San Pedro Martir Range
By: John Robinson
FIVE DAYS IN THE SAN PEDRO MARTIR - MARCH 29-APRIL 2 - JOHN ROBINSON AND BILL CLIFTON
After a lengthy spell of wet and cloudy weather north of the border, it was indeed a pleasure to arrive at the Meling Ranch under clear, warm skies. Much to the delight of our 42 participants, this balmy weather lasted throughout our five, day, 50 mile circle backpack trip into the heart of the San Pedro Martir Range. Aida Meling Barre, manager of the famed cattle-guest ranch, greeted us Saturday morning with two surprises, one good and one bad. The, good news was that the road from the ranch, into the mountains, formerly one of the worst ever experienced by this Desert Peaker, had been improved to the point that it was negotiable most of the way by standard cars. The unpleasant surprise was that, just two weeks previously, the entire San Pedro Martir plateau had been granted to the University of Mexico for astronomical purposes and was closed to visitors without special permission. However, Aida said that the ban was not yet enforced and she suggested that we go on as planned.
By 10:00 a.m. our multi-car caravan was winding its way eastward and upward into the San Pedro Martir. Just below Oak Pasture, a steep, muddy section of the road stopped all but the 4-wheel drive vehicles and VWs, so most of our party began the hike from there. By 11:30 all were assembled with packs at Oak Pasture and we began our 5-day adventure by hiking downhill to La Jolla junction. The leader had made the decision to do the loop, in reverse (counter-clockwise), so in the event we were stopped by observatory personnel at Vallecitos, near the northern part of the circle-trip, we would be on our way out.
After a pleasant, shaded lunch stop at La Jolla Junction, where the roaring streams of Arroyos Valladares and Tasajera join, we tackled the steep, hot uphill stretch onto the main plateau. For many, with heavy packs, this first afternoon was the roughest part of the trip. Two hours of grueling workout got us over the rim and into the pines, and we paused for a mid-afternoon, rest alongside a beautiful mountain stream. Another hour of easy hiking got us to our first, campsite, the small stream-fed meadow of Lower Vallecito.
Sunday was a long day of gentle up-and-down hiking in a southeasterly direction. Crossing the rocky La Tasajera ridge, we caught our first glimpse of La Grulla, one of the largest meadows on the plateau, and the 9000-foot peaks of Tres Palomas and Blue Bottle beyond. Lunch was alongside Arroyo San Antonio, largest stream in the range. After lunch, we made our first mistake. We tried to cross marshy La Grulla instead of going around it. It was sticky going - one member attempted to negotiate what looked like only a slightly muddy stretch much to his horror he sank in first to his knees, then he tried to continue, clear to his waist in mud. After this unpleasant experience, we beat a hasty retreat, and continued the long way around the swamp. La Grulla is a huge meadow, some three miles long; it seemed like hours before we finally reached its eastern terminus. Then four miles through an open forest of Jeffrey brought us to La Encantada, another huge meadow near the eastern edge of the plateau. La Encantada was much drier than La Grulla, so we headed directly across it and northeastward to our cozy campsite among the pines alongside trickling Arroyo Encantada. We were a tired bunch that night.
Monday saw us climb northward into the intricate recesses of the great La Tasajera rock ridge. We made one false start up a prominent canyon north of La Encantada, but the trail fizzled out, and after getting bogged down in thick brush and 3rd class rock, we beat a hasty retreat. When most of us had completed our retreat out of this canyon, we heart shouts of "help!" behind us. One young member of the party (he shall remain-nameless) had tried to find a way upward out of the canyon and found himself marooned and alone. Four of us went backup, located our lost, hiker on a huge boulder, and guided him down.
Retreating to a vaquero cabin near the northwest edge of La Encantada, we located the right trail and once more headed northward into the rocky ramparts of La Tasajera. After crossing a rocky saddle, we joined the main La Grulla-Los Llanitos trail, but lost it again after a couple of miles. These San Pedro Martir trails are often difficult to follow - a good trail often suddenly becomes indistinct or branches into two or three pathways, and there is not a trail sign in the entire range. Continuing up a prominent canyon, we suddenly found ourselves at a dead-end. For the next two hours we scrambled upward, through brush and over boulders, trying to reach the top of this incredibly complex rock ridge. By 5:00 p.m., we reached a small clearing near the top and camped for the night. Just before sunset the leader and several others climbed a nearby high point to ascertain our position. We were rewarded by a splendid sunset view of El Picacho del Diablo, its summit crags painted a brilliant orange, four miles eastward.
Early Tuesday morning we headed eastward along a faint cattle trail, and in the surprisingly short time of half an hour reached Los Llanitos, our original destination the day before. We were not so far off course as we had at first believed. Here at this small meadow, we dropped packs and, prepared for the highlight of the trip - the ascent of Blue Bottle (9500'). While 12 remained behind to loaf and recuperate, 30 started eastward for the peak. Three hours later, after much rocky up-and-down scrambling through complex, unmapped country, all 30 of us stood atop this second highest point in Baja California. The view, was superb, a vast expanse of mountain and desert wilderness. Directly eastward, across the yawning chasm of Canyon del Diablo, loomed the summit of all Baja, the magnificent Peak of the Devil. With binoculars we were able to watch two climbers scrambling up Wall Street toward the summit. (I later learned from Bill Rauschof Palo Alto that 10 climbers from the San Francisco area had made the summit that day, and about 30 others from Colorado's Outward Bound School had climbed it several days previously.)
In the Blue Bottle register we noticed entries by scientists and engineers from the "Observatorio Astronomico Nacional" in Mexico City. Aida had told us that within two years Blue Bottle will be the home of a 60" telescope, largest in Mexico. She also said that there are plans for blasting a burro trail across Pinnacle Ridge to place another telescope on the very summit of El Picacho del Diablo! I'm certain that all DPSers hope this idea never bears fruit!
By 2:30 we were back at Los Llanitos. After a short rest, we hoisted packs and followed the good trail northward to Vallecitos Meadow. That night we camped by a small spring just southeast of the vast clearing.
Wednesday, our last day, we crossed Vallecitos to the recently built road that crosses the north end of the meadow. This road, provides access to the 12" telescope that is presently in operation on a high point two miles east. Now occurred the biggest "fiasco" of the trip. The leader had been led to believe that the observatory access road went down to Corona de Abojo and on to the Melings. Hobbled by sore feet, he sent most of the group ahead, as they were anxious to reach the cars as early as possible for the long drive home. Unknown to the leader, this road went out the north end of the range and down to Mike's Sky Ranch, miles and miles from where the cars were parked. All but 9 bolted on ahead, oblivious to the fact they were being led astray. After several miles the leader realized the road was going in the wrong direction. It was too late to catch the others, so the leader with the fortunate nine who had stayed with him, took off cross-country, found the old trail, and by noon, reached the Corona de Abajo roadhead. Here we passed a large Mexican work camp; a road is being constructed from the Melings to the observatory, but it won't be completed until next year. Meanwhile, access is from the north. In the four cars available to us, we sped down to the Meling Ranch, picked up Jerry Keating's station wagon (his wife and children were staying at, the ranch), and continued on around to the north road. Just before sunset, two of our five cars on the rescue mission (the other three were halted several miles short by a steep pitch) reached the empty air strip above Mike's Sky Ranch where we found the tired hikers. They had hiked about 15 extra miles and, unsure of just where they were, were mighty glad to see us! In the five vehicles, we managed to cram 39 hikers and packs plus our five drivers for the trip back to the Meling Ranch. John Helms then graciously volunteered to take all the drivers back up to Oak Pasture to fetch their cars. It all ended successfully, but for a while that day the leader was mighty worried that he had lost 30 hikers in some of the wildest mountain country in Baja!
Our sore feet and aching backs have barely recuperated, but already we are planning for next year's Baja mountain adventure. (We hope to make this an annual DPS spring vacation trip.) Being considered is a cross-range shuttle, with an ascent of Picacho del Diablo! Half the group would start from the east side and ascend Canyon del Diablo, the other half would come in from the west via the Melings and cross the plateau to Blue Bottle. We would meet at Camp Noche in the canyon, climb El Picacho, exchange car keys, and continue on our way, traversing the San Pedro Martir in both directions. Anybody interested in this??
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