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Discover Baja's High Country

by Benjamin Eugene

Those who picture Baja California as an unrelieved desert would be surprised to discover the highest part of the backbone of the peninsula is covered by conifer forests, with winter snows and flowered meadows in the summer.

This is the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir, a mountain chain that runs north-south along the middle part of the northwestern Mexican state of Baja California, with its name Spanish for "mountains of Saint Peter the Martyr." The highest point is Cerro de la Encantada, 3,096 meters (10,158 feet). Also known as Picacho del Diablo (Devil’s Peak), this is the highest point in the state of Baja California, as well as the entire Baja California Peninsula, and a popular expert rock climbing and rappelling destination.

The Sierra San Pedro Mártir is a sky island of rugged forested ridges and broad meadows, standing high above the coastal slopes to the west and dropping sharply to the San Felipe desert on the east.

The Sierra de San Pedro Mártir is a good example of a "sky island" because the species that inhabit this mountain range have been separated from related creatures that live in adjacent high-elevation areas by their inability to cross the hotter, drier low-elevation deserts. This physical isolation has permitted genetic drifts among several local plant and animal populations, producing variations found only in the Sierra de San Pedro Mártir.

Probably the best example is the Nelson's rainbow trout, a species tolerant of warm water and native to a few permanent pools and west flowing streams. Others animals include 20 subspecies of birds, and 5 species and 8 subspecies of mammals. Beyond these are the more familiar animals such as bighorn sheep, mule deer, cougars and many smaller species.

The Sierra de San Pedro Mártir became a national park in 1947, and work is now underway for it to be designated as part of the International Biosphere Preserve, a most worthy distinction for this unique place.

Its geological history is closely related to the events that were responsible for the formation of the other peninsular range complexes to the north, including the Sierra Juárez of Baja California, the Cuyamaca and Laguna mountains of San Diego County, and the San Jacinto mountains of Riverside County.

The climate is similar to that of mountains of southern California, with the main precipitation coming from winter storms, and occasional summer monsoon storms.

This natural area, which is also home to the National Astronomy Observatory of the Autonomus University of Mexico (Longitude: 115° 27´49; West Latitude: 31° 02´39 North), built in 1971 on a neighboring peak from Picacho del Diablo, and is home to Mexico's largest optical telescope, with a diameter of 2.12 meters, and a weight of 40 tons in total.

The National Observatory is located on a 9,000-foot ridge overlooking the San Felipe Desert thousands of feet below. The facility consists of a world-class 82-inch reflecting telescope, along with several smaller units. Astronomers from around the world come here to take advantage of the excellent conditions where light and atmospheric pollution is minimal.

At the top of the range are ranches and beautiful isolated campsites surrounded by giant old growth, Jeffrey and lodgepole pines, and extensive groves of quaking aspens with hiking trails leading to Blue Bottle, a 2,900-meter (9,500-foot) rise, and Picacho del Diablo.

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Activities: Expeditions, walking, mountaineering, mountain biking, horse riding, camping, flora and fauna watching, as well as sky watching.

A unique experience is walking to the viewpoint at El Altar, at over 8,000 feet, you can see both the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Cortez at the same time, or visiting the Misión de San Pedro Mártir de Verona (1794-1824) by horse ride for two and a half days with the help of a guide.

Classification: National Park since 1947; priority area.

Location: Located in Sierra de San Pedro Mártir mountains in the center of Baja California.

Surface: 65,000 hectares/160,550 acres

Weather: Extreme mediterranean climate, with dry and hot summers, and rainy winters, snowing during cold periods of winter.

Vegetation: Pine, fir, cypress and poplar forests.

Wildlife: Ram, cougar, black tail deer, mountain lion, royal eagle, owl, raccoon, coyotes, among others.

Access: Departing from Ensenada by the transpeninsular road Highway 1 at Km 243 (Km 140 section Ensenada-San Quintín) in San Telmo de Abajo, take the small road to the east (there is a signal), keep going 47 miles and you'll arrive at the National Park entry.

Further information: Request a Baja California National Parks guide in the tourism office of your locality.

Resources: San Diego Natural History Museum, Wikipedia, Discover Baja California, Baja State Secretary of Tourism.

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