After dreaming about it for years we finally made the trip down the length of the Baja Peninsula. It so exceeded our expectations that we believe it’s one of the top trips for RVers in North America. But we found the planning a bit daunting so we decided to post some tips for RVers that plan to drive to Baja in the future. This first post is a very brief overview of the Baja Peninsula. Depending on the time you have available and your interests you can plan widely varying itineraries. Hopefully this will help you formulate your plans.
It varies from hilly wine country to mountains to desert landscape to rocky and sandy beaches. The Pacific and the Sea of Cortez offer whale watching, kayaking, sailing, surfing, kite surfing, SUPing, snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing and more. On land there is hiking, exploring ruins, visiting museums, churches, historical sites, birding, ATVing, 4-wheeling, horseback riding and more.
When we mention each of the main towns the highway passes through we will show the distance in miles from the border (in parentheses). Bear in mind that due to the condition of the road, you should be very conservative in estimating travel time (40 mph is a good average).
For the purposes of this overview we will list the towns in order from north to south although in reality we stopped in some of the places on our way south and others on our way north.
Federal Highway 1 goes from Tijuana on the northern border by San Diego to Cabo San Lucas on the southernmost tip of the Peninsula. Along the way it crisscrosses from the Pacific Coast on the west to the Sea of Cortez on the east of the Peninsula several times.
The northernmost part of Baja extending 100 miles or so from the border has large cities, pretty landscapes, beaches, and the famous wine country in the Guadelupe Valley. These make for an easy hop from California and Arizona, and there are various expat enclaves in the area.
Just south of San Diego is Tijuana and between there and Ensenada are Rosarito and Puerto Nuevo. These seaside towns are popular day trip destinations for Southern Californians.
We crossed the border in Tecate and then drove 69 miles south and west on Highway 3 to Ensenada where it meets the Transpeninsular Highway. This route goes through the beautiful Valle de Guadalupe which we hope to visit another time.
There is lots to do in Ensenada: restaurants from the exclusive and famous to food trucks, all kinds of shopping, many bars etc.
Lots of large grocery and other stores and service providers make it a good area to provision and make any last minute vehicle checks before heading further south.
There are some great surfing areas on this Pacific shore, a continuation of the California surf beaches.
The Transpeninsular Highway meanders along the coast and is generally in good condition and not too narrow (yet).
South of Ensenada the less developed Baja begins. The highway gets narrower with tiny or no shoulders. Grocery and other stores are smaller and scarcer. For the next hundreds of miles the communities are small and often there are long stretches of remote and beautiful nature.
More empty beaches line the road as you continue toward El Rosario (219 miles). At El Rosario the road turns inland (and uphill) towards the center of the peninsula and reaches the southern extension of the Sonoran Desert, with unique and cool endemic plants like the huge cardón cacti.
It is wild and beautiful with incredible views. After El Rosario there is the famous “gas gap”, a 235 mile stretch with no gas stations and no supplies.
Somewhere in the middle of this stretch there is a turn off (~40 miles one way dead end) to Bahía de los Angeles (399 miles), a gorgeous bay and the first opportunity to head over to the beautiful Sea of Cortez.
It is a tiny town in an incredible setting and waterfront camping. One of our favorites.
Dolphins, birds, and sea lions dot the bay. There are several offshore islands, reachable by kayak or boat tours (both recommended). Most people visit in winter because it’s pretty hot in summer there, but sport fishing is popular between June and November and whale sharks come to the area to feed from July to November.
Shortly after crossing the border to Baja Sur you reach the town of Guerrero Negro (443 miles), a decent size town (the first since Ensenada) that is a great place to shop, do laundry, get gas after the gas gap, fill water containers etc.
The town is a gateway to the Laguna Ojo de Liebre, the first of several lagoons on the way south where you can see gray whales in the winter calving season. Whale watching tours run from December through April.
There are many tour operators in town. The boats depart next to the world’s largest salt mine which is kind of interesting. The experience of being up close to these magnificent animals was so emotional and unforgettable. We went out multiple times.
The highway then turns back inland towards the east, here you pass the cute tiny inland oasis town of San Ignacio (530 miles). This is the access point to the San Ignacio Lagoon, the second gray whale watching destination (we didn’t get to go whale watching here due to windy weather).
The road then continues down an extremely steep and several mile long downhill, named la Cuesta del Infierno (the Incline from Hell), before reaching the mining town of Santa Rosalia (574 miles) on the Sea of Cortez. On the way north, the Cuesta del Infierno is the steepest climb on the entire drive. We unhooked our tow car prior to climbing it just in case.
The highway then follows the shore to the tiny town of Mulegé (611 miles), another good place to provision. A lovely river runs through town. Mulegé is at the north end of Bahía Concepción, a 20-mile long bay where a number of scenic coves make for some of the best beach camping and kayaking on the Sea of Cortez.
We camped at Playa Santispac (624 miles). A dream spot. Some people spend the entire season and we understand why. Our eight days there felt short. Several other coves also offer beach camping and everyone has their favorite. Vendors came by in the morning with fresh produce, seafood, empanadas, and offering fresh water fills and pump out service.
The highway goes inland at the end of the bay and continues south to the beautiful colonial town of Loreto (695 miles), a Pueblo Mágico also on the Sea of Cortez. This was the site where the Spaniards started the first mission and is the beginning of the Camino Real. A gorgeous little town.
The church in town is historic with a cool little museum about the Spanish missionaries’ history. And near Loreto is Mission San Javier, a stunning and ornate mission up in the mountains. A worthy and scenic side trip.
Shortly after Loreto, the road turns inland and climbs a giant hill to cross back over towards the west but not quite to the Pacific coast. It crosses the Magdalena plain where there are a few agricultural working towns like Cuidad Constitución (786 miles) with more opportunities to buy provisions. The town is also a gateway to Magdalena Bay, another lagoon where gray whales congregate.
There is a side road near here to the tiny fishing village of Puerto Chalet (832 miles). It is the newest of the official (but not yet well known) whale watching spots with almost no infrastructure (yet). It was absolutely wonderful.
The road then crosses over once again back to the Sea of Cortez and the good sized city of La Paz (915 miles). La Paz is beautiful with a miles-long malecón (boardwalk) facing a lovely bay and a large offshore island named Isla Espíritu Santo, a Natural Protected Area and UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Great beaches are around as well. Playa Tecolote was the only place where we boondocked and it was absolutely gorgeous.
The Touristy and Beautiful Far South
The last 100 miles or so at the southern end of Baja are once again more developed. The roads become wider and shoulders reappear as you head south past La Paz and approach the town at the tip of the peninsula, Cabo San Lucas (1010 miles).
Cabo also has the most resources for things like vehicle repair available since Ensenada in the north.
Time did not permit a visit to Los Barriles which is known for kite surfing nor tiny Cabo Pulmo, site of the largest reef on this coast, part of the Parque Nacional Cabo Pulmo. Both are on the Sea of Cortez.
Just to the west of Cabo sits San Jose del Cabo, a picturesque town with a bit more laidback feel than busy Cabo San Lucas.
There are beautiful beaches and many beach resorts in Cabo San Lucas and in the “corridor” between Cabo and San Jose del Cabo, the deep-sea fishing is world class, there are great golf resorts and lots more. Both are quite developed with high prices to match.
There are other areas on Baja that the Transpeninsular highway does not go through and that we did not visit, including the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir, a large national park in the mountains of the north.
So there you have it. Quite the varied selection of nature, wildlife, history, and culture. Two months wasn’t nearly enough time for us. There are quite a number of places we skipped over or that we could have definitely spent more time in.
Planning our trip
Our priorities were: kayaking and snorkeling in the Sea of Cortez, tours to see the gray whales and their babies on the Pacific side and whale sharks and blue whales on the Sea of Cortez side, and exploring historical sites and camping and just relaxing in beautiful settings.
We also wanted to spend time in the towns of Loreto and La Paz and although we weren’t much interested in the congested Cabo area we did want to make a day trip down to the southern tip of the Peninsula.
So Hector created a spreadsheet and we filled in the places we wanted to visit using Google Maps to assure that the drive time and distance between them was reasonable. Whatever drive time Google Maps estimated we adjusted up quite a bit to acknowledge we were in an RV and to allow for poking around along the way
We allocated time to each stop to make sure that we had enough time at each of them while making sure the overall trip ended on time.
But we also wanted flexibility so we didn’t make any camping reservations in advance.
Although we did wind up changing both the order of places we visited and the number of days spent in each, we still believe that our spreadsheet was a valuable tool as it kept us focused on our priorities and timeframe.
Each of the places above that we visited are covered in much more detail in the posts that we wrote along the way. To find the posts, use the search box on the upper right of the home page.