THAT BORING ROAD
Bruce F. Barber
How many times have you commented on the lack of beauty along the San Felipe—Mexicali Highway? Often enough to reach our ears. But, because we disagree, we offer the following to enable you to understand what you may have missed along this much-maligned route.
Departing Mexicali, this highway parallels the Sierra Mayor, an original mountain range (along the west side of the highway) dating to about 5,000,000 years before present. (A function of Plate Tectonics, the Baja California peninsula was ripped away from the mainland five million years ago.) Another range, the Sierra Cucapah, are also on your west side although at least 20 miles south of the border.
At the Cucapah’s southern terminus, the highway crosses the Laguna Salada, a barren stretch of seemingly lifeless desert penetrates the Sierra Pinta and makes a final dash across the San Felipe Desert to San Felipe’s alabaster Arches, the monumental Gateway to the Sea of Cortez.
Cruising this well-maintained highway, the first major landmark, Cerro Prieto, is a well-blackened volcano situated near the head of the Cerro Prieto Fault (on the east side of the highway), which looks down on the Laguna de los Volcanes, North America’s second largest geothermal-powered electric plant.
Following the foot of the Cucapah, the highway wends its way south through a tiny farming community, La Puerta, and runs briefly alongside Rio Hardy. Pouring out of the geothermal plant, Rio Hardy is a well-known stream where duck hunters gather at Campos Sonora and Rio Hardy (also on the east side) to enjoy a month of a favorite winter sport.
One mile east of this point, the Colorado River makes its way to the sea passing El Mayor, an Indian village in the center of their many large farms. Next, the highway crosses the southern terminus of the 50-miles-long, L-shaped Laguna Salada, a picturesque place that was a deep ocean trench before being filled with sediments from America’s Rocky Mountains.
Twenty miles west of the highway at this point, the Sierra Tinaja and Sierra de Juarez pop into view. You are now in the land of the dust devil and occasional sand storms. In fact, I have seen a half-mile stretch of the north-bound lane of this highway covered with an estimated two feet of sand. Driving is ill-advised or impossible during one of these storms.
Across the Salada, at highway marker 88, the highway enters the dunes and now you are in the Sierra Pinta. The dark mountain to the east is the remnant of a truly ancient (200 million years old) volcano. The red-hued mountains ahead are youngsters, by comparison, having erupted between 22- and 17-million-years before present.
This is the halfway point and now is a good time to park, get out and stretch, for here, in the Sierra Pinta, children love the dunes and you’ll have a chance to see gas-pocked clumps of lava waiting for you and your camera. If you prefer, however, La Ventana, a refreshment center, is ahead at marker #105.
After La Ventana, the highway crosses two riverbeds and rises to its highest point (450 feet above sea level) while twisting and turning around volcanic mounts before returning to the desert floor. Your new view, on the left, is the Colorado River Delta while, on the right, there is an open area with a million or more yellow-flowering plants (in early spring).
Ahead of you, also on the west side, stand the final peaks of the Sierra Pinta where 75-million year old ammonites (ancestors of today’s octopus and squid) have been found.
“El Chinero”, a monumental lava mound, stands a dozen more miles to the south. A volcanic vent with a beautiful and tragic past, its beauty is found in its form (seen from a half-dozen miles to the west it is called “The Reclining Maiden”) while the tragedy was the loss of 73 Chinese immigrants stranded here, many years ago, without water. The volcano’s name memorializes those tortured souls.
The highway to the Pacific Coast, Mexico’s federal Highway 3, originates south of El Chinero and rest stops are located nearby. About 1/4-mile north of the intersection stands “El Borrego”, a truck stop, while ¼-mile farther south stands “Three Poles,” a name referring to poles erected alongside this former gas station and cafe.
Although 31 miles distant, the hills of San Felipe are seen from here and the area between is alive with ocotillo, cholla, garambullo, and cardón; mesquite, ironwood and palo verde. To the east, the salt flats, the gulf, and the sands of Sonora’s Altar Desert. To the south, Cerro Moreno, another volcanic vent, announces your arrival in San Felipe. During the final 12 miles, you’ll pass fish camps, RV parks and San Felipe’s relatively new beachside resorts but you’ll know you’ve arrived when you come to “The Arches.” Situated on a landscaped circle, these alabaster forms announce your arrival at the world’s richest salt water aquarium.
Now, is it really that boring, or is it a matter of knowing where to look along the Gateway to the Sea of Cortez?