The Baja Adventure: Part 1

Editor’s Note: Last Fall, James Stout and Anna Grace Christiansen set out aboard their Sage Barlow Gravel bikes on a 3 day adventure through the Baja desert in search of epic scenery, gravel roads and riding, and of course amazing cuisine. We are pretty sure they found it as evidenced by the amazing photography and video work of Sean Burke. This blog post is part of 1 of 3. You will not want to miss Part 2 as it will debut a short film of the adventure, while Part 3 will talk about the details of planning and the route itself. For now, we proudly present Part 1 of The Baja Adventure with words by James Stout.

Ever since I moved to San Diego, Baja California has always been one of my favorite adventure spots. I remember my first trips across the border, riding bikes from our homes to race in Downtown Tijuana for money, glory, and mostly for the tacos afterwards. I went down there with my wife for dates, and again for our honeymoon. I spent weeks down there last year helping serve people food and keep them warm in some of the coldest weather I have seen in ten years there. I’ve also drunk my fair share of excellent wine in very fancy (but shockingly affordable) wineries.

My best memories of Baja though, are not of the surf or the sea or even the wine. They’re of rainy days in the mountains in the very early days of what we now call gravel bikes, slipping and sliding my way across motorcycle trails and into cacti with a friend on one of our first bikepacking trips. I have bikepacked a lot since then, all over the US and Europe, but Baja still has a special place in my heart.  The interior of Northern Baja is rugged and unforgiving, but it’s also beautiful and, when you know where to go, welcoming. In the summer, it’s deadly hot and in the winter it can be dangerously cold. There aren’t Strava KOMs everywhere and you can’t find a cliff bar or an energy gel in 100 miles. I love it.

I was excited to introduce my friend Ann Grace Christiansen to my favorite riding this fall, we’d both had a long season of gravel racing but with the Portland winter ahead she wanted to get in a few more long rides before hanging up the SPDs and switching to skis for a few months. I was, and remain, just excited for another Baja adventure.

Route planning in Baja isn’t as simple as dragging your finger across a Strava map. I generally start with fixed points. Where can I drive to and leave a car? Where can I sleep safely? Where do I want to end up and how can I get back to my car? In this case, I planned a sort of greatest hits loop. I wanted to take in the unspoiled coastline and a night at one of Baja’s surf shacks. I also wanted to stop at Mike’s Sky Ranch, a motorcycle mecca on the sloped of Baja’s highest mountain. Mostly, because there’s always a warm welcome and a cold beer, but also because the descent from there is one of my favourites. I also wanted to start and end in Ensenada, for a taste of the classic Tacos and beer scene that is the only part of Baja too many people see.

The problem, was connecting all of these spots. For that, we relied on phone calls, satellite maps, and rerouted flights over SAN which gave me some vital beta. One of the great things about Baja bikepacking is that there’s always somewhere to welcoming stay and something delicious to eat. This makes a big difference when you’re bikepacking as the weight of a stove and tent makes things a lot slower. By staying in ranches and hostels we were able to get away with carrying only sleeping bags, a spare chamois, and enough clothing for the cold night on the mountain. And snacks, we would be needing a lot of snacks.

This is exactly the sort of bikepacking best suited to gravel bikes, the terrain varied from road to dirt road to sand, meaning that although we might have wished for fat tyres sometimes and skinny ones sometimes we would very rarely have to walk. Walking in the heat of the Baja sun through ankle deep sand sucks. I know, I have done it. It’s not much better in the Baja snow or ankle-deep mud either.

So we loaded up our Barlows with Ortlieb bags, although we had no plans to test their waterproofing beyond a possible dip in the ocean at the end of day one. The route looked challenging but do able, there seemed to be enough towns that we shouldn’t run out of water if we used all three cages, there would almost certainly be a section where I cursed my lack of prior planning, we would probably come dangerously close to running out of water, or perhaps shiver our way to bed one night after dumping our bodies and bikes into a surprise puddle or river. But the misery would soon be erased by a warm fire, a cold beer, and a healthy helping of tortillas and beans. After a few more phone calls, a detailed packing list, and a team passport check we loaded up a friend’s truck and started heading south.

Stay Tuned for Part 2 on Thursday 9/17/20….