Outdoor Adventures / Road Trips

Northern Baja: Roads Less Traveled

Northern Baja road trip

There are few things I love more than a good, long road trip… better yet, a good, long road trip on roads less traveled. I love the feeling of getting lost and discovering something new. And there are few roads less traveled than those through Northern Baja.

Northern Baja coastline

My fiancé Will and I will be getting married this year in a seaside village in Northern Baja called La Misión. Every New Year’s Eve, we rally a group of friends for a little surf adventure that’s just a short drive south of the border but feels like we’re worlds away.

Baja holds a very special place in our hearts — not only do we spend every New Year surfing there, we also celebrate our anniversary every New Year. So when we started dreaming up ideas for a destination wedding, Baja was high on our short list. We wanted to share this beautiful place with the friends and family who haven’t yet made the road trips with us. A wedding was the perfect excuse to get people together for one big, long, party-filled weekend.

With a date set, we planned to meander along the coast and start our venue search. Our visit coincided with our friends’ trip on the same weekend, so we decided to caravan with them down the peninsula.

Moko and Austin — two people who crave adventure and the pure life as much as we do — were towing their fresh-off-Craigslist travel trailer to a surf community south of Ensenada. Will and I tagged along because not only do we lust after our own trailer one day, but our friends were permanently parking theirs on a point break so remote, it was considered the “real” Baja. They would be moving into their sweet new vacation home, and there would be waves right in front. We were sold.

Every time we drive down Baja, I’m amazed at the amount of pristine, uninhabited coastline I see. There are a few highrises and gated gringo communities here and there; but if this gem had been a part of California, an overpriced colony of Malibu-esque manses would be fronting those beaches.

Northern Baja coastline

Here in third-world Baja, beat-up trailers and greasy taco stands get equal share of the million-dollar views. I love to drive along the coast and imagine myself living in one of those trailers in my itinerant hippie fantasy.

Salsipuedes coastline in Northern Baja

We drove past the northern cities and turned inland into the local wine region, trading endless ocean views for rustic rolling valleys. (Baja wine for the wedding, yes!)

Driving through the middle of nowhere

Wine country

We drove through the middle of nowhere, winding along two-lane roads, and no drive through the middle of nowhere is complete without a random roadside fire with the smell of burning plastic in the air.

Driving through the middle of nowhere

Those two-lane paved roads turned into one-lane dirt roads, getting narrower and narrower the further we drove, until we finally reached the coastline again with offshore winds rolling off a rocky point. Four hours after we crossed the San Diego border, we arrived at this secluded heaven.

Secret surf break

There’s not much happening here, and that’s exactly how the handful of ex-pats and locals like it. It’s miles from the main highway. Its waves are forgiving and uncrowded. A busy day at the break means half a dozen people in the lineup. Trailer encampments dot the rugged coastline. There’s a hostel above the beach with campsites on the cliff for your tent or your Westy. It’s a perfect little slice of the slow life.

The slow life in Baja

Cobblestone beach

The slow life in Baja

In front of the hostel, a set of whale bones was splayed on the sand in all its grandeur. It had washed up ashore a couple miles away, and the guys from the hostel and the neighboring ranch hauled everything back with their trucks and reassembled the skeleton piece by piece.

Whale bones

The head alone was over 20 feet long!

Whale head

Whale skeleton

Whale vertebrae

Whale bones

Whale vertebrae

Next door to the hostel is a quirky compound dubbed the Boat Ranch.

The Boat Ranch

In the early 80s, professional psychologist and former professional surfer Kent Layton defied his naysayers and purchased 14 unwanted boats from San Diego Harbor, all with blown motors and rotten hulls. Some owners even offered him money to simply haul them away.

Paying around $50 a pop for Federales escort on the highway, he towed the cabin cruisers and yachts all the way through Tijuana and Ensenada to this nearly deserted headland, where a surf break had just been discovered 12 years earlier.

Secret surf break

He laid out the Boat Ranch about 30 yards from the cliff’s edge, positioning each boat with its bow angled 28° into the prevailing wind.

The Boat Ranch

These defunct boats offered shelter and escape at the same time. A few transient surfers rent them out and fix them up throughout the year, but often the Ranch sits empty. Each boat bears the artistic mark of its former tenant, from rock gardens to glass bottle sculptures.

Defunct boats at The Ranch

Surf retreats at The Boat Ranch

Glass bottle sculpture and cabin cruiser

In the back of the Ranch sit three empty lots to build or park whatever you desire, and Moko and Austin just laid claim to one of them for their 30-foot trailer.

Setting up shop at The Boat Ranch

Just out their “backyard” is an unobstructed view of another surf break for us to explore.

Another point break in our backyard

Or should I say, a surf break for Moko and I to explore while her husband works on their trailer!

Surf trailer

While they were getting acquainted with their new home, Will and I checked in to the guest trailer at the Ranch.

Guest trailer at The Ranch

Guest trailer at The Boat Ranch

I have to admit that spending a weekend at the Ranch had me toying with the idea of parking my own trailer down here…

My itinerant hippie fantasy

Or even fixing up one of the old boats to live in. This could very well be my itinerant hippie fantasy come true.

Old boats turned surf retreats

And the waves? I could’ve surfed that fun little longboardy break all day.

Fun little longboard wave

Longboarding

Wetsuit rack

A typical dinner would be that morning’s catch from the local fishermen, whether it be lobster or yellowtail. I never thought some of the freshest sushi I’d ever taste would be in Mexico.

Fresh catch lobster

The freshest homemade sushi in Mexico

At night we’d sit around this fire pit, ringed with row boats turned on their sides. It made me want to learn how to strum guitar and beat a bongo.

Fire pit at The Boat Ranch

Instead of fire wood, we filled the pit with dried yuccas that we scavenged from the hillsides along the road.

Dried yuccas

Scavenging for yuccas from the hillsides

Scavenging for dried yuccas

We’ve got some serious yucca going on here.

Scavenging for dried yuccas

Truck full of yuccas

And when you throw one into the fire, it looks like this.

Fueling the fire

Yucca-fueled fire

It’s hard to tell without a point of reference, but the flames topped 5 feet and I thought my friends were going to break out in chant and sacrifice me to the surf god.

I’d also just gotten a new cast-iron Dutch oven that I couldn’t wait to fire up. There was no better way to break it in than a Baja bonfire with great friends and great food. Bubbling inside that oven was a lazy peach cobbler, Boy Scout style!

Dutch oven cobbler cooking in the fire

It went so fast that I could barely get a picture before the last slices were scooped up.

Lazy peach cobbler, Boy Scout style

As if the sacrificial fire wasn’t exciting enough, we also lit a few fireworks and ran for cover. Bottle rockets blasted into the air like it was Fourth of July!

Lighting up a bottle rocket

Bottle rockets blasting into the air

It was hard to leave the Ranch after our weekend of doing nothing at all and everything we wanted, but Will and I were on a mission… to La Misión. This tiny town, if you can even call it that, is one of many pocket communities that line the Gold Coast of Baja. We had only been there once on a whim to surf the beach break at K58, but I remembered the dramatic cliffs and expansive shoreline and utter seclusion of this stretch of coastline.

The Gold Coast of Baja

Through weeks of searching online, I had discovered a little-known boutique hotel perched high on the cliffs with what seemed like a thousand steps down to the beach. It had only nine rooms, an old-world Spanish flavor, and perfectly enough, its name loosely translates to “little heaven.”

Stairs leading down to the beach

Stairs leading down to the beach

Stairs leading down to the beach

Seaweed

You know everything is right in the world when this is the view from your bed in the “standard” room.

View from the "standard" room

I don’t want to give it all away yet since our plans are still in progress, but I get all giddy when I see this beautiful backdrop for our barefoot wedding.

Our barefoot wedding beach

If I’m feeling extra wild on my wedding day, I might even make my entrance on an ultralight… ?!

Ultralight taking off from the beach

And of course, there’s a surf break right in front with your pick of peaks.

Sunset surf

We wrapped up our long weekend with lunch at the best taco stand in all of Rosarito — El Leñador Grill. All of their tacos are outstanding, but I especially love the marinated and grilled peppers and onions. I could just eat a whole heaping plate of those and be happy.

Grub at El Leñador

Grilled and marinated peppers and onions

We continued up the coast with the windows rolled down and the salt breezes whipping our hair. While I took a siesta on the beach, Will paddled out for a few peelers at K38. A little grub, a little surf, and not once did we check the time while we were down south. This is why I love Baja.

Surf at K38

About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring — all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »

28 Comments

  • Seth Peterson
    March 4, 2017 at 8:26 pm

    found your blog cause of the sauerkraut recipe and then started poking around. I love baja, haven’t been much since the early 2000s. found your spot in google earth, good location. you need to go further south, though, so many points.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      March 7, 2017 at 2:26 am

      I would love to do a road trip all the way down to Cabo one day. I’ve seen lots of pictures and heard lots of stories from friends who’ve surfed all the points along the peninsula. It sounds amazing. 🙂

      Reply
  • Dolfy Freinquel
    November 6, 2015 at 3:57 pm

    Thanks Linda!!!! I’ll check it out. D

    Reply
  • Dr Kent Layton
    November 6, 2015 at 7:06 am

    call and I will tell you about the hostel at Quatro Casas point 619 922 3817

    Reply
  • Dolfy Freinquel
    November 5, 2015 at 8:16 pm

    Hi…great article about Baja. Can you give me the name and the location of the little paradise hotel with 9 rooms in Baja…..I just cannot find any reference…Thanks. Dolfy

    Reply
    • Linda Ly of Garden Betty
      November 6, 2015 at 2:04 pm

      Poco Cielo, though they’ve built a few more rooms since this post was written. Do a search on my blog for “wedding” and you’ll see our pictures from there. 🙂

      Reply
  • […] Take the bathroom, for instance. We have two communal bathrooms at the Boat Ranch, and you might as well label one for “Men” and the other for “Women.” The men’s version has an outdoor shower (which admittedly feels awesome on a hot day) and a urinal crafted from a large shell. It’s a fairly recent addition to the Ranch, and in fact there have been quite a few improvements since the first time I ever set foot in this surf community three years ago. […]

    Reply
  • ted939
    February 6, 2015 at 6:05 pm

    My girlfriend and I want to rent one of those Boat Ranch boats for some days of surfing if we can! Well, I haven’t told her about it yet (I just today saw/read this blog), but I want to surprise her with it, and I know she’ll love it as a getaway. We’re right up the coast in San Diego 🙂

    And/or, maybe you could tell me that hotel you found near K-58??

    Thanks for keeping such a great blog,
    Ted

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      February 6, 2015 at 10:11 pm

      Hi Ted,

      None of the boats are for rent as it’s a private community, but the hotel on K58 is the one I was married at, Poco Cielo (there are many pictures here on my blog). Highly recommended. It’s a completely different wave at Poco Cielo, but fun if you like beach breaks.

      Reply
      • ted939
        February 6, 2015 at 10:41 pm

        Oh, I just mentioned renting because you said, ”

        A few transient surfers rent them out …” Maybe that was just back then?

        Thanks for your reply and the Poco Cielo reference – I’ll check it out. You guys rock 🙂

        Reply
        • Linda Ly
          February 7, 2015 at 12:14 am

          I meant the surfers rent them to live in. 🙂

          Reply
          • ted939
            February 7, 2015 at 7:59 am

            Ah, got it. How long do transient surfers rent them to live in? We’re transient surfers 🙂 !

          • Linda Ly
            February 7, 2015 at 3:49 pm

            One of our residents has been there over 30 years. If you’re thinking of living in Baja, there are SO MANY properties along the coast, and some even closer to San Diego. When you get to more remote places like the Boat Ranch, however, it’s always a matter of knowing someone who lives there. The communities are very private because they’re homes, not weekend rentals.

          • ted939
            February 8, 2015 at 2:44 pm

            Wow – 30 years? Awesome – although 30 years in one spot isn’t what I’d call transient.
            Perhaps we’ll cross paths at some point down there somewhere (or here in S.D./L.A.!).
            We just had a great afternoon/sunset surf at Tourmaline in S.D. yesterday – hopefully down to Baja in not too distant future.
            Thanks for all!

  • Dr Kent Layton
    November 13, 2013 at 8:46 am

    Betty you and your hubby can use my room any time you want . It has a wood stove and is great during a storm. The key is under a shell on the left side of the door. I designed that place for people like you two have fun Dr Kent Layton 619 922 3817

    Reply
  • […] had hinted last year that my then-fiancé and I were searching the Gold Coast of Northern Baja for an appropriate venue […]

    Reply
  • How to Live | Garden Betty
    June 21, 2013 at 6:00 am

    […] I go to the Boat Ranch, I come back feeling relaxed and inspired — by the crisp country air and days of doing nothing, […]

    Reply
  • […] Last March, we started driving down to a little surf spot about four hours south of the California border. Within a couple hours of the border are tourist towns like Rosarito and Ensenada with highrise hotels and gated gringo communities, but drive another couple hours south and suddenly you’re in The Real Mexico. A place where English is scarce, where pesos are more common than dollars, and where most Americans are afraid to travel through. […]

    Reply
  • […] The Boat Ranch, people are uninhibitedly happy. People are released from the day-to-day worries of alarms and […]

    Reply
  • […] the Dutch oven debut in Baja? For the initiation we had kept it simple and sweet with a Boy Scout-style peach cobbler. For its […]

    Reply
  • Klayton
    May 3, 2012 at 6:27 pm

    Get a Boar Ranch t shirt at cafepress.com the boat ranch        a photo from the air  Regards       KL

    Reply
  • Klayton
    May 3, 2012 at 6:25 pm

    The Boar Ranch is available for photo shoots and adventures to friendly honest people that like to just be there or surf, lobster,waves, fish, photograph, burn large fires,motocross baja cross country style, four wheel drive,smile, lounge, find private time in the boats back decks beyond eyes, sky rockets, m 80 s in the hand that dont blow themselves up,steaks, chicken, veges, flashlights, video cameras, tequilla, margis, corona pacifico, kites and your imagination,  inquiries to Kent Layton.619 922 3817 i will hook you up to Keven Hansen the guru of the Boat ranch in this day and age.  Make sure you have a good functioning car of 4 wheel drive   cheers              KL code name  Dr Strange  Love  hahaaahaahaahaaahaaahaahaaaaahahahahahaaaaaaa

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      May 4, 2012 at 2:04 am

      Hey Dr. Strange Love! Can I call you DSL for short? I think I’m heading back down there this month, let you know when I do!

      Reply
  • […] on the counter in a handcrafted egg holder. I spotted it in a Mexican woodworking shop on my recent road trip. It holds 12 eggs neatly in 12 little slots — and I’m even weird enough to display them in […]

    Reply
  • janet
    April 14, 2012 at 10:50 am

     Growing up in Nebraska, then Colorado and now Ohio, I never became a surfer but I love the emptiness and beauty of your spot.  The hotel is excellent!!  Thanks for sharing.  Makes me want to go on vacation right now.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      April 14, 2012 at 3:45 pm

      I love the mountains just as much as I love the ocean. 🙂 It’s a wonderful world we live in… so much to see!

      Reply
  • Anne Blake Cummings
    April 14, 2012 at 9:05 am

    What a great pictorial! I pinned several on Pinterest, thank you for sharing. All best on your Baja wedding and much future happiness!

    Reply

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