South Of The Border: ATV Baja Tours

Destinations, International, West — on March 28, 2006 at 12:00 pm

Fancy yourself a weekend warrior in search of the ultimate ATV vacation? Try going south of the border for a ride with ATV Baja Tours. All you have to do is show up and ride. The adventures are led by none other than eight-time Baja winner Greg Row, a celebrated weekend warrior in his own right. Using his encyclopedic knowledge of the peninsula, he maps out the routes, decides on gas stops, food, and lodging and even offers Bombardier and Honda ATV rentals.
That’s just what we did last March with a trio of fortysomethings. David, a Bombardier district manager; Cory, who owns Alba Action Sports and Doug, an indoor amusements business owner. Trailering three Bombardier DS650s, Row’s race-prepped DS and one FourTrax 400EX, we crossed the border into Tecate and began the adventure.
In Rancho Santa Veronica, just an hour into Mexico, we met up with the rest of the crew. Twentysomething brothers Kevin and Brian brought a pair of Hondas — one, a well-worn desert sled, the other a lightly modified 400EX. Cliff — another seasoned Baja veteran — and his sidekick, Bart, rounded out our support crew by taking turns leading or sweeping the ride.
After a brief 8 a.m. pow-wow covering riding etiquette, we headed straight to the El Compadre Trail, part of the Baja 500 race course. The connecting trail started out as a tight, woodsy warm-up jog. So tricky was it that Brian had the indignation of suffering the trip’s first harmless get-off — in our first five minutes of riding, no less.
On this sunny, 75-degree day, the terrain looked much like that of Southern California: sweeping Oak trees, numerous rock formations, tons of scrub brush. Soon, the trail headed into a pine forest that was reminiscent of Flagstaff, Arizona’s upper reaches. Then, it was down to Parque Constitution de Nacional. Soon enough, we were at Laguna Hanson for a respite.
On our 56th click of the odometer, we came upon the “saw mill” — also known as Rancho Ramona — to top off the tanks. Gas was $3 a gallon, sodas and candy bars just a buck. We got our fill of all three before heading off for trails that were alternately sandy, rocky, flat, hilly, straight and twisty. By midday, the group was gelling and our guides were keeping a reasonable, yet challenging pace. At around 3:45, after 123 somewhat grueling miles, we found our support crew — Mom and Dad Row — with sandwiches, soft drinks and chips at the ready for a roadside lunch and splash of gas overlooking Valle de Trinidad.
We finished off the day with a marathon ride up to Mike’s Sky Ranch, a legendary, 27-room hacienda 25 miles off the beaten path. Surviving the fast, rough road wending its way up to Mike’s, we arrived just before dark, hardly 30 miles after our late lunch, physically and mentally spent from 150 miles on the trail. Recalling a roadside sign for the Sky Ranch that seemed to offer quick relief, Brian quipped, “That’s the longest six miles I’ve seen in a long time.”
“It’s been an amazing ride so far,” said shirt-sleeved, cowboy-booted Doug, a duner who admitted that this was his first ride in the dirt: “Really, I’m just a Glamis Guy.” Kevin, another sand weenie, was even more emphatic: “The best ride I’ve ever had in my whole life,” he said before retreating to the well-stocked bar for a cold cerveza. A dazed-looking David looked glad to have survived his fourth-ever ATV ride. Before getting cleaned up, most folks went to the bar for a pre-dinner beverage and bench-racing session.
The best way to describe Mike’s is authentic and rustic. The best rooms are situated in an L-shaped manner around the outdoor pool and fire pit. The mess hall, bar and kitchen are across the way. Accommodations are simple and rudimentary. We dined family-style on steak with rice, beans and tortillas while being regaled with tales of Baja by Cliff and Greg, both verifiable crusty demons of the desert. After raising a little bit of rabble, our group turned in before the generator shut down at 10 p.m., snoozing under heavy blankets on a starry, 50-degree night.
We awoke to a brilliant, sunny morning. A stroll into the kitchen for a cup of java found the owner himself milling around while the senoritas made fresh tortillas and squeezed up some orange juice. Breakfast consisted of eggs with green peppers and tomatoes, with more beans and salsa.
After obligatory pictures with Mike, we left and traversed the gnarliest, steepest, most boulder-strewn downhill imaginable. One of the toughest sections of the Baja 500 course, it’s simply called “the back side of Mike’s.” Everybody made it down and through the four-foot-deep, 15-foot-wide water crossing unscathed. After this, it was smooth fireroad sailing to Valle de Trinidad. The graded road was a maze of perfectly arched switchbacks that swooped up and down little rises and around the hills heading into town.
Some 56 miles into this glorious 80-degree day, we gassed up at VdT’s local Pemex station and took on refreshments. As we headed toward the coast, the scenery turned from brown to green. Mile by mile, the landscape got more lush as we traversed yet another fabulous fireroad spiced with tighter, rockier portions. We met up with the chase truck before encountering a twisting, turning rural highway — truly a top-gear love affair.
That lunch stop was at an abandoned house under construction above an agave farm. With full bellies, we headed toward the ocean. Cow trails through lush fields of wildflowers slowly turned into desert-like fire roads and then to palm trees, vineyards and olive groves, scenery that made for a spectacular ride. Meandering along the rugged coastline for nearly 30 miles, we navigated a landscape reminiscent of northern California and Oregon’s Pacific coast, with sweeping vistas and whitewater breaking on sculpted rock formations. After taking in the ocean air in the whipping wind, we found a small patch of dunes and a stretch of beach for a bit of quadplay before hitting the road to Santo Tomas.
The El Palomar Hotel, or more succinctly, a private house on the El Palomar property, served as our final lodging stop after another 110 miles on the trail. Dinner was a loud and raucous affair as we enjoyed traditional local food in the hotel’s restaurant. Sleeping arrangements were rather communal — brothers Kevin and Brian even had to bunk together. It was a funny summer-camp-like scene.
The rooster’s 5 a.m. wake-up call welcomed us to another glorious day. After machaca and eggs, tortillas and fresh orange juice, we left Santo Tomas around 8:30 for a ride up Mexico’s Highway 1, strafing some super-duper switchbacks in the hills leading to Urapan. Turning off the pavement, we flew through the flats before heading up into the high desert, where we encountered some of the tour’s toughest terrain — washed-out uphills, treacherous descents and lots of rocks. Thankfully, after lunch, the road got fast and smooth for the last 30 miles.
Back at Rancho Santa Veronica, we quickly said our good-byes and headed for home, wrapping up our turnkey tour with sore muscles and soaring memories of three glorious days in Baja.

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