However, when engineers placed the highway out of sight from their
homes, those who didn’t move to the highway lost business. Ranchos (serving as
restaurants and repair shops) that moved to the highway include: El Progreso,
Tres Enriques, Sonora, and Chapala.
The new highway had rest stops with gas stations, cafeterias, showers, RV parks,
and most with hotels. They were called ‘Paradors’. In the undeveloped central
region paradors were needed for all the new travelers the highway brought.
Paradors were built at or near San Quintin, Cataviña, Punta Prieta, Guerrero
Negro and San Ignacio. Over the hill, south from the rancho of San Agustín, was a
gas station, RV park, and road maintenance camp of ‘San Agustin’, a mini parador.
The old road is within a mile or two of the new road from San Agustín to almost
Cataviña. San Agustín was the source of good drinking water for the onyx mine
town of El Mármol, 10 miles away. Cataviña had been an abandoned ranch, but
turned into a parador with the coming of the highway. Rancho Santa Ynez, a mile
from Cataviña, was such an important stop before the highway, the ranch owner
negotiated for and got a ¾ mile paved driveway to it, and a paved airport runway.
The old and new roads are next to each other the next 30 miles, crisscrossing to
the Laguna Chapala valley. The old road went across the valley, which was a bowl
of fine dust on the north and a dry lake bed on the south. The worst and best of
the old Baja road in one place! The new highway keeps to the west side of the
valley and they rejoin where then highway climbs out, on the south side. The two
roads are either in the same place or within a mile of each other to a distance
beyond Punta Prieta. The old road is exactly one mile west of the new highway at
the L.A. Bay highway junction and abandoned parador.
Seven miles south of Punta Prieta, the new highway climbs a ridge to the east and
the old road stays lower to the west, but rejoins before the Santa Rosalillita
highway junction. At Rosarito is the first major route change. The old road went
south over the hills passing near the El Marmolito onyx mine and the new
highway followed the valley west about three miles before turning south.
The old main road headed for the center of the peninsula to the mine town of El
Arco, but the new highway headed directly south for Guerrero Negro, which is
also a mine town, but for salt instead of gold. Guerrero Negro was prospering
while El Arco was declining. The two trans peninsular roads would meet again
between Kms. 132 and 133, about 6 miles south of Vizcaíno. Of interest, the
towns Cataviña and Vizcaíno, did not exist before the highway was built.
The old road stays south of the new road coming towards San Ignacio and
remains next to the new road beyond the oasis town, up to the steep El Infierno
Grade. The new highway turns north and drops down the side of a canyon and
the old road continued east and used a series of very sharp switchbacks to drop
off the side of the mountain. The two routes are nearly the same to Mulegé, but
south, along Bahía Concepción, the old road followed close to the water’s edge
for many miles, even splashing in the water at high tide. The new highway is
further back and higher up.
Just south of Bahía Concepción is the next major split between old and new. The
old main road to La Paz turned towards the center of the peninsula and passed
through the twin towns of San José Comondú and San Miguel Comondú and met
the graded road northbound from La Paz near La Poza Grande. Pavement going
north from La Paz began about 100 miles from the city, back in 1966.
The new highway was built from Insurgentes across to the gulf at Ligüí then north
to Loreto and on to Bahía Concepción. South from La Paz, pavement ended in just
10 miles in 1966, but a new roadbed was in-place to almost Los Barriles. A simple,
one lane wide two track dirt road continued on to Cabo San Lucas, a small fish
cannery town back then! The new road would not go through Santiago or
Miraflores, but keep a couple miles to the east.
The paving of Highway One in the southern territory progressed at a rapid rate.
The highway to Cabo San Lucas from La Paz was finished in 1970. The highway
north from La Paz to Santa Rosalía was finished in 1972, and work was underway
to San Ignacio. In the same period, south of Ensenada the highway was only
paved for the 50 miles to San Quintin.
In 1973, the momentum was poured on and in the one year, the highway was
built and paved from San Quintin south and from San Ignacio north, with road
crews meeting at Rancho San Ignacito (8 miles south of Cataviña). No golden
spike, but a small monument was placed across from the (now abandoned)
restaurant. This 350 miles of highway built in 1973 was narrower than the rest
and after 35 years and hundreds of accidents began to get widened in sections
with a paved shoulder.
The official opening of the highway was on December 1, 1973, at the 28º parallel
near Guerrero Negro where a 140 foot tall eagle monument was built. This is the
southern border of the state of Baja California. The next year, Baja California Sur
also became a state, thanks to the end of isolation the trans peninsular highway
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