Northern Baja road trip
Outdoor Adventures, Road Trips

Northern Baja: Roads Less Traveled

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

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