Cass Gilbert on the Baja Divide Missions section

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To wrap up the Baja Divide season, Cass Gilbert heads off to tackle the 555-mile Missions section of the route, considered to be its highlight. He returns with a tan, a ride gallery, and advice on the ride itself, including some logistical details for zoning in on this glorious, easily accessed part of the 1,700 mile route. If you’ve two weeks to spare next winter, start dreaming now…

The 555-mile Baja Divide Missions section is considered the route’s highlight in terms of variety of terrain and experiences. As both parts of its name suggest, it flits from the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez, connecting a number of colonial Spanish missions via classic Baja roads. And by roads, I mean dirt, stone, rock, sand, and even swathes of unpopulated beaches, complete with a curious interplay between towering cardón cacti, azure blue waters, and a rich colonial history. It’s a fabulous ride that showcases the best of what the peninsula has to offer, providing a very tempting (and taco-laden) escape from a US winter.

  • Baja Divide Missions Section
  • Baja Divide Missions Section
  • Baja Divide Missions Section
  • Baja Divide Missions Section
  • Baja Divide Missions Section

Getting there is surprisingly simple and affordable. Cheap flights can be found into La Paz, one of the region’s main transportation hubs, from where you can hop on a bus (8-10 hours with the Aguila line, can be booked online, bike fits in the hold), or hitch to the quiet backwaters of San Ignacio, the start point of the section (prevailing winds means it’s best to ride south). There are also flights into Loreto with Alaska Airlines, providing a shorter access point to San Ignacio. Best of all, Alaska only charges $25 for bikes!

Aside from varying road surfaces and some steep climbs, carrying water is the main daily challenge in Baja California. I’d recommend hauling 6l most of the time, with the capacity to balloon to 8-10 liters for dry campouts and hot days. In practice, you’ll often pass small ranchitos where you can ask for water from the pozo – the well – to quench your thirst and practice your Spanish. Everyone is very amenable and friendly. There’s even a few enterprising families in more remote tracts of the route who have set up drink stands and can rustle up some huevos rancheros< for passing cyclists, a sign that the Baja Divide is gaining in popularity. In terms of temperatures, I rode the section in mid-April, which I'd consider to be too late. For cooler temperatures (but shorter days), the route is best ridden between January and March. As a result, I certainly suffered in the midday heat (temperatures reached 45°C/110°F), particularly in the mountains and along the Sea of Cortez, which is a lot less breezy than the Pacific coast, where nights can be surprisingly cool. Bring lots of isotonic tablets to add to your water, as you'll be guzzling them down day and night.

  • Missions section Baja Divide
  • Baja Divide Missions Section
  • Baja Divide Missions Section

As for my setup, I went with 27.5in tires on my Tumbleweed Prospector rigid frame. I ran an aggressive Maxxis High Roller 2 up front and a Chronicle in the back, and I was glad to have the extra volume and bite. Narrower tires would doubtlessly have worked, but the mid flat platform makes up for its extra weight given the general smorgasbord of Baja terrain. Although sandy stretches are relatively short, when combined with corrugation, river beds, and roughly cut mountain roads, I was glad to have the extra cushion, especially given the lack of suspension on my bike (in hindsight, a front suspension hardtail would have been a welcome change). Dropping air pressure for sandy sections makes a massive difference in what you can ride rather than push, and is worth the extra bicep work to get your tires back to pavement PSI. Just take care that your tire pressure isn’t too low on fast, rocky descents.

In terms of timing, You’ll probably want to put aside 11 riding days for this section, plus a possible day off in Mulegé and/or Ciudad Constitución, and a day in hand for unexpected logistical setbacks, like the time taken to organise a fishing boat over to Los Hornitos beach. This short boat ride leads into my favourite segment of the ride, a sandy track along a pencil-thin peninsula that traces the eastern fringes of the beautiful Bahía de la Concepción. So, call it two weeks. Depending on the time of year, you’ll likely be getting up early and taking a siesta at lunch to avoid the midday heat, or facing shorter riding days during the winter.

For the most part, food is relatively scarce outside of main resupply points. If you’re zoning in on this ride, I’d recommend bringing some quality dehydrated rations to supplement the bags of readily available fried beans, goat cheese, avocados, and tortillas. Pack some healthy snacks to provide a change from the omnipresent biscuits and quick-to-melt chocolates. My personal favourite was a locally made coconut bar laced with sugar and coloured like the Mexican flag, along with various nut-based candies.

  • Baja Divide Missions Section
  • Baja Divide Missions Section
  • Baja Divide Missions Section

Of course, you’ll probably be filling your belly with shrimp or fish tacos when you get the chance, at less than two USD each, they’re a great fast food and you won’t get anything fresher. Resourceful bikepackers can even buy fish from fishermen and make their own al fresco dinners. Many get by without cooking, but I like to have my minimal denatured alcohol pot set. Ask for Alcohol Denaturalizado in hardware stores.

I’d note that there’s been some narco activity in Baja California recently, so don’t be surprised to see heavily armed Federales and the odd army Humvee prowling through town. This said, I’d stress that I never felt in danger at any time at all. In fact, people were incredibly warm and inviting, safe camp spots are abundant, and even drivers are courteous for the most part.

If time is tight, you can drop down to Loreto from the turnoff before San Javier. Loreto also has a great bike-friendly spot to camp in the form of Palmas Atlas. Otherwise, you can push on to Ciudad Constitución and then La Paz, the peninsula’s most bustling city and the gateway to the more developed cape. If you’re flying home out of Loreto, there are regular buses back with the Aguila line, taking around 4 hours.

And lastly, I’d urge anyone riding this route to minimise their dependency on buying plastic bottles of water, which are available in many stores. If you don’t want to drink well water, bring a filter or refill from the water purification centres in every large town, for just a few Mexican pesos. Additionally, several sections of the route promise reliable groundwater, which I drank from using a lightweight Lifestraw. There’s so much plastic trash along Mexico’s roads, that it seems especially tragic to add to it in the otherwise pristine Baja environment.

A few hints and tips

  • The Baja Divide website has downloadable notes and a separate GPX track for the Missions Section, including details on resupplies, water, and trail conditions. The associated Baja Divide Facebook Page is very active and has lots of up to date trail info, too.
  • Expect a wide range of terrain. Given a few extended paved sections, plus-sized tires make more sense than a full fat bike, though you’ll have fun with either. I wouldn’t go narrower than a 2.5″ tire if you can help it.
  • A fully rigid bike is fine, though front suspension will be gentler on your body.
  • Tap into local bike culture by visiting the Casa del Ciclista in San Ignacio where you can camp for 100 pesos and at the Warmshower’s host in Mulegé. Ask to be put in touch with friendly Alejandro Bukovecz, a local fishing guide who can take you to Los Hornitos.
  • Pensión California is an affordable hotel in La Paz that’s popular with other Baja Divide riders and can be booked on hotels.com.
  • Electrolytes! Bring lots of them, especially if riding later in the season.
  • Pack some dehydrated food to supplement local beans and tortillas!
  • I carried a lightweight tent, but it’s easy to get by with a tarp and sleep out under the stars.
  • If you need to stay in touch with home, good wifi can be found in San Ignacio, Mulegé, and Ciudad Constitución. My Verizon account allowed me to use my phone and data connection without additional charge in Mexico, once I’d set it up.
  • Check when the Baja 1000, NORRA 1000, and Dos Mares 500 races are taking place and make sure your ride doesn’t coincide with them, as roads take a real beating during those times, and Baja Bugs will burn past you, leaving you in a cloud of dust. The biggest even is the Baja 1000 and tends to take place in mid November, with pre riding of the course leading up to it. The others are in April. Check their websites for route details.
  • Short on time? Dropping down to Loreto from San San Javier and flying out from there will save 3-4 days. Or, claw back a day by hoping on a bus from Loreto to Ciudad Constitución and continuing the route from there.
  • Extra time on your hands? Mulegé and Ciudad Constitución make good spots for a day off. The first is quiet and idyllic, the second a good insight into Baja front country life.
  • For cheap flights to the region, check out Alaskan Airlines, which offers competitive prices to Loreto and Cabo, charging only $25 for a bike. Bargain!
  • Do what you can to cut down on plastic bottles during your ride and help keep the area clean. Bring a lightweight filter and fill your bottles from wells and water purification centres when you have the chance.
The Baja Divide connects the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez, historic Spanish mission sites rich with shade and water, remote ranchos and fishing villages, bustling highway towns, and every major mountain range in Baja California on miles and miles of beautiful backcountry desert tracks. Find out more here.
22 Comments
  • Pistil Pete

    Nice feedback and a timely headsup about plastic.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks.

    Sadly, lots of otherwise natural drinks, like Agua de Jamaica, are served in polystyrene cups, I guess because it’s ‘modern’ and ‘convenient’.

    The Lifestraw is pretty neat for drinking straight out of streams.

  • Great photos as always @cassgilbert:disqus !

  • Nat Smith

    One minute pristine and the next…not so much.
    “Adopt a Bike Route” is needed in so many places. That would be a group ride worth taking.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/2aa8c7399900faaf1e6b75a0993cc013d24550a9f8351ae5966b65b31e31aac3.jpg

  • Cass Gilbert

    Is this in Baja? I guess it could be anywhere, these days…

    My personal plight is based around the idea that as visitor to a country, the least I can do is minimise my impact there as much as possible. For me, this translates into a complete refusal to buy plastic bottles and deferring on drinks if they’re served in a plastic/styrofoam cups (though it’s sometimes hard to know until they appear before you). Otherwise, I figure that I could easily go through a few plastic bottles a day in a hot climate, which could equate to 60 bottles over the course of a bike tour.

    Others go much further. They collected errant trash from their campsite or where they stop for lunch, or a national park they visit, and stuff their pockets and bags with it. I’d like to do more of that; as bikepackers, maybe we should all carry a bag for trash other than our own and aim to fill a bag a day. But for now, I’m focusing my attention on cutting down my own use of plastic and packaging as much as I can, and encouraging others to do so too. For the most part, it seems like a pretty attainable goal to strive for.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks Miles! Lots of good pickings in terms of empty dirt roads and interesting walls (-:

  • Nat Smith

    Yes, the northern section (section 1). I totally agree with you on everything. I didn’t mean to sound negative about Baja at all…just reinforcing how big the problem is, especially in poor areas where recycling is the least of their daily worries (I saw no chances to recycle anything anywhere) so yeah…we all have to do what we can.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Hi Nat, I didn’t take it as a negative comment at all. Rather, a reinforcement of the reality of the situation (in Baja and plenty of places elsewhere). I’m not sure if you saw, but I included a photo of the segment out of Ciudad Constitution just to highlight where all that trash goes… into a smouldering dump…

  • Nat Smith

    I passed by one of those too. Your suggestions are a good start.

  • Great photos Cass! I especially like the landscape shots, including the final ride along the Sea of Cortez into La Paz, laden with layers of colored rock.

  • John Hammer

    Hi Gass
    What About a box to you bike after the trip
    Thank you

  • Cass Gilbert

    I picked up one locally, wasn’t an issue. It was actually from the bike shop in La Ventana, as a friend of mine works there so picked it up in his truck. I’d catch in a touch with a bike shop early and let them you know. This said, I imagine most people riding this section (rather than the whole route) would fly in and out of the same location for easy logistics, and just leave their box/bag at the hotel.

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks! I gathered you liked that last section from your trail description, layer cake rocks and all (-: The last couple of my ride days coincided with preparations for the Dos Mares 500, so there was crazy race traffic as people prepped the route.

    Awesome section, I figured with that and the Cape Loop, I’ve covered close to half the mileage of the Baja Divide…

  • Ben Ripley

    Stunning work as always Cass. Of all the amazing trips you’ve completed over the years and how inspiring they have been to me, the Baja is the one that I really obsess over doing one day. Thanks for allowing me to do it vicariously this time!

  • remon Lemmens

    Hi Cass, as always, a very thorough and inspiring contribution to this site. Thanks for that! Question: I noticed you’re using the Tarptent Bowfin 1. That was delivered to me last Thursday. So, I’m curious to your experiences with it? Any chance of a review coming up? Kind regards, Remon

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks Remon.

    Yes, it is indeed a Bowfish 1. Though it sounds like any review comes too late for you, if you’ve already bought it (-;

    Still, I think you made a good choice. I’ve worked my way through many Tarptents over the years and I think the Bowfish is a great addition to the lineup. I like that it’s pretty much freestanding, there’s tonnes of ventilation, and like all Tarptents, it’s incredibly quick to put up. So far my use is fairly limited – its seen time in Tahoe and Baja – but I’ll be trying it out on the Bolivian Altiplano before too long so will report back when I see how it does under windier conditions!

  • Cass Gilbert

    Thanks kindly Ben!

    I think you will love this ride, especially coming from the UK (-; Great weather, amazing beach camping, some sweet desert trail systems, rugged dirt roads, and of course, those tacos… If you don’t have time for the whole thing, doing this section plus the Cape Loop would make for a great trip with easy logistics, and amount to close to half of the entire distance of the route.

    I will be in the UK from mid July, maybe we can meet up for a ride!

  • Ben Ripley

    It’s definitely on the bucket list! Thanks for the tips. Hmmmm Tacos….

    And yes definitely would love to meet up for a spin when you’re over here in July. Give me a shout (DM on Instagram?) when you know the dates and we’ll sort something out!

  • You can leave Baja California but it never leaves you. A truly spectacular place.

  • The Baja 1000 was really guilty in this respect. I cycled through the far northern section a week after they had raced. Trash was everywhere. All American beers/products made it even sadder insofar as they should know better.

  • Erica

    Cass! It’s the Bowfin 1! ;)

  • Cass Gilbert

    Oops!