Chris leads May and Pat across the water to where the trail continues. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Finding water in the desert, even headed into the mountains, can be a challenge, especially when the rainy season ended months ago.
We were determined. It only took two outings for success.
May stands next to a tree that looks like something out of Harry Potter. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Seeing flowing water made the trip worthwhile. At that point a waterfall would be a bonus. While photos don’t effectively prove we reached the waterfall, we all saw one in the not too far distance. Those waters then ended in the pool where that section of the trail ceased. We never found a way to get closer to the actual waterfall.
On this excursion it was me, Pat, May and Chris. The aborted one include Anna instead of Chris. Anna is the one who knew a waterfall existed, and had been told by others that her sons could do the hike. Once we started going up a steep, single-track trail we were all whining a bit, so no way kids could do it. Clearly, this was not the route to the waterfall. We don’t know where we would have ended up. Around the next bend was another false summit with no relief to the steepness. We eventually turned around; still, it was a wonderful outing.
These trails are not built to any standard that one might be used to in the United States. Many are working trails for the ranchers. Wide enough for a horse, which apparently doesn’t mind the incline. Bells rattling signaled when the cattle were nearby; this was in the flat areas.
Flowing water in February is not a guarantee. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
On that day we went 5.34 miles, gained 522 feet of elevation, climbed to 2,126 feet and dropped to 1,494 feet.
On the successful excursion we opted to drive in as far as we could. This meant instead of stopping at the gate, we let ourselves through. This saved us a couple miles. While four-wheel drive was not necessary in February, it might be nice to know you have it just in case. At the end of the route we had done 6.67 miles, with an elevation gain of 807 feet. Our minimum elevation was 1,595 feet, the maximum 2,415 feet.
The first hike had us make a distinct left at a sign pointing toward the Sierra. That’s where we went wrong in terms of finding a waterfall. What it provided was vast views of the mountains, with the dry river bed looking like a stripe of grey-white paint through the valley floor.
In the distance is a waterfall that flows into pools in the Sierra de la Laguna. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
On the second hike we traipsed through those rocks a few times, and even crossed water more than once. While we had to check in with each as to the exact way to go, most of time the trail was distinct. The route is a mix of packed dirt, loose sand and uneven rocks. At times the foliage is dense, providing shade, while other times you are totally exposed to the sun.
It is so green in the mountains, with yellow, purple, white and red flowers sprouting. While mountain lions and snakes call it home, birds and bugs are all we saw.
A few laminated signs pointed toward a poza at various junctures. These were pools of water in the stream. The water was cool to the touch, but far from unbearable. Still, none of us considered getting in.
Our luck with finding water probably had something to do with the unusual rain that came down in early February. The Sierra de la Laguna mountains always get much more rain than Todos Santos proper. The town averages 6 inches a year, with most of it coming in late summer during hurricane season.
We’ve only checked off a fraction of the nearly 278,000 acres of terrain in this protected area.
Not all creatures make it out of the mountains alive. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Sue Wood maneuvers through the desert of Todos Santos. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
With multiple options for turning, it was good to know we were following a seasoned guide who is from Todos Santos.
While Trino Castillo was a man of few words, and Spanish only, he was the perfect guide. He is one of two guides at Over the Edge Baja bike shop in Todos Santos. He set a pace that worked for us, waited when necessary, explained when a downhill was coming up, and took pictures for us. It was also fun to see Castillo taking his own photos of the scenic Sierra de la Laguna that was our focal point for much of the 9-mile ride. Even a true local can still be captured by the mountains and desert terrain.
Guide Trino Castillo leads the way along the Sierra Madre Trail. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
With an average speed of 4.8 mph, we weren’t getting anywhere fast. That was more than OK. It meant plenty of time to catch our breath (I so don’t have cycling legs anymore), take pictures and appreciate where we were. In all, we gained 650 feet in elevation. The low point was 137 feet, with maximum elevation 471 feet.
Volunteers have built an intricate trail system in the area; most of which is on private land. Going through gates is the norm. Locking them is necessary to keep the cattle and other livestock from getting loose. While the trails are outlined on the Trailforks app, markers are scarce for those not looking at their phones.
Kathryn Reed and Sue Wood enjoy a guided bike ride near Todos Santos. (Image: Trino Castillo)
We did a loop, mostly on the Sierra Madre Trail, with a stint on the Cardón Trail. The latter is aptly named with so many of these towering native cacti. Most of the trails here are single-track. They provide dramatic views of the desert and mountains, which are still a lush green after all the rain from last fall.
Several yellow butterflies flitted about; not sure if they were curious about us or upset we were invading their habitat.
A thin line of blood on both forearms proved I got a little too close to the cacti. The flora is always going to win in the desert. Battle wounds were a temporary reminder of the great fun that was had.
Someone thought the cacti needed the hat more than they did. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Bike shop owner Dave Thompson selected a route based on our ability (non-technical) and wanting to see something new. Most trails around Todos Santos are not beginner. Sue and I were off our bikes more than we were used to. This was in part because of the narrowness of the trail, rocks and unfamiliarity with what was around the next bend. Peddling uphill on sand or being slowed by sand at the beginning was problematic for me. Castillo made it all look so easy. Maybe what I really need is a lesson more than a guide.
We started riding from the shop’s doors, toward the new cemetery, along easy dirt trails that got us comfortable on our unfamiliar bikes. For a short stretch we pedaled along the Highway 19 bypass toward La Paz before heading into the mountains. This is where the real riding began, and the most stunning views were.
Thompson will create guided rides for anyone who wants to explore the area. Bikes and helmets are part of the package if needed, as they were for us. I was the high bidder at the Gastrovino silent auction last May for the bike tour for two that was donated by OTE. I would bid on it again.
Over the Edge Baja opened in December 2017. It is part of a chain that started in Fruita, Colorado. Other bike shops are in South Lake Tahoe, California; Sedona, Arizona; Hurricane, Utah; and Melrose, Australia.
With miles of sand, the beaches in Mexico look like a four-wheeler’s dream. Many are so wide that if a vehicle were to drive by, it would likely not bother the people using it in some other fashion.
The problem is the federal law in Mexico prohibiting driving on the beaches is not consistent. According to an ATV tour operator in Baja California Sur, the federal law states people cannot drive a vehicle within 20 meters (65.6 feet) of the high tide line. States and municipalities can have their own laws. A Los Cabos area turtle preservation group says regulations are based on the ecological interest of a particular beach.
When people are in violation of illegally driving on a beach in Mexico the penalty includes a stint in prison from six months to six years, along with a fine of $127,000 – that’s U.S. dollars, not pesos.
Driving on the beaches of Baja Sur is common, even during turtle season when it’s illegal. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
A tourist ATV rental company based in Todos Santos that didn’t want to be named said, “Like most laws here in Baja it’s not quite as straight forward as ‘it is illegal to drive on the beach anywhere.’ There are leeway’s and allowances, but the clarity on them is somewhat foggy depending on where you pull your information from and what municipalities you’re in. That is why you hear a lot of people just tell you it’s flat out illegal. It’s easier to say that as opposed to trying to make people understand just exactly where the high tide mark lies.”
Fun Cabo out of Cabo San Lucas touts riding on the beach, with pictures of people doing so on its website. An employee from the company was asked about the legality of riding on the beach. “It depends on which beach you go to. The public beach you would not drive on. But many of the regular beaches that no one goes to you can drive on.”
Gringos and Mexicans are guilty of beach driving. Most do so on quads or some other all-terrain vehicle. Sometimes it’s faster to drive on the beach than regular roads. No traffic to contend with, plus getting from Point A to Point B can be more direct. At least those are the reasons people use for driving on the beach when they know better.
Tire tracks prove rare signs like this one are ignored. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
It is hard to find signs in the greater Todos Santos area telling people not to drive on the beach. Like any law, it’s incumbent on the person to know the rules. They don’t have to be posted to be real or enforced. Data about citations for anywhere in Mexico could not be found.
In Los Barriles on the East Cape there is a section of beach farthest from the Sea of Cortez where vehicles are allowed. It’s distinct, with signs telling drivers what is OK and what isn’t. Those signs appear to be ignored more than followed.
Environmental/ecological reasons are cited for the “no beach driving” rule. Turtles lay their eggs in the sand, which can be crushed by a tire. Birds also have nests on the sand. Various plants grow along the farthest reaches of the beach from the water. These get trampled by tires as people come and go to the beach. Erosion can be a problem. Then there is the noise and air pollution emitted from any vehicle which are both harmful in various ways.
People who want to file a complaint against someone driving on the beach should send an email in Spanish to email@example.com. The Mexican Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources has offices at City Hall in San Jose del Cabo.This document has more legal information, which can be used if people wanted to get a petition together to take to SEMARNAT, the government body with oversight of beach driving.
The Sierra de la Laguna mountains are a constant focal point on the Sierra Madre trail. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
With the rainy season in Todos Santos extending well beyond summer, it means the desert is awash in color in January.
Red, yellow, purple and pink stood out against the lush green. On this second day of the new year we were surrounded by lomboy, yucca, jumping cholla, pitaya, elephant trees, ocotillo and morning glories.
Coral vine on the trail. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
Anna led us into the desert on the Sierra Madre trail. The route is a mix of soft dirt, almost sand, along with small rocks that require paying a little more attention when stepping. It wasn’t long before stunning views filled our vision in every direction. From this vantage point the town of Todos Santos seems small, but also sprawling because of the abundance of construction.
The cemetery on the outskirts of Todos Santos. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
The new cemetery is a focal point at different times, as it abuts the desert as it rises on the edge of town.
The ocean at times looked gray with how the sun was beating down on it. Other times it was a dark blue, almost like Lake Tahoe except much larger. From this perspective the Pacific seemed to be living up to her name – peaceful. So often that is not the case, at least in Baja.
Anna and May on the way back along the Sierra Madre trail. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
The Sierra de la Laguna mountains beckoned; perhaps another day. The desert provides a lush carpet of green leading to the mountains. While many of these plants can draw blood when touched, they look anything but menacing from afar.
The radio tower is pretty much the highest point of the hike. From there we headed down in a bit of a zigzag that had us wondering if it might loop back to where we started. The route actually goes under the Highway 19 bypass leading farther out into the desert. We opted to make the tunnel our turnaround point.
Various cacti stand tall in the desert. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
While we went 5.23 miles, the Sierra Madre trail was built as a single-track mountain bike route. It’s just more than a 10-mile loop, and with various offshoots could be much more.
We hit an elevation of 597 feet, with the lowest point being 181 feet. Our elevation gain was 659 feet.
Fairy duster is some of the flora. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
We started by parking at Jazamango restaurant, heading east into the desert on a road wide enough for the three of us. A small connector goes left, leading to another road that eventually hooks up with the Sierra Madre trail. This is the lone sign we saw going out. It’s also possible to start at the new cemetery. It would be fine to take a dog on this trail, however there is no water.
More than 800 species of fish call the Sea of Cortez home. (Image: Donna Rockwood)
With each gentle stroke, it was like being transported to a new aquarium. Only this was no aquarium; it was the Sea of Cortez.
No need for dive equipment, several fish were at eye level, even more just feet below. Coral, sea urchins and star fish were more like permanent fixtures in this underwater oasis.
Convict tangs are often found swimming in a group. (Image: Donna Rockwood)
Flame angelfish with their orange and black coloring stood out against the floor of the sea. The Cortez rainbow wrasse is native to the waters of Baja, and can be found as far south as Peru. The long spine porcupine can be hard to spot with its camouflage-like coloring making it easy to blend in with the sandy bottom and light rocks. Guineafowl puffers were hard to miss with their polkadot bodies. Convict tangs are prolific in this part of the world; the black stripes on a yellow-silver body looks like they belong behind bars. A school of what we believe were sardines darted back and forth, shimmering as though they were silver coins.
Flame angels are also poplar in home aquariums. (Image: Donna Rockwood)
Those are just some of the creatures that Donna, Craig and I spent a couple hours admiring earlier this month. At times we could see at least 30 feet down.
On the right of Chileno Beach is a rocky area, with the reef farther out. With so much to see underwater, it was only necessary to look up to make sure my friends were nearby.
The long spine porcupine fish blends in with surrounding rocks and sea life. (Image: Donna Rockwood)
While I got chilled after going out about three-quarters of a mile, there was no need for a wet suit earlier this month. Buoyed by the salt water, it was easy to stay afloat.
From the shore of Chileno Beach it would be hard to imagine what lurks beneath those salty waters. Indicators this is the place to be were the dive boats in the area, along with people who paid someone to bring them via boat to snorkel.
We drove ourselves; signage is good along Highway 1. Parking is free. Plus, we had our own equipment so it was not necessary to pay to play.
Plenty of marine life make snorkeling at Chileno Beach a delight. (Image: Donna Rockwood)
Chileno Beach is along the corridor between Cabo San Lucas and San Jose del Cabo. It’s away from the chaos of the tourist core. It’s also one of the few beaches in the area that is public and swimmable. A roped off area prevents boats from coming in.
Umbrellas, kayaks and other beach paraphernalia are available for rent – but not every day. Restrooms are available, as is an outdoor shower. Food may be purchased at neighboring Chileno Bay Resort. It would be easy to spend an entire day here — on land or in the water.
Scientists are still trying to figure out why tortoiseshell butterflies have population booms. (Image: Matt Forister)
With the desire to bring environmental news to the masses, in 2012 the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency launched the publication Tahoe In Depth.
Most years it comes out in the winter and summer. A wealth of information is provided about what is going on in the Lake Tahoe Basin. Some stories are written by employees from agencies like the U.S. Forest Service, some by independent freelancers.
Kathryn tries to keep up with a whale shark. (Image: Katrin/La Paz Vip Tours)
“They won’t swallow you.”
But will they nibble on me? Could one dismember me?
“No and no.”
Whale sharks, while they are the largest fish in the world, are also docile. They are sharks, though their size is more whale like. They are often more than 30 feet long and weigh 20 tons.
In pairs we swam with these beasts with the guidance of Katrin. Polk-a-dots never looked so beautiful. A mass of gray is splashed with white circles. Their eyes tiny, like golf balls, are on the side of their heads instead of the front. They rely more on smell than sight to know if danger lurks.
With a maximum of six people, La Paz Vip Tours has intimate excursions. (Image: Katrin/La Paz Vip Tours)
Kicking as fast I could, eventually I couldn’t keep up even though they only go about 3 mph. I wanted to reach out, but knew better. Swimming alongside them in their natural environment was a privilege and I wasn’t about to abuse it.
No need for wet suits this time of year, the water is bath like. Whale sharks prefer warm water, which is why they are found in the tropics like La Paz.
As solitary animals, they don’t swim in pods. They wait until they are 30 to have babies. Then can live another 70 years.
Whale sharks are one of the magnificent ocean creatures. (Image: Katrin/La Paz Vip Tours)
With their 4-foot-wide mouths constantly open as they saunter through the 75 to 80 degree waters of the Sea of Cortez, these creatures use a built-in filtration system for eating. All those thousands of tiny teeth are useless. For the most part they swallow plankton and a few other things whole. Gills expunge all the water that is swallowed.
“Their throat can only swallow something the size of a tennis ball,” guide Katrin says.
Unfortunately, these fish along with manta rays are consuming a large amount of plastic, at least elsewhere in the world, according to a study published this month.
Being so large, other fish will latch on to the whale shark for a free ride or swim nearby, almost like drafting, all as a way to be protected from predators.
Kathryn and Sue ready to swim with a whale shark. (Image: Katrin/La Paz Vip Tours)
With their primary food source plankton lacking this fall in the La Paz area of Baja California Sur, the whale shark tour boats had to delay the normal Oct. 1 opening for a couple weeks. Whale sharks are protected here and in other parts of the world. The Mexican government limits the number of tour boats, when they can operate (season ends in February), regulates the number of people in the water, how close boats can be to the animals, and mandates people don’t touch the whale sharks.
Katrin with La Paz Vip Tours was our guide on the first Monday in November. To date it was the best tour I’ve been on in Baja – great response time, service fantastic, the knowledge and English fluency of Katrin exceptional, her patience with diverse personalities and athletic abilities outstanding, the equipment top grade. Eddie, the captain, was adept at finding these beasts (sonar is not allowed). A dorsal fin or tail out of the water were his clues. For $100, each of the six of us was in the water four times, wetsuits-snorkel-fins-mask provided, snacks-water on board, with tour time of three hours.
Guidebooks are good to a point. They tend to highlight the most popular places to visit in a city or region. That’s their purpose.
But what if you want to go off the beaten track? That is when you go to Atlas Obscura. My friend Denise introduced me to the site. She and hubby Steve swear by it when they travel close to home or far distances. The site describes itself as, “The definitive guide to the world’s hidden wonders.”
I had a few hours to kill in Menlo Park, California, earlier this fall. Atlas Obscura took me to The Great Spirit Path at Bedwell Bayfront Park.
Images of what the rocks are designed to look like and the poem. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
While there were limited copies of a guide about the path at the park, it was the description at Atlas Obscura that got me to search out this unique wonder. It would have been easy to miss the special path without prior knowledge of it being there because of how big the park is and the tiny sign pointing to the starting point.
Susan C. Dunlap is credited with being the inspiration behind Spirit Path. She wanted the park, which was being developed in the early 1980s, to have something unique in it.
Rocks spell out words in a poem. (Image: Kathryn Reed)
“The stone poem fuses together both literature and sculpture – it can be read, yet retains a purely visual format,” according the pamphlet. “These rock clusters were inspired by American Indian pictographs.”
Rocks (892 weighing more than 505 tons) from a Sonoma quarry and a meadow near the Stanford Linear Accelerator were hauled to the park in 1981 and 1985 to create the path.
It was good to have a picture of what the rocks originally looked like because time and weather have taken a toll on of them. Not all are whole and grass obscures some. Each cluster of rocks represents a word or phrase in the poem.
The 53 signs are numbered, each with the full poem. This makes it easy for those strolling through the park to follow the numerical order. While I didn’t visit each formation, I saw enough to have an appreciation for the effort involved to create this path.
“It is the artist’s intent here to illustrate a reverence for the evolutionary methods of both man and nature in combination with a message of hope,” the brochure reads. I believe she achieved her goal.