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It's Like Old Times : In the Rugged San Pedro Martir National Park of Baja California, a Traveler Can Be 'in the Middle of Nowhere and Then Farther Into It'


SAN PEDRO MARTIR NATIONAL PARK, Mexico — The traveler now finds himself in a new world, totally unlike the balance of Baja California, a world where he may wander at will; for condors and eagles, wild ducks, mountain quail, deer, wild cats, lions, coyotes, half-wild horses and cattle--descendants of the herds of the Frailes--alone dwell on the crest.

--Arthur Walbridge North

Laila Keller, 9, stood atop the world North described in the early 1900s and launched a small wooden airplane.

It floated out over the desert floor, 9,000 feet below, caught an updraft and circled high overhead before crash-landing back into the hands of its launcher.

Keller smiled and sent the plane on another flight, and again was able to recover her toy. It never occurred to the Ojai youngster, here for an overnight stay with her family, that the world North described had hardly changed at all.

The large gray wolves that roamed the San Pedro Martir range are gone, the last one reportedly killed in 1903. Gone, too, is the fierce grizzly bear that in the 1880s terrorized local inhabitants to the point they were sure it was sent by the Devil.

But from a perch atop a mountain, where sits Mexico's esteemed national observatory, it is easy to see that you can still wander at will for weeks without encountering anything but forests of pine and the wildlife they support.

To the East, you can gaze out over the vast and relentless San Felipe desert and follow it to the lime-green waters of the Sea of Cortez, and even beyond to the Sonora countryside. To the West, you can retrace your 50-mile route to the coast until it drops off into the cool-blue Pacific.

Beneath and about you are forests of spruce, cypress, tamarack, fir, cedar and fern. Some of the pines reach 100 feet or more. Across the way to the South, Picacho del Diablo, or Devil's Peak, looms a defying 10,000-plus feet.

Inside the park are 50 square miles of forest, untouched by timber interests since the late 1800s. There are grassy plains and wooded swales, ridges and jagged peaks. Hot and cold springs gurgle into large pools. Icy streams flow swiftly through the San Pedro Martir range, some harboring a strain of rainbow trout similar to that found in California's Sierra Nevada.

Granite boulders tower and sparkle with quartz, feldspar and mica. Purple sage sets the hills ablaze after spring rains and drenching summer thundershowers. Winter snows reach depths of 10 feet.

"It's a very, very rugged area," said Tim Hughes, 28, of Redlands, who has spent weeks at a time in this region of Baja. "The landscape all looks the same. First of all, you're in the middle of nowhere, and then you're going farther into the middle of nowhere."

You can spend a week in the deep regions of the park--it is suggested that you go with a guide, usually obtainable through the Meling guest ranch in the foothills of this range or through Baja travel specialists--and not come across another human being. If you do, more than likely it will be the local cowboys, or vaqueros , tending to cattle in any of several long grassy meadows.

Missionaries once traveled this range to avoid the hot, dry desert floor. Francisco Junipero Serra traveled around southern and western spurs of the range on his historic journey north to San Diego. The nearby mission, San Pedro Martir, was founded in 1794.

Serra, Crespi and Portola "suffered cruelly from exhausting grades and rocks," according to early accounts. The exact location of their trail north from San Fernando in 1769 is still unknown.

The English adventurer, William Ryan, wrote of his experience after leaving the range--probably on the San Felipe Desert side--in 1847: "Emerging from these labyrinths, we find ourselves upon a long and narrow valley, frowned upon from both sides by gloomy rocks, which seemed to reach the sky. Traveling . . . under an insufferably hot sun, and over such roads, is the very climax of misery."

Today's adventurer finds in the Sierra San Pedro Martir a unique forest, managed by nature and nature alone. Fallen trees, victims of age and lightning, lie in the meadows, scurried upon by squirrels and other small animals. Broken branches litter the forest, providing the camper with an endless supply of firewood. Pine needles blanket the forest floor.

"When you have a 9,000-foot plateau, surrounded by so much distance that it evolves into its own unique kind of forest, there's really nothing like it," said Marty Hiester, 35, a Lake Tahoe resident who compiles travel guides for Mexico. "It's great for family camping. People can drive off on one of the several dirt roads and find their own little corner of a meadow and just set up and be free."

These dirt roads splinter at various points off the main one that leads from Highway 1, about 75 miles south of Ensenada, to the observatory at 9,200 feet, where several telescopes, housed in blue-and-white domes, are nestled among the pines, offering an unsurpassed view of the heavens.

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