A detour off Mex 1 up into the hills, so unlike the rest of the Baja that we’ve seen. No cactus, we reach pine forests on our second day.
We decided to camp along the road, out of sight, for the night and ascend the other 6,000 feet in the morning. The windy roads took us high above the surrounding hills & above the cloud line. We could see the Pacific Ocean behind us as we entered deeper and deeper into the mountains. The park is about 80 kms off of the highway, and other than a few farms there isn’t anything out here except coyotes and pumas and such.
It costs 54 pesos per person to enter the National Park which permits you to camp for one night. The park fee does not go to maintaining or operating the Observatory.
We joined about 10 other adults for a tour of the Observatory which is free. Our caravan followed a white Volkswagon Beetle driven by Carlos our guide up to the largest of the 3 telescopes positioned on this mountain. We learned about the pristine location here, why the observatory was moved here from Mexico City in the 70’s because of low humidity, little light/radio/air pollution. We observed the landscape, looking to the Pacific 65 km to our west, and the Sea of Cortez 55 km to our east. On clear days you can see the mainland of Mexico. Today we can see the general area of San Felipe where we stayed back when we were fresh in Mexico.
Thankfully, Laars had to use a bano so Carlos took some of the kids and myself into the observatory where the others never did get to go. We used the tiny dark elevator with a dim light (not to effect optics) and stepped out on the first floor to see the office space set up with computers where the astronomers work thru the nights.
We manoeuvred the narrow metal spiral staircase up to the third floor, slowing down behind Laars who showed signs of claustrophobia when the stairwell darkened near the top. He was proud of himself once he entered the big dome with the telescope where there was a bit more light and way more space (going down was much easier).
The telescope doesn’t rotate. The scope itself is on a pivot so it can tilt north and south, and the arms that support it can tilt to change the telescopes position east and west. The dome can rotate to accommodate viewing different parts of the night sky, a section of the dome opening above our heads like a garage door. The lens is kept in pristine condition, being recoated /polished with aluminum every 2 years.
Carlos informs us that this observatory on the Baja is rated as the 3rd best located observatory in the world, after Hawaii and Chile. Mexican scientists visit here for free, but international scientists have to pay $1,000 for a ‘season’ which might be only 10-14 days. But scientists do come from around the world, from Spain, Portugal, Germany, Japan, Chile, USA and others.
The high elevation was having a toll on many family members. A few of us had headaches, were short of breath, I felt pressure in my jaw. Low humidity means dry cracking inside our noses, even some mild nose bleeds. Many were tired and opted for a movie in the van after lunch while a few of us hiked the 8 km round trip to the Mirador Outlook. We were amazed at the view, yes, but the variety and beauty of the rocks along the way, too.
California condor’s with 9 foot wingspans, flying in groups (rarely alone) up to 160 miles in a day, were on the brink of extinction in the 1930’s with only 22 individuals. They had inhabited the west coast of North America from Canada to Baja California but had been reduced in numbers by hunting, lead and pesticide poisoning, collisions with power lines, and consuming plastic garbage. Their numbers are on the increase here in the park where they are protected.
We camped in the Nat’l park for our second night, amazed at how cold it got at approx 9,000 feet. Climbing into our tent we discovered that our high-density foam mattress felt frozen, a board of sorts that we had to ‘defrost’ with our body heat. Sleep was hours away. Everybody needed a pile of blankets heaped on.
At camp the children played Capture the Flag amongst the boulders, and Pinecone Wars. We hung around for the day for them to enjoy their time in the pine forest, packing up camp in late evening to drive back down the hill to camp at a more comfortable 3,000 ft (and free).