The first weekend in November is the perfect time to visit the hot tubs at Guadalupe Canyon (Cañón de Guadalupe), based on our recent trip. With daytime temps in the mid-80s and nighttime hovering around 60, being in this secluded canyon oasis with its individual tubs and thermal springs and magnificent vistas was heavenly. One suspects, though, that the thermometer here can see some dramatic seasonal changes and the very cragginess of the huge mountains surrounding the camp would imply that fierce winds and dramatic storms are what have carved this truly unusual landscape.
I’ve heard about Guadalupe Canyon, between Mexicali and Tecate, for years and actually have never known anyone who took the plunge. It sounded so romantic to me, the idea of private hot tubs surrounded by palms and mountains.
So we packed the dogs and our gear in the car and, looking like the Joad family, and we headed up Highway 1, cutting over to Tecate on Highway 2000, and then east on Highway 2. (From San Diego, it is 140 miles; drivers could drive to Mexicali and cut down 50 miles from the border, or could cross at Tijuana and then catch Highway 2). These are toll roads and, overall, we estimated that we spent around $17-18, one way (one of the toll booths costs around $9, so have plenty of cash). It is actually hard for us to tell how much money this leg of the trip cost, since our rather large puppy Woody had just consumed a large part of one of our sleeping bags. **Tip: If you are driving from the US, consider checking with Baja Bound for Mexico insurance, which is required.
‘Don’t Get Nervous’
From this direction, we drove up the impressive highway that snakes around the jaw-dropping La Rumorosa, a spiny mountain ridge climbing thousands of feet in the air before dropping you into a flat, un-hospitable dry lake desert area– the Laguna Salada. Shortly thereafter, we came upon an exit off the toll road, pointing us to Cañón de Guadalupe .
Honey, we are almost there, right? So, so wrong. As I poured Evian into a small bowl for the pups, my husband steered the car down a bleak dirt road that was going to take us to our destination. The first vado (mini-sinkholes caused by water drainage) we hit sent my water bowl a-flyin’, much to Woody’s delight. From then on and on and on and on, it was washboard city, the relentless thump of the road punctuated by an occasional howl of pain as one of us landed too hard on the car seat. For 45 minutes, it continued this way. We could see jagged mountains to the south, but ahead of us was white sand road and tumbleweeds…and not a car or a person or a crow in sight.
And, finally, a sign pointing the way to the hot springs. This patch of road actually got worse, studded by large rocks and indented with former rivulets from past rains. The going was slow and now the dogs actually starting yelping.
We finally turned into Guadalupe Canyon and tried to find our camp site by ourselves. We have a 2-wheel drive Escape and this is some pretty tough road; our site, El Mirador, was up a short but very steep embankment, easy for a 4-wheel drive car. The third time Jim gunned the motor and took the embankment at a run, we made it to the top…and I actually started yelping.
We’ve Arrived: Let the Hot Times Begin!
So, four-ish hours later, we were here. Where? It took a trip back about ½ a mile to find Oscar, the caretaker of Guadalupe Canyon, to show us. There are 14 different camp sites with hot tubs, and they are scattered throughout the canyon. To be fair, some look in disrepair, and ‘rustic’ would be a good word to describe the venue’s overall impression. Each site accommodates a different number of cars/people, each fenced off from the main dirt road. Oscar helped us find El Mirador which he told us had been cleaned and freshly refilled with water. He pointed towards the south, mentioning the hiking trails to the waterfall and also noted that the canyons harbored some petroglyphs. He gave us the low-down, including the fact that Cañón de Guadalupe has a small store and we were pleased to be able to buy bundles of wood from him. Our Escape could not get up to our site, sadly, which meant us hauling all of our gear up to our own personal palapa. That’s when Oscar left.
Our butts still vibrating from the drive, we hiked up the rocky hill to El Mirador. First reaction: How cool and totally private!! The site is a large cement pad perched within the rocks on a hill, the living area completely covered by a large, two-person palapa. Within the palapa is a huge rock fireplace and a picnic table.
Just steps down from our ‘living room’ is the beautiful hot tub, lined with big round boulders and a palm tree, open with a view to the date palm groves and the mystical mountains. Next to the thermal spring hot tub was small fireplace, perfect for warding off chill winds while sitting out and star watching (OMG, this is seriously the place to do that!). **Not within sight of us, but near, is another two-person site called El Sol; my recommendation for two couples is to book both!
Dinner was a cook-over-the-fire event, with rack of lamb, salad and a nice rosé. It was, coincidentally, Day of the Dead, so we toasted departed friends and then tried to coax our other dog, Blackie, out from under the picnic table. Where he had been from the time of our arrival. And where he remained, perturbed by our idiocy in leaving the comfortable surroundings of home.
Music is not allowed at the hot tubs at Guadalupe Canyon, hence the tranquility is deep and sublime. When we curled up to sleep, a light wind kicked up outside rustling the palms and gently buffeting the flaps of our tent. The murmur of a voice in the canyon, a far off cry of a bird and the ubiquitous sound of trickling water was all we could hear. Except for the symphonic notes issuing from Woody snoring, and from Blackie, miserably whimpering in his sleep.
Morning Dips and Mourning Dogs
There is no better time than just before dawn in the Guadalupe Canyon…we should know! Thanks to our faithful hounds we were awakened in time to see the sun rise over the mountains and to dip out feet in the mineral waters before the day started cooking.
We watched the mountains carefully, hoping to see one of the elusive bighorn sheep that roam the area. After eating, Blackie returned to his spot under the picnic table and Woody sullenly chewed on our final paper towel roll. There was no joy in hot tub town for these cursed canines, and they wanted us to know it. Sitting in the hot tub with our steaming cups of coffee, we looked at each other, regretfully realizing what we both knew: the hot tub party was over. We’d give up our final night at Guadalupe Canyon so that dogs could be happy…that’s what love is all about.
Before packing, we hiked around, visiting some of the other empty camp sites and scoping out where we would bring friends to in the future – because we will come back to the hot tubs at Guadalupe Canyon, but we will be sin (without) dogs. It was fascinating clambering up stony paths and discovering some palapas with cooking areas and sinks, and some with hot tubs that could hold up to 12 people! As we toured, Woody proceeded to hoover all over the campgrounds, snarfing up scores of little black pellets that thankfully were droppings from the palms. Nonetheless, cause for more concern about potty breaks on the drive home. We wish we’d had time to visit the ‘cool’ pools in the granite hills, or the waterfall far back in the canyon. It was not meant to be.
But we will. The hot tubs at Guadalupe Canyon are not for everyone. It’s very off-road, very off-grid (although there are flush toilets available and what is REALLY weird is that you can feel the hot water steaming your bum!), and very off-beat. The sites are not super-cheap and, in fact, our site was $75 a night (but they all vary). However, this is a geologically remarkable place that offers privacy, relaxation and a little bit of magic, too. The romance part? Well, I guess we won’t know until next time.
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