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Rancho El Topo
by Erin Dunigan

Rancho El Topo: Saddle Up for Adventure in the Sierra Juarez

By Erin Dunigan

Rancho El Topo Baja
Rancho El Topo Baja

Have you ever felt the tug of a forgotten dream, an ember smoldering beneath the ashes of the day-to-day practicality of the routine of life? Something that you really wanted to do, but somehow just never did? One of those ‘one day I will _____’ dreams for me has been to go horseback riding in the mountains. On the back burner I have had this desire to combine my love of horseback riding with another of my favorite activities - backpacking in the Sierra backcountry.

Like a puzzle piece clicking into place, one day fate intervened by way of a conversation with a weathered vaquero. "Have you been to Rancho El Topo?" he asked, his eyes alive with the memories.

And just like that, the dream moved to the front burner.

Within a day I had sent a message to Beto at Rancho El Topo and had dates reserved for lodging and two days of riding - in the Sierra, in Baja, only a few hours away, and with all the details taken care of!

Rancho El Topo Baja
Rancho El Topo Baja

Rancho El Topo is a family run ranch in the Sierra Juarez. It is only about 55 miles southeast from Tecate, but takes about 2 hours to get there due to the last 20 some miles being along a dirt road. The dirt road is very navigable - I did it in my small and low to the ground Kia Rio hatchback. But, if I were to do it again I think it would be a more comfortable and faster ride in something with a bit more clearance and slightly less low profile tires. On our return trip the road was in the process of being graded as recent rains had left some ‘charcos’ along the way.

As we got nearer to the ranch the foliage slowly became a bit less ‘desert’ and a bit more Sierra, but I still wasn’t entirely convinced that this was going to fulfill all of my ‘high country horseback riding’ dreams.

That is, until we pulled into the ranch. Driving across a wash that is clearly not passable in a large rain storm but was dry and smooth, we entered through the ranch gates.Horses grazed freely, their manes catching the golden light, while curious burros eyed us as we drove past. Rancho El Topo emerged - and a rustic beauty embraced us.

To say that Rancho El Topo is authentic Mexican ranch hospitality at its finest is an understatement. Rustic, beautiful, remote and inviting were all words that came to mind as we parked the car and got out to be greeted first by the dogs, then by the humans.

Rancho El Topo Baja
Rancho El Topo Baja

Rancho El Topo is in the center of the Sierra Juarez, within the municipality of Ensenada. It is remote - there is no cell signal once you are outside of La Rumorosa. If the night sky is clear, you can see the stars for as far as the pine tree clearing will allow as there is no ambient light for miles and the ranch itself uses a combination of solar and a generator.

The main lodging area is the converted granero (barn) which has a large high-ceilinged center common area, and five small rooms off each side (for a total of 10), with shared bathrooms at the end. The rooms are rustic and simple - just the basics of a double bed, small table for setting your things and a window to allow some ventilation. But one does not come to Rancho El Topo to stay in the room - the whole reason to be there is to be outside in the experience of nature.

As we were the only two guests staying in the granero during our quick midweek getaway in the fall we told Beto not to worry about firing up the hot water heater or the generator - with a simple flashlight and our iPhones we had more than enough light to navigate and the cold shower in the morning was, shall we say, invigorating.

In addition to the granero there is a separate small cabin about a mile away that offers an even more remote ‘vaquero’ experience and can sleep six.

Rancho El Topo Baja
Rancho El Topo Baja

Though it is an option to take your own food and do whatever cooking you’d like, we decided to keep it simple and enjoy the ranch’s cooking. Beto himself cooked us dinner - an amazing carne asada feast straight from the outdoor grill. After dinner, a few beers (Tecate Roja, of course) and a lot of chatting, we were headed to the granero to get some sleep before the next day’s adventure - an all day ride to the ‘mirador’ a spectacular view spot that Beto had recommended for our first day’s destination.

The next morning the air crisp with mountain chill, Beto greeted us with steaming mugs of black coffee as we prepared for the day.

Horses saddled, packs loaded with provisions for the journey, we headed out, the ranch dogs acting as our guides along the trails. By lunchtime we had reached the mirador - an incredible view overlooking Tajo Canyon, with Mexicali, Laguna Hanson the valley in the distance. It was beautiful, but a harsh desert like beauty - rocky outcroppings and weathered shrubbery.

Rancho El Topo Baja
Rancho El Topo Baja

Back at the ranch that evening it was time for more of Beto’s amazing cooking and to fall into bed from a day spent outside and on the trail.

It was on the second day that my dreams of ‘mountain’ horseback riding became real. We set off in the opposite direction of the day before. The trail began to slowly wind its way through what suddenly became lush pine forests, crossing a stream and meandering our way through and around downed trees from a recent storm. This was it! My dream realized - breathing that fresh pine scent, the blue skies, billowing puffy clouds, and the steady beat of the horses hooves as we made our way through the silence that was vibrating with life.

Leaving the ranch later that afternoon was bittersweet. Beto, the dogs and the horses faded into the rearview mirror, but the memories they helped create were vibrant and vivid. Rancho El Topo isn’t just a destination; it is an experience, a portal to a simpler way of life. It is a reminder of the transformative power of adventure, of the joy found in disconnecting from all things digital and embracing the rhythm of the trail.

Back on the paved highway, the world seemed different. The city lights and the daily grind tinged with the echo of wind through pines and the exhilaration of the open trail. And within me, a sense of satisfaction took root – that sense of a dream becoming reality.

So, amigos, if you too have a dream lingering in the shadows, a "one day I will do _____ thing" waiting for its turn on the front burner, listen to its whisper. Rancho El Topo is more than just a ranch; it's a gateway to adventure, a canvas for creating memories that will last a lifetime. Whether you're a seasoned rider or a first-time adventurer, or if you simply want to enjoy hiking the Sierra Juarez awaits, promising incredible vistas, hidden beauty, and encounters with nature that will leave you breathless.

So, don't let "mañana" become your answer - embrace the "ahora" and embark on your own Baja California horseback riding adventure. Whatever path your journey takes, Rancho El Topo awaits, ready to welcome you with open arms (and welcoming burros!).

Who knows what stories might your own Baja California Sierra adventure tell? The mountains are calling, and Rancho El Topo is ready to be your guide.

Contact Rancho El Topo through their Facebook page.



Erin Dunigan is a writer, photographer, and horsewoman who has always felt at home in Baja California. She spent her childhood traveling back and forth between her native Southern California and her grandmother's home in La Mision. For the past 14 years she has made Baja her home. You can follow her adventures on Instagram at @edunny.

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