Mackenzie, BC to the BAJA and back

Ian BorenheimAlicia BorenheimIn January 2008 I hooked up our 21-ft Fleetwood Prowler trailer, and my wife Alicia, our 2 kids (Lanaya age 5 and Cayden age 3), plus our family dog Nakoda headed down the highway for a month in search of warmer weather and less snow.

We had been down to the Los Cabos area, at the southern tip of the Baja peninsula, quite a few times since the early nineties but always by air. These trips were filled with explorations of both coastlines (Pacific on the west and Sea of Cortez on the east) in rental vehicles enjoying the beautiful and sometimes deserted little beaches off the beaten track. These treks always had us yearning to drive down and set up camp on some of Baja?s endless number of beautiful beaches, with no hotels, timeshare resorts, all-inclusives, just the true Mexican culture, sun, sand and ocean.


Lanaya and Ian in Southern CaliforniaAfter years of reading countless books and surfing the net on the what, where, and how to?s of camping in Baja, we decided that Coyote Bay in Bahia Concepcion, which is just South of Mulege (Moolehay) on the Sea of Cortez, would be our final destination. About a month before our departure, Alicia received a group email from her Aunt Marilyn wishing the family a Merry Christmas and good winter as they were departing for their annual RV trip to Mexico. Alicia responded with an email saying that we would be taking a month-long trip the following month to Baja and asked her aunt where she would be heading. Marilyn said Concepcion Bay, as they?ve been going there for the last five years, as they really enjoy camping at Coyote Bay. What a coincidence! Coyote Bay was our destination too! We said we would email whenever we could along the way and keep in touch so that we could meet up with her and Uncle Bill down there.

Nakoda overlooking the Sea of CortezTraveling with a young family and a dog always has its share of challenges. Especially when embarking on a 10,000 km trip with six border crossings, numerous military checkpoints, mountain passes in the dead of winter, from Canada down to Mexico and back. Our son Cayden was just completing potty training and he had agreed that this trip would mark the end of his diaper days. To help with this, one of our rules of the road was that if we had to stop for any bathroom breaks, everyone would have to try and pee ? including Nakoda the dog, which he was usually grateful for.

As part of our pre-trip research, Alicia and I had looked into the caravan tour option of travel but decided against it. It was important to us to be on our own schedule and we were not entirely sure how the kids would do on this long of a road trip. Although we had agreed on our final destination in Baja, Alicia and I had also agreed to take the pressure of getting there off of us by taking things one day at a time, with our final goal of just getting out of Canada to somewhere warmer. This helped somewhat to relieve the pressure of the long drive but I have to say that there were quite a few tense moments along the way. My job was to drive and get us there safely; Alicia?s was to take care of the worrying.

We left Mackenzie just in time on January 18, as the temperature dropped to ?36 degrees Celsius for the next two weeks. The first night was spent at Grandpa?s house in Williams Lake, where we had a final mechanical check of our 2003 Dodge Ram diesel. After a few minor fixes we headed south and crossed the border at Sumas, near Abbotsford BC. It was a quick and easy crossing and they never even noticed our dog, Nakoda. We continued over to I-5 and then down almost to Portland, Oregon? a long day for all of us. The next day we made it to Grant?s Pass by around 3 p.m. and knew that we were being followed by cold and snow so we decided to push on to outrun the storm. We made it to Redding California by the wee hours of the morning (the Pass was closed for the next two days from the snowstorm that followed us). We woke up to a chilly Northern California morning but were happy that it wasn?t 30 below and continued south to Bakersfield where we spent the afternoon doing an oil change on the truck and then spent the night at an RV Park de-winterizing our trailer and doing our first load of laundry.

Lanaya and Cayden on the beach at El Pabillon near San QuintinThe daytime high in Bakersfield was +12 Celsius, definitely warmer than what we left behind but not warm enough. After a good night?s sleep and a morning soak in the RV Park?s hot-tub, we continued on down I-5 and over the Tehachapi Mountains where we were blasted by an unbelievable snowstorm of Canadian proportions (not what we expected just a few hours out of Los Angeles). We took it nice and slow over the pass as the road conditions and visibility were terrible and were met by a police escort that guided the traffic down into the San Fernando Valley before closing the Pass altogether for the next 24 hours.

We made it into the LA area in the early afternoon and decided to keep on going to San Diego which should have only taken a few hours, however this day it took eight bumper to bumper hours to get there. By dark, we finally make it to San Diego and continued our way over to Potrero County Park via Hwy 8 and the narrow, winding Hwy 94 but not before accidentally almost crossing into Tecate Mexico in the dark, much to Alicia?s nerve racking chagrin! Thankfully, I managed to back into a small lot and turned around (no easy task in the dark off a narrow road without a navigator!). We then made our way back to Potrero where we camped for the night under the canopy of beautiful ancient oak trees. The following morning we woke up and had a nice walk around the hills surrounding the park and Nakoda had his first opportunity in days to be off leash and was more than thankful. After a nice leisurely morning we headed to the border crossing at Tecate where we purchased all of our Mexican insurance and received our Tourist Cards. We chose to cross at Tecate, as it is a much smaller crossing than Tijuana and makes for a quick and seamless entry and exit into Mexico. We had also heard that the crime rate in Tijuana was on the rise therefore decided to avoid it altogether.

Horseback riding on the beach at EnsenadaMexico at last! The border crossing was relatively easy and we then took Highway 3 through the wine region down to Ensenada, which is Baja?s third largest city with a population of 260,000. We spent the night at an RV Park on the Pacific Ocean, met a few of the ex-pats and snowbirds that live there and realized that this was not quite the paradise we were looking for. The smell of the ocean air and the fact that we were in Mexico was nice and we also enjoyed our first Mexican cervesas of the trip that night. The next morning we chatted with the owner of the RV Park who urged us to keep heading south to Bahia Concepcion where he normally takes his holidays. We hit the Walmart in Ensenada to replenish our food supplies in the trailer, cashed some travelers? cheques at the Banamex and headed south toward Santa Ynez.

A few things that you read and hear about when traveling in Baja is that the highways are very narrow, sometimes with steep drop-offs, no shoulders for pulling off and they can often be in a state of disrepair. With this in mind, don?t plan on driving at the same speed as you would on highways in Canada or the US (although this doesn?t seem to apply to Mexican transport truck drivers). Give yourself more driving time between your destinations, never drive at night, don?t camp anywhere by yourself and for whatever reason, Catavina is a dangerous town in the high desert so don?t stop there! Santa Ynez is a ranch oasis with a campground and restaurant in the central Mountain Desert and is a well-known stop for Baja travelers. It is also however just a few kilometres past Catavina.

Baja trafficWith a late start leaving Ensenada, a few prolonged stops on the way and the aforementioned notes about driving times, etc., we found ourselves not quite at Catavina and it was quickly getting dark. This did not bode well for us given all that we had read about so we decided to stop at a small family-run campground on the highway in the dark just outside of Catavina. There were no other campers there and the place was fenced in with a gate that had barbed wire along the top of the fence. I went inside to see about camping and was met with four generations of a really friendly Mexican family just finishing up dinner. While Alicia and the kids stayed in the truck with the doors locked, I made arrangements to spend the night. We pulled in to our site, made dinner and had a good nights? sleep, well everyone except Alicia that is. The next morning, we couldn?t leave quick enough. In fact it was the first time in years that I woke up and Alicia was already awake and ready to go. We continued on through the cactus-filled desert and giant boulder fields, past Santa Ynez, Guerrero Negro, into Baja California Sur and all the way to our first views of the magnificent multi-coloured hues of the Sea of Cortez at Santa Rosalia.

Boulder Fields near Catavina The Sea of Cortez is one of the world?s richest marine environments and is home to countless species of fish, whales, dolphins, birds and is loaded with beautiful beaches and bays to camp on. There are developed campgrounds and endless undeveloped beaches for boondocking. That night we made it to the tropical palm tree-filled town of Mulege and camped at the Villa Maria RV Park. Mulege is a small town of about 3,500 with an old Mission above a river lined with date palms. There are numerous little shops, stores, restaurants, a museum and all the supplies you need for venturing further south into the magnificent Concepcion Bay area. We spent the night taking in the town, eating amazing fish tacos for dinner and once again doing some laundry. Alicia emailed her Aunt Marilyn to find out where they were camped and to notify her of our arrival in Mulege and all in one piece.

Bahia Concepcion is a boondocking camper?s paradise; it is filled with beautiful bay after beautiful bay of white sandy beaches surrounded by mountains of volcanic rock. This was exactly what we were looking for when we set out on our trip. We made it to Coyote Bay and found about 15 other parties camped out on the mile or so of white sand beach. There was everything from tent campers to vans to $300,000 diesel pusher motorhomes. We pulled in next to a palapa and a palm tree and set up camp. There was a nice mix of people from Canada and the US of all ages. Alicia?s Aunt Marilyn and Uncle Bill had moved their camp from Coyote Bay to another beach about 15 minutes north called Playa Naranjas. The next day I drove to Playa Naranjas to see them and let them know we made it. Bill and Marilyn knew most everyone on Coyote beach and joined us there for several days and evenings of potluck dinners and fun.

Bougainvalia flowers and palm trees in MulegeThe kids spent countless hours of every day playing in the sand, shelling, and swimming and not once did we hear the words ?I?m bored?. Nakoda had his first taste of salt water and made a few friends of his own. Each day was filled with great activities from hikes up into the hills where we found cave paintings, cacti of all shapes sizes and colours, kayaking, fishing, birdwatching, saw dolphins, stingrays, big horn sheep and still found lots of time to relax. Every morning, some of the Mulege locals would show up with pickup trucks full of fresh fruit, baking, fish, seafood, water, crafts, delivered right to your door, without the pushy flavour of what you generally experience at most Mexican resort destinations. This was definitely easy living! There was also a small restaurant at the north end of the Bay called Bertha?s; they served a variety of good homemade Mexican dishes, burgers and seafood at reasonable prices. Mulege is only a half hour drive away to get any other supplies when you need them.

Sunrise at Coyote BayAfter 12 nights in paradise we had to pry ourselves away to start making our way to other destinations that we wanted to see. We hitched up and made our way to Scammon?s Lagoon in Ojo de Liebre National Park. The Park is one of three major calving ground destinations in Baja for Pacific Gray Whales. This one is located just east of Guerrero Negro. On the way to Scammon?s Lagoon, you drive by miles of salt flats; the export of sea salt is the primary industry in Guerrero Negro. After passing the salt flats you end up at a beautiful bay where you can camp and watch the whales from your campsite. There is a really nice interpretive centre with restaurant and you can also hire boats to take you right out to see the whales up close. We did this with the kids and it was well worth it. We saw hundreds of mother whales and calves all around us; you can get right up close to these friendly giants so you can reach out and touch them. We spent a few days here before heading north to the sand dunes on the Pacific Ocean near San Quintin where we spent a few days on the beach, shelling, kayak surfing and playing in the dunes.

Our camp at Coyote Bay From San Quintin we made our way north back to the border at Tecate and drove all the way back to Bakersfield, California. This was our longest driving day of the trip but this time we completely bypassed LA and drove through the San Bernadino Valley, well worth it! We spent the night in Bakersfield and then headed north past Fresno and over to Los Banos, then through the Redwood Forests in the Santa Clara wine-growing region, down into Santa Cruz and up to San Francisco. In San Francisco we camped just south of the city in Pacifica at the San Francisco RV Resort perched on the cliffs right above the crashing surf of the Pacific Ocean. At $67 per night this was slightly more to offer than the $5 per night that we were paying at Coyote Bay but again worth it as the RV Park was only a 15 minute drive to the city and was well situated with a trail down to the beach where Nakoda could run around and enjoy himself. We spent two nights here and did the condensed tour of San Francisco before packing up for our trip home to Canada.

The roads home were much nicer than the roads down as the worst of winter weather had come and gone. We arrived at Grandpa?s in Williams Lake and it was only about ?8? and spent the night there before returning to ?10? in Mackenzie and a driveway full of snow on February 18.

Would we do all this again? Yes we absolutely would, and this time with two kids and two dogs. Korah is our new Siberian husky and Nakoda?s playmate. Cayden was also successful in his potty training with encouragement from all of us especially his big sister Lanaya, so no more diapers for us!

BY IAN & ALICIA BORENHEIM,?

Mackenzie, BC, Canada

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