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California Condors, the Devils Peak, and More…All in One Day!

By Valeria Rivas Hamilton

A day trip from Ensenada to San Pedro Martir?   The idea seemed strange to me as I’d always thought of the Park as a remote place, but when Alain Preisser from Baja Wine and Sun Tours offered such an experience, I had no option but to say yes. I had heard stories about close encounters with California Condors, a world class observatoryand contrasting landscapes that can only be found in Baja California. I wanted to experience them!

Valeria Rivas Hamilton’s Day Trip

The park is such an unknown treasure that even Ensenada locals rarely visit it. So if your idea of fun is having a remote national park basically to yourself (except perhaps for the bobcats, deer, coyotes and cows) this is the place to go.

Sierra San Pedro Martir is one of the two mountain ranges that run through the northern part of the peninsula, the other being the more popular Sierra de Juarez where the Constitution of 1857 National Park is located. Both parks have a similar flora consisting mainly of pine-oak forest and surrounded by chaparral and desert shrub.

The group I was in hopped on the tour van at 7:30 a.m. in Ensenada with our much-needed coffees in hand. After about four hours south on Highway 1, and an eastward turnoff, we noticed how the landscape was changing from desert shrub to pine forest.

California Condors

As if the enormous granite boulders and tall pine trees hadn’t been enough to welcome us, we had a party of about 10 condors casually sitting at the side of the road just before entering the park. Alain, the tour guide, told us they were part of an international wildlife conservation program that reintroduced the condors to Baja California as they had come really close to extinction. The birds where so used to dealing with humans that they showed no intention of leaving when we started taking pictures. Their strange appearance made all those condors an amazing thing to see: an unusually large size for a bird, bald heads and black shiny feathers.

After the group had a good dose of California Condor pictures, we drove all the way up to the National Astronomical Observatory built in San Pedro Martir in 1971. This site was selected due to the clarity of the air, lack of light pollution, dryness and generally clear skies.

A park staff member received us at the door and explained the geography and topography: We were standing at an elevation slightly higher than 9200 feet above the sea. We could see the Devil’s Peak (Picacho del Diablo), Baja California’s highest point, the San Felipe desert, the Sea of Cortez and even the coast of Sonora! Such an amazing view.

Once we entered the observatory and climbed the more than 100 steps to the top, we got to see the large optical telescope. The staff member explained Mexico’s astronomy program to us, and how it works in collaboration with scientists from all over the world.

National Astronomical Observatory in the winter

We had a four-kilometer walk waiting for us, so we headed out of the observatory and started hiking to get to the Altar viewpoint, a breathtaking lookout 2,880 m. above sea level. I have to say that it was not an easy hike for those not used to high altitudes, but once you get there you see why is worth it. The walk allows you to listen to the birds, feel the wind on your face, smell the pine needles and study strange granite boulder formations. It’s hard to describe the dramatic contrasting landscape once you get to the El Altar viewpoint platform: A pine-oak forest bordered by dry desert and then the Gulf of California.  Where else in the world can you admire such a scene? all over the world.

After a long day, lunch and a four-hour drive back to Ensenada (arriving at about 9:30 pm), I could not help but to think how lucky I am to live in Baja California and have new adventure travel experiences almost every weekend. I wish everyone were as lucky as I…

Best time of year to go:  Spring- Summer

Approximate costs: Day Tour, $35.00 U.S for transportation and guide

What to pack: Hat, sunscreen, hiking boots, light lunch, jacket.


Valeria Rivas Hamilton loves to photograph and write about her Baja…and share the beauty with other Baja lovers. is a comprehensive online source of first-hand travel information for the Baja California Peninsula, supported by a full-service tour operator staffed by Baja locals (our “Baja Travel Savants”). We offer Baja travelers expert advice about local restaurants, hotels and vacation rentals, as well as guides, maps and articles about events, sports and activities. We provide bilingual customer support, information and sales seven days a week, 365 days a year.


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