Exploring Baja in a UTV

Story and Photos by: Todd Cunningham aka NIKAL

OK, this is a long read. If you have never done a Baja off-road play trip, sit back and read my story, see my pictures and enjoy the ride!

A little back story; So I have been doing off-road Baja trips for much of my life. But for the past 7 years due to family and life in general the Baja play trips had stopped. Well, this year a longtime friend of the family called and said; “We need to do another trip, heck this might be my last.” Well when he said that I knew I had to go. I would typically bring my Baja bug prerunner down, but my Brother in Law wanted to go, and he wanted to bring his Polaris XP4. So l I figured if he wanted to do it then I guess I should try it too. This would also open up a seat or two and allow us to bring some others along. This would also make our group 1 buggy & two UTV’s.

We have never done such a trip with UTVs and I was not 100% sure how this would work out? I knew we needed to do a few things to get them ready. First issue was going to be fuel mileage and carrying extra fuel. We have always calculated 180-200 miles per tank on a Baja trip. My Baja prerunner could go approx. 240 miles on a tank, and was not sure what I could get out of the 7.5 gal Polaris tank. First thing to do on the XP4’s was to pull the rear seats and build racks to hold extra gas, a cooler and our duffel bags. Next was to not only prep the two XP4’s but to make a list of spare items to carry. Once we have both cars sorted out and ready, we needed to plan a route.

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Here is the rear seat rack I made and how we loaded 10 gal of fuel, cooler and duffel bags. In the bed we used the Tusk cargo bags with duel coolers on each end.

We had a group meeting with all 6 of us who were going on this trip. Two guys were not new to Baja, but new to theses sorts of trips. So we planned a trip that would start us in Tecate Mexico at the Santa Veronica Ranch. We would leave the trucks & trailers at the ranch and head to San Felipe for our 1st of a 3 day run. Day 2 would be to cross Baja and head to the Pacific side and then South to San Quintin. Day 3 would be to run back up to Tecate.

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Here is a map showing our route and each color is a day’s ride.

On Sept 20th our adventure started. Day 1 (Red Line on map) we all crossed the Tecate boarder at 7am together & caravan to Rancho Santa Veronica, where we would leave the trucks & trailers. From there we jumped on the Compadre Trail which is just outside of the Ranch. The Compadre trail takes you up into the mountains & pine forest. On this trail we came up on a Military check point, this was the first and only check point we saw the whole time during this trip. They asked a few questions, searched our bags and sent us on our way. No big deal!

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Rancho Santa Veronica

We then took a dirt road off the Compadre Trail which took us up to Laguna Hanson. Laguna Hanson is the largest body of fresh water in Baja Mexico. (OK was) Laguna Hanson has been dry for the past 10 or so years. It’s a shame, but still beautiful. From the lake we tried to cross over to the old saw mills which were in operation in the 50’s. We got a bit lost and could not find the right trail, and had to give up on going by the old saw mills. From Laguna Hanson we headed down to Jamu and the famous “Goat Trail”. If you have ever seen a Baja 500 or 1000 on TV, I’m sure you have heard of the Goat Trail. The Goat Trail drops you off right on Mexico’s Hwy 3. From there we drove on the HWY to Valle La Trinidad. For those who don’t know off road vehicles including buggies & UTV’s are legal on the Hwy’s, as long as you obey the laws.

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A Dry Laguna Hanson Lake

In Valle La Trinidad we stopped and got gas at the Pemex station. Pemex is Government owned and is the only gas stations in Baja. Pemex carries two octane’s, Magna 87 & Premium 91. This station only had Magna. We had already dumped 5 gal in since we left Tecate. At this point we had calculated our mileage at 13.8 mpg. But we had not done anything really rough or slow. We knew our mileage would get worst as the trip & trails would get slower & rougher. So we filled our tanks and the five gal cans and headed to San Felipe.

Getting to San Felipe from Valle La Trinidad should be no big deal, but during our crossing of the huge dry lake bed going into San Felipe we encountered a little mud, which then became a big wet lake bed. I’m guessing this was remnants of Hurricane Odile which was just a storm once it reached San Felipe. We had to then turn around and run another 8-10 miles back to a ranch to ask if there was another way around. They pointed us to a good dirt road that took us right into San Felipe.

We arrived in San Felipe around 5pm, we again filled up the fuel tanks and went to the El Capitan hotel ($52 a night) After getting cleaned up we headed over to El Nido’s Stake house for a great diner.

Including a few of our pine forest & dry lake bed detours we logged a total of 217 miles on day 1.

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Famous San Felipe Arches as you enter town

Day 2 started around 7:30am (Blue Line on Map) we were going to be heading West towards the Pacific Ocean. But before we saw the Pacific Ocean we had to cross over the mountains. The first leg of the trip was basically backtracking back up around the dry lake bed and towards Valle La Trinidad. We used 5 gal just getting back to the road that would take us up to Mike’s Sky Rancho. At a small home/store/restaurant on the side of Hwy 3 we saw a sign saying Gasoline. We thought it was better to not chance it, and fill that tanks while we could. So we got gas out of 5 gal fuel cans and some drums they had. Yes that is a siphon hose! You can’t make this stuff up! If you find gas like we did here, its just the store buying gas from the nearest gas station, marking it up and selling it. He told us this was Premium and we paid $5.80 a gal. Cheap piece of mind!

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Leaving San Felipe and heading towards the mountains.

After gassing up we headed up to Mikes Sky Rancho, which is always a fun run. Mike’s Sky Rancho’s altitude is at 3,700 ft. The tallest point in Baja is the Observatory which is above Mikes, we were told its about 7,800 ft. Once at Mike’s we stopped in and took a break. We looked around and at all the old racing decals and found my racing picture we posted back in 2003. After a cold cerveza and snack we were ready to tackle the back side of Mike’s towards El Coyote & Meling Ranch which is approx Alt 2,200 ft. But before we left Mike’s we found my Brother in Laws XP4 had a nice pencil size stick stuck in the tire. Two plugs later and we were off and running. I have not seen the back side of Mike’s so rough, then again we were in UTV’s and not big prerunners like I’m used too. The boulders & ruts were so big it took us a few hours to get down the back side. (Sorry no picture’s but I think it’s on the GoPro.)

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Mike’s Sky Rancho

Once down we the back side of Mike’s we stopped in at the Meling Ranch. We ate our lunches there and again bought another Cerveza to show our thank you for their hospitality. It’s important to support these local Rancho’s as they can be a life saver, and being that they are so far off the main roads they depend on the off-roaders to help them.

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Meling Ranch

From Meling we headed West to the coast. It was about another 45 minutes from Meling to Hwy 1. From Hwy 1 we crossed the black top road and headed towards the coast. Once on the coast we headed South towards San Quintin. In Camalu we stopped to see an old ship, which was beached during a storm in the late 70’s. I have been here several times, and I have watched this ship slowly dissolve into the sea. This area is also a favorite beach camp for the surfers. It’s amazing to think you can literally be running the cliffs and then be right on the beach. We ran at least 8-10 miles of non-stop beach sand. Many times you would be on the beach and then have to turn inland to find a way around as the beach ended or was fenced off. You would run the ridge and then work your way back on to the beach rock or sand. Times are changing though as we encountered more fences then I have ever seen down there. Once again it was around 5:00pm when we got to San Quintin. We again filled up with gas at a Pemex station, found a market to get ice and some Cerveza’s for the evening. We knew in San Quintin we would stay at either The Old Mill hotel or Don Eddies. Both are right next to each other, and are both right on the water. Both places are known for their sport fishing. We pulled into The Old Mill and they had rooms for $37 a night! IMO, The Old Mill restaurant has way better food then Don Eddies, plus the atmosphere is much better. When checking in we were greeted with a cold one! How could they have known?? Prior to dinner we meet some fishermen from the States. They had caught 3 yellow Tail tuna and were bbq’ing one up right there. They brought us 4 huge Tuna steaks that were unbelievable!! How many have eaten 2 hour old fresh Yellow Tail tuna? Before cleaning up for dinner we decided to put a bottle of Slime tire sealant in the tire that had the plug in it. We noticed the tire still seemed to have a slow leak as it was down about 1 ½ lbs.

Day 2 logged another 186 miles. The mileage was shorter then Day 1, but the terrain was slower running in several places. Plus we stopped several times on the beach to just take in what we were doing.

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Old Beached Tanker Ship

Day 3 was going to be our longest day or as we called it our “Full Pull”. We were going to be heading from San Quintin all the way back to the ranch in Tecate. The goal was to get there before dark. We pulled out of The Old Mill right around 7:45am, we would have liked to leave a bit later, to let the dew burn off, but we could not afford the time, plus we were to meet an old friend in Camalu. He was a retired Police Chief in Mexico, who we met a dozen years back. He helped me when I was limping a broken prerunner home.
So once again we had to back track part of what we ran the day before, but considering that was the beach, no one was complaining! Once we go back to Camalu we stopped at the Pirate Cove which is a restaurant right on the beach. This is where we were to see Oscar our friend and former Police Chief. It’s amazing as places like this are miles from town and the dirt roads are not great to get to them. But people still travel those roads to get to these camps, restaurants and the beaches. Oscar said it took him & his wife 20 minutes from the paved road to get to the restaurant.

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Running the Pacific Coast North

From the Pirate Cove restaurant we were now back on new trails on this trip. Oscar told us to be careful when we reach Erendia, as there had been some Bandito activity in the area over the last few months. The Bandito’s will flag you down for help or they were blocking the dirt roads with bowling ball sized rocks, hoping you will stop to move them, and then they rob you. Most of this type of activity happens at night, but we were just being warned. We never saw anyone but a few local fishermen who all waved to say high as we drove by.

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Taking a break, Heading North

After passing through Erendia we worked our way up the hillside and towards Santo Tomas. At Santo Tomas we again stopped for fuel and took a lunch break under the trees across the street. At this time we found a nail in the same tire that was fixed up at Mike’s the day before. My Brother is Law was not thrilled to find another puncture! Not wanting to trust just the Slime we put a plug in that hole too. Back on the road we were now heading to Ojos Negro. From Ojos we caught the Compadre Trail which takes you right by Rancho Santa Veronica and our starting point.

Day 3 logged another 234 miles for a trip total of 637 miles. Our average moving speed was 33mph. This average is based off of time when moving and not counting breaks or any other stopped down time.

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Fixing 2nd puncture in Santo Tomas (Same Tire!)

Overall I was very impressed with how well the Polaris XP4 did on a trip like this. It was a little cramped in the leg room dept. If we were to do it again, we would run a bigger better suited Baja tire. The original plan was to run the GMZ Cutthrout tire, but due to time & cost of new wheels & tires, we ended up running the Bighorns, which overall did really well. Next issue is running a bigger fuel tank like the TrailTank system. If you have not noticed a running theme in this story is stopping for fuel. At this time the TrailTank fuel tank is not available for the XP4. I have also spoke with Seth from TrailTank about building a duel tank system as the XP4 has the available room under the driver side rear passenger.

For more info on this trip or if you are thinking about doing a trip like this, feel free to post questions in the UTVUnderground.com Forum Thread by CLICKING HERE.