By Peter Breslin
Chilled air flows through tall pines while soaring eagles and majestic California condors glide above. Winter and spring snowstorms paint sweeping vistas bright white as Bighorn sheep traverse steep granite and limestone cliffs. Night skies bring such extreme darkenss, the area is home to one of the world's most advanced and powerful astronomical observatories. It's not the Rocky Mountains nor California's Sierra Nevada, but the unexpected Sierra de San Pedro Mártir, in the heart of north central Baja.
Easily accessible along a paved road from the main highway and home to one of Mexico's most rugged National Parks, the Sierra offers a completely different perspective on the geography, flora and fauna of the peninsula. A cool side trip for hot spring and summer months and an often snowy experience in winter awaits the adventurer looking for something other than the sand and sun for which the rest of the peninsula is famous. The drive up the paved road features a series of transitions through a few different life zones, from coastal scrub to alpine forest.
The best way to experience the beauty and solitude of the area is to camp for a night or more at one of the campgrounds of Parque Nacional de San Pedro Mártir. This national park was first recognized as a protected area in 1947. Within the park's boundaries, Picacho del Diablo rises to 10,157 feet, the highest point on the Baja peninsula. On the summit of the nearby Cerro del la Cúpula, the National Observatory of Mexico finds its home, featuring three high powered, deep space telescopes. The Observatory is open for tours after 10 am and until 1:00 pm on weekdays, at the end of the paved road. Check with the staff at the gatehouse to arrange a tour.
Campgrounds are unobtrusive within dense, old growth, tall pine forests. For only 56 pesos a night per person (about $4.30), payable at the entrance station to the park (7 am to 8 pm, 7 days a week), sites feature a fire pit, picnic table and pit toilets. There are plenty of developed campsites, making it possible to find peace and quiet even if some campsites are occupied. The park also offers a few rustic but recently constructed cabins for rent; arrangements can be made through the park office Monday through Wednesday, from 8:00 am to 3 pm.
Along several marked hiking trails, as well as back country hiking, in addition to the previously mentioned Big Horn sheep and the introduced California Condor, one can see mule deer, cougars, bobcats, coyotes, gray foxes, golden eagles and more. The flora of the area features 907 species and is especially marked by a rare, endemic pine. Look for the extremely large pine cones, to more than 2 feet long. In the vicinity of the observatory, there are clumps of a golden-spined hedgehog cactus found only in this region, with beautiful orange-red flowers in May and June.
Nights can be very cold, even below freezing, into June, so plan accordingly. Days generally warm up unless the weather turns stormy or snowy, a regular occurrence in winter as well as during the summer thunderstorm season, roughly July through August. Balmy days along the Transpeninsular Highway near Colonet sometimes rapidly give way to very chilly weather as you make the climb up the park road. Be sure to have a reliable, working cooling system in your vehicle for the ascent, as the road features steep grades and slow going for the last 10 miles or so.
To get to this remote and otherworldly mountain paradise, turn at the well marked intersection along Mexico 1 at KM 140, in the village of Diaz Ordaz (aka San Telmo de Abajo) and head east toward San Telmo. It is a slow 48 miles from the turn to the national park visitor's center; allow about an hour and a half to take your time, go easy on your brakes and radiator and savor the changing landscape as Organ Pipe cacti give way to tall trees. On the way, stop for incredible views out along the many valleys, with the Pacific Ocean eventually visible in the west as you rise higher. The famous Meling Ranch is about 32 miles in toward the park. The new Baja Dark Skies Inn is also along the way, about 40 miles from the main highway. Baja Dark Skies Inn offers telescope rentals as well as lodging and food, but is only accessible at this time via high clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle.
Take a few days to get a break from the roar of the surf and the blazing sun of Baja's coasts and soak up the solitude, peace and dark night skies of this magical mountain area. A jewel in the crown of the chain of mountains that run along the center of Baja, Sierra de San Pedro Mártir is rarely visited, rugged and isolated. In other words, the perfect Baja adventure!
Email the park at sanpedromartir(at)baja(dot)gob(dot)mx or call 011-52-646-172-3000
Visit the Rancho Meling website
Visit the Baja Dark Skies website