[This is part 1 of a 3 part article]

If winter’s chill finds you longing for summer’s sunny days, consider a trip south of the border to Baja. Greatly reduced temperatures make winter a far more pleasant time to hike at most Baja locations than summer. Autumn and spring are good times to hike there, too. It’s also a great place for enjoying a combination of outdoor activities.

I’ve discovered that my own favorite Baja combination adventure is kayaking and camping along the Sea of Cortez, stopping to hike and to snorkel at various locations along the way. Self-supported expeditions offer maximum freedom, but require significant previous experience. Those who don’t have the time, experience or gear needed to organize their own trips can hire one of several outfitters who provide a combination of outdoor activities, along with the necessary gear and local guides.

Camping on Isla Danzante ©Diana Vann

Paddling and hiking along the Sea of Cortez can be a magical experience. The color of the water changes to reflect that of the sky, sometimes a deep blue, at other times turquoise; often, at sunrise or sunset, it becomes a blend of soft blue and pale pink. The sea’s surface can be smooth and mirror-like; at those times the lines between hills and sky and sea become nearly indiscernible. But when the wind rises, the tranquil sea can change rapidly, becoming confused and treacherous, sometimes even deadly. When the wind blows, it’s a good time to go hiking. Lives have been lost when paddlers have failed to stay off the water during times of high wind.

Arroyo View ©Diana Vann

Early mornings and late afternoons, when the sun’s rays are softer, are good times to go hiking. Winding arroyos, with stands of giant Cardon cactus reaching heights over 50 feet, invite exploration. Hilltop destinations provide birds-eye views and expand perspective. A particular favorite is a high point on Isla Danzante, a steep, ragged island, and one of five located within the largest national marine sanctuary in Mexico, the Parque Nacional Bahia de Loreto.

My appreciation for the beauty of the mountains of the Sierra de la Giganta, sometimes referred to in English as the Range of Giants, wasn’t fully developed until the first time I viewed them at sunrise from across the water, on Isla Danzante. As the sun climbs above the horizon, its light moves across the faces of the mountains, which rise dramatically above the surface of the sea, highlighting jagged volcanic crags and layers. I’ve paddled to Danzante and hiked to the top of that same hill on four different Baja trips. The view from up there is a panoramic 360 degrees; it includes the mountains on the peninsula and another offshore island, Carmen. I never tire of it.

Hiking on Isla Dazante at Sunrise ©Diana Vann

Isla Danzante, especially inside the protected waters of Caleta Luna de Miel, which translates as Honeymoon Cove, is also a great place to snorkel. On my first trip there, I saw two giant moray eels and a yellow sea snake in addition to dozens of brightly colored fish. On shore, other species, such as a variety of insects, are more plentiful than it appears at first glance. Brightly colored butterflies, spiders and praying mantises are among those frequently found on the island.

Farther south, red and brown colors, the most dominant in the Sierra de la Giganta, are gradually combined with more varied hues that include green, pink and magenta. Paddling southward, I’m often struck by the feeling that I’m journeying past a painted desert bordered by an endless sea.

Paddling Among the Islands ©Diana Vann

Those who do not want to paddle to offshore islands can find plenty of hiking on the peninsula. Another favorite hiking destination, Arroyo Verde, can be reached by land or by sea. The rock formations found there are primarily colored in shades of green and pink.

Hikes can also include visits to cave and rock-shelter paintings. Some of their locations have been added to UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites.

Viewing the rock paintings at La Trinidad, located approximately 18 miles southwest of Mulege, involves a fairly short, but challenging hike along narrow paths. It includes crossing streams, two of which sometimes require swimming. The paintings found there depict human figures and wildlife, including fish and sea turtles. Baja’s cave and rock paintings are federally protected, so those sites must be visited with a guide.

Another possible cool weather hiking destination for those who prefer not to paddle is the Sierra de la Laguna Mountain Range. It receives an average of 40 inches of rainfall annually, more than the average rainfall for Seattle, but most of it falls during the months of July through November. It’s considered one of the best places to hike in winter, when it experiences mild, warm daytime temperatures. Main advantages are that it has water sources and established hiking trails, though some of them follow cow tracks. In 1994 the Sierra de la Laguna was designated a “biosphere reserve.” It’s home to about 900 plant species and unusual combinations of plants. Moss grows next to cacti. Many animal species, including deer, coyotes, foxes, and mountain lions can be found there year round, and numerous bird species migrate there for winter.

Praying Mantis Couple ©Diana Vann

An adventure in Baja is not without perils. On land there are snakes and scorpions to avoid. By sea, especially when snorkeling, stingrays, sea snakes, and stone fish are among the poisonous inhabitants to watch out for. But traveled with care, the rewards of this wild and spectacular landscape outweigh the risks.

[Part 2 of this article is here and part 3 is here]

Isla Danzante Overlook ©Diana Vann
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