Do you have an adventure or take part in an adventure? Linguistically, both are possible. Some adventures exist in the world to have and hold. They have discrete beginnings and endings with steps along the way. You can slay a dragon or ford a stream. Traveling to Guadalupe Canyon Oasis in Baja California is not that kind of adventure.
It’s the kind of adventure where you immerse yourself in an activity for the simultaneous joy of motion and rest. Perhaps John Steinbeck says it best – “The very air here is miraculous and the outlines of reality change with the moment”
Driving Laguna Salada to Reach Guadalupe Canyon
Moments in time, like sand in the desert, are fleeting. I try to put my finger on the moment when my adventure began. It wasn’t when our traveling companions, Ross and Mary, booked our campsite online or even when we crossed the border into Mexicali. It was when we pulled off Mexican Highway 2 and onto the dry lake bed of Laguna Salada (salt lake).
Driving on the lake was simple and smooth. The astounding feature was how featureless it was. The recommended approach for first timers was the gravel road about a mile to our right that we elected not to take due to rumors of washboard.
On the way back, we learned there were towers placed at 10km intervals about ¼ mile to our left but we caught sight of only a single tower coming in. We diligently followed the way line we downloaded from the Guadalupe Canyon website, ignoring the spur roads that routinely took off to parts unknown. We were very thankful for the foresight to download the map to our phone and to remember a charger.
Other than the GPS, there was no signs, markings, or indications about which road to follow or where they all would lead. It was just salt and sand. Mountains flanked the lake bed, which was about 15 miles across and ran roughly north to south so we figured we couldn’t get too far off the path. However, routes traverse this lake all the way to San Felipe, so there were consequences for wrong turns.
The Road to Guadalupe Canyon
The road held consequences too. Mostly, we cruised along at 40 mph but every now and then, a rut dictated we slow down, sometimes suddenly. My driver education teacher would have been proud of my hands at 10 and 2 and my eyes scanning the horizon.
After about an hour of travel, we had crossed the dry lake bed and reached a small olive grove that looks like it had seen better days. The smooth, dry mud gave way to a washboard gravel road and later, a rock strewn trail. Our Subaru did the trick, as would any high clearance vehicle with decent tires, but I would think twice before taking a passenger car here. The multiplicity of the lake bed roads reduced to a single, clear path.
We crept forward onto the flanks of the mountains. Small, rugged signs appeared to let us know that we were on the right path. The travel in this section was slow but passable. Seven miles later, we pulled into palm oasis that held the office to Guadalupe Canyon Hot Springs.
Our Campsite in Paradise
Ross and Mary set up camp on the deck of an abandoned swimming pool. We chose a flat spot about 100’ away in a boulder field. After a flurry of activity pitching tents we returned to the still shade of the palapas. we chatted in the shadows, drinking beer and waiting for the heat of the day and the heat of the hot tub to abide. After an intermediate amount of time (it is really hard to quantify the passage of time in Baja) we had our first soak.
The soak, suds, siesta cycle continued through the first day into the first, star filled night. I was hoping for an expansive black sky but we close enough to Mexicali to see a glow from the city. I would give it a 7 out of 10 for black sky experiences. We saw plenty of satellites and shooting stars but it was the company that made it special.
Hiking to the Waterfalls of Guadalupe Canyon
The next day, Jenn and I set off up canyon to explore the waterfalls while Ross and Mary played in the mud baths. We each enjoyed our outing but the desert heat is brutal once you leave the shade. We dared not pass the first waterfalls, even to see the petroglyphs just a little further up canyon.
The first pool was spectacular. A 20’ waterfall fell into a 6’’ deep pool that was about 30’ around. The water was so cool and refreshing, I didn’t notice aggressive garter snake charging me to defend his territory until Jenn sounded the warning. I was busy basking in the coolness of the water. After a little splashing, we reached an agreement. He had a rock on the far side and we could swim in the pool. However, there was little trust between us so we kept a close eye on each other.
To reach the main camp, oasis and waterfall trail we traveled through a built up and, by all accounts deserted camp facility with little cabins. The buildings were in good repair but there were no people anywhere. I was thinking zombie apocalypse myself. Caesar, the facility director, said that the entire canyon had been in his family since 1841. I wonder if another cousin was in charge of running this second camp.
Our stories of the waterfalls inspired Russ and Mary to go exploring. They left the camp to us. We responding by doing nothing and enjoying every minute of it. We learned how to moderate the temperature of the tub by turning the water on and off. We also had a visit from a curious rattlesnake while we were soaking. Proof positive that Baja was still wild.
Partying in the Hot Springs
As the sun set, we began to wonder about our companions. I know that they left without proper footwear or flashlights. We made plans for our rescue mission and decided to busy ourselves with dinner preparation. Our cutting board had gone missing and I remember loaning it to the neighbors to cut limes for cervezas. We wandered on over to see if we could find our stray board.
We found it there, along with our stray hikers. The were hanging out in the pool and well into a 12 pack. You can choose to be mad about poor hiking etiquette or grab a drink and jump in. One choice is significantly more fun. We simultaneously achieved our rescue objectives, made new friends, and filled our glasses.
That night, instead of the still darkness of a star filled sky, we hung out in the Castillo Campsite. Castillo had a 15’ pool next to their hot springs, which made it the premier campsite in Guadalupe Canyon in my opinion. I am not sure how long we hung out or if everybody remembered everything in the morning but I can say with certainty that a good time was had by all.
In the morning, we broke camp and returned to San Diego via Tecate. We crossed the border in less than 20 minutes which is so much better than Tijuana on a Sunday afternoon. It was also a perfect ending to our Guadalupe Canyon adventure that was highlighted by serendipitous acts of doing nothing. Jacqueline Cochran’s words summed up our weekend “Adventure is a state of mind – and spirit.”
The Nitty Gritty of Camping at Guadalupe Canyon
- Book well in advance Guadalupe Canyon Oasis office staff was a bit slow to respond and there aren’t many campsites. Most of the campsites were sold out a month or two for prime seasons.
- Bring friends. Guadalupe Canyon is a great place to hang out with friends. Remember, soaking is a mellow activity. The campground will be pretty quiet and there are posted signs against playing radios.
- Have a good, high clearance vehicle to cross the final seven miles of rocky road. Our Subaru Outback did just fine but some of the people with passenger cars told a harrowing tale of survival. You don’t need a 4x4 jeep, just be reasonable.
- Make sure you get Mexican auto insurance. We got ours through Discover Baja for the great price and quality service.
- Download your maps before you go. You can save maps offline before reaching Mexico and not worry about international data. Also, having a digital map will help navigate the dry lake bed.
- Bring everything you need, including firewood. The camp store is limited and expensive. We did our shopping in an upscale grocery store in Mexicali so we worry about importing vegetables or meat to Mexico
- Use your GPS and take the lake bed route. We heard from people who took the gravel road in that it was completely washboarded. The lake bed was smooth and easy to follow the GPS route provided from the camp.
- Check the water temperature of your pool right away. The water comes out a 125 degrees, which is way too hot to soak in and the staff fills the pools before you arrive. Expect to turn off the water and let it cool down before you get in. When it gets a little cool, turn it back on again. A dip in a cool pool is super refreshing in the morning.