Imagine waking up as a tangerine sun is just peeking over the ridge. The smell of sweet desert air, crisp and cool, greets your senses. Slipping out of bed (in a camper or tent), you walk a few steps to your private pool of warm spring water. Built into the surrounding granite boulders, its temperature is just right, maybe about 90 degrees F. Reclining against a smooth rock, the crystal-clear water wraps soothingly around you. In a few minutes, if you're lucky, your partner will bring a cup of fresh coffee. The silence is awesome. You're over 30 miles from the nearest highway and about 50 from any real civilization.

As the sun melts over the desert below, turning the rugged hillsides a burnt orange, you ponder what the day will bring--perhaps a hike up the canyon to see one of several waterfalls. Maybe do a little rock scrambling to an unnamed peak. There are Indian petroglyphs and caves nearby or--you could inch further into the warm water. Where's that coffee?

Located in the Sierra de Juarez mountains of northeastern Baja California, Canon de Guadalupe is a little-known paradise. Getting there is part of the fun. Crossing the Mexican border in the town of Tecate, east of San Diego, we followed signs to Highway 2 and the super four-lane toll road toward Mexicali. No paperwork or permits were necessary. We could pay for everything, including the toll road, in dollars. We did need car insurance issued by a Mexican company, however. That can be arranged in advance or purchased at the border by the day. Before crossing the border, we fueled up.

Winding down the torturous La Rumorosa grade, we could see the Laguna Salada dry lake bed below. Near kilometer marker 68, over two hours from the border, there was a sign for Canon de Guadalupe. Turning there would have taken us on a miserable 15-mph washboard road for a bone-jarring 30 miles, but we knew a much better route.

Continuing down the highway about 1.5 miles, opposite some abandoned white buildings on the left, (if you're traveling with a GPS, it's N32o34'523" and W115o44'676"), we turned south into a wide ramp leading across the dry lake, stopping briefly to air our tires down. Several tracks crisscrossed the mud flats, but most of them go to the same place. Taking the smoothest and most worn set of tracks, we proceeded at a steady 60 mph. There were occasional signs for Canon de Guadalupe, so we knew we weren't lost.

After about 20 miles, the dusty track wound through desert scrub brush for a short distance to intersect the aforementioned washboard. Again following the signs, we jogged south and then west for about seven miles on sandy corduroy, passing a fledgling olive grove and eventually winding into a canyon. At this point, there was only one road, which grew progressively narrower and rougher as it twisted through cacti and scattered mesquite trees. Paying attention to the road here is most important. Menacing rocks reached for our differentials, and skidmarks left the trail made by those who weren't paying attention. Our Dodge Dakota with its Four Wheel pop-up camper was the ideal combination, but any van, truck, or SUV with good ground clearance can make the trip. As long as the weather stays clear, four-wheel drive isn't needed.

Arriving at Canon de Guadalupe proper, we came to an information sign where we parked and walked in. We could have driven, but it was early, and we wanted to check things out. We learned that there are actually two campos, or campgrounds. Campo I is in some ways the nicest--and the most expensive. During the week, it's easier to find available sites, but reservations are a good idea for weekends (www.guadalupe-canyon.com). Several sites overlook the canyon and can accommodate two, three, or even four vehicles.

Campo III, (also called Arturo's Camp), is reached by driving through Campo I or by taking the sandy road up the arroyo to the left of the information sign. It had some beautiful sites and was generally much less expensive. There's no way to make reservations at Arturo's Camp, so you can bargain if it's not busy. Depending on the campo, the site, the day, the season, the demand, and the number of vehicles in your party, daily rates run from $15 to over $100. Weekends are popular.

Each campsite has a private pool (it's normally clean and empty, so you fill it when you arrive), a fireplace or grill, a table, sink, and sometimes a shady palapa. There are bathrooms with flush toilets, as well as outhouses. A small store at Campo I has a few supplies, but we were glad we'd brought everything we needed, including plenty of drinking water. The restaurant at the store has a poor reputation.

It was a Wednesday, so we had Campo I to ourselves. The steep driveway up to the San Marcos site was easier in 4WD low-range. After parking, we leveled the Dakota and popped up the top of the camper. We ordered a wheelbarrow-load of firewood from the store, and in less than an hour, our private tub was steaming and calling our names.

That night, a full moon was on the rise. We polished off some barbecued steaks, grabbed a couple of cold Coronas, and sank back into the warm water for one last relaxing soak before crawling into bed. The stars were amazing. A light breeze rustled the palm fronds overhead. This really is paradise.


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