A Legendary Family Adventure Off-Road in Baja
Words by: Joey DiGiovanni // UTVUnderground.com
Photos by: Vincent Knakal // Mad Media – UTVUnderground.com
It all started for me in the year 2000 for the now infamous SCORE BAJA 2000 race event. That trip hooked me on Baja and since that time I have always had dreams of racing in what many would consider mecca for off-road racing. As I grew up and life got in the way, I realized that owning my own racing program to compete in Baja was probably not feasible, and while I have been fortunate to actually compete and race as part of a team in Baja, and have worked as a crew member for many teams south of the border, I have sought other ways of getting my off-road fix while in Mexico.
I began taking off-road adventures to Baja not much longer after my first trip in 2000, pre-running with co-workers and friends and learning the ropes of traversing off-road in Mexico. For a newbie it can be very intimidating to travel to Baja, let alone head off into the unforgiving trails that sometimes head to no where. So I was very fortunate to be mentored by some experienced people in my early 20’s and learn what to do, what not to do and how to always make it home safe. Back then we didn’t really have all of the different companies hosting regular trips south of the border so you had to know someone or have enough income to buy your way in. In addition, GPS technology was very new so you had to be with someone with some decent experience to ensure you made it to your destination without running out of gas or getting lost. Not that GPS or experience ever really prevents that anyway…
Joining a race team was and still is the best way to affordably learn the ropes, but with the emergence of the UTV platform and the ever growing business of off-road tours, today you can now take regular adventures south of the border safely and affordably all while being guided by experienced individuals who now have trails and trips marked and down to a science making Baja less intimidating and a more regular way of getting your fix. Nevertheless, Baja isn’t to be taken lightly and despite todays technologies, it is still very easy to get lost and turn your planned trip into an unwanted adventure.
After years of pre-running in buggies around Northern Baja and chasing races, it wasn’t until 2008 when we decided to take our first UTV only ride with a group of friends. We used a traditional way of marking the course by lead motorcycle with colored ribbons tied on bushes and we did have a lead vehicle who had a GPS course map for back up. Most of the UTVs had some level of a race radio on board as well. We did somewhere around 400 miles that trip and learned a ton about our UTVs. For me, it was my first time popping a belt, but overall I remember coming home and being even more in love with my Yamaha Rhino, and of course Mexico. We had around 20+ UTVs on that trip and the writing was on the wall that this very well could become the future of off-road exploration in Baja. Fast forward to 2018 and UTVUnderground owns a tour company that hosts regular rides in Baja. Who’d have thunk it…
A lot has changed since 2008. The UTV platforms have turned into some of the most capable off-road vehicles ever developed for regular enthusiasts to purchase right out of a dealership. Roll cages, tire carriers, navigation, communications, lights, wheels, and tires are all readily available to bolt onto your ride and literally within a day you can be Baja ready, making the demand for travel to Baja even more desirable and attainable. This is why my partner Matt Martelli dove head first into creating The UTVUnderground Legends Rally tour event / company. Enthusiasts are hungry for adventure and are looking to break out of their “normal” ride trips and put their UTVs to use in more versatile ways. Like I mentioned earlier, Baja is mecca and for many it is a top bucket list destination to go and explore. Now you can do it safely and take all of the guess work out of the equation with The Legends Rally as your guide!
I will admit, while I have clocked thousands of off-road miles in Baja over the years and absolutely love traveling there and riding, the past few years I have spent very little time in my own off-road vehicle in Mexico despite attending the Baja 500 & 1000 almost every year since my first time in 2000. The Legends Rally is Matt’s baby, he spends time every month in Mexico working on new trails, exploring, filming and then bringing that knowledge back to The Legends Rally to apply to future adventures. I on the other hand tend to center my Baja trips these days around races and vacations. I made it a priority to join the team on the next Legends Rally run, and I am glad I did.
I have only taken my family to Mexico with me a couple of times for vacation and race purposes. With my kids now at ages where I feel comfortable taking them to Baja to play around I decided to bring them along for this adventure. The plan was set for my wife and three kids to join me for The Legends Rally Guadalupe Canyon run which would be headed up by our guest Legend, Larry Roeseler. We call it The Legends Rally because the premise was to always have an off-road Legend join us as a guest guide for the trip giving clients a chance to see Baja alongside some of our sports most experienced and accomplished icons. Roeseler has more Baja wins then any active off-road racer and will forever go down as one of the greatest racers in the history of the sport. What a treat to be able to hear stories and follow this “Legend” through some of the countries most historic trails. He is the definition of the old saying “he has forgotten more about Baja then we will ever learn.”
For the trip I prepared two new 2018 Polaris RZR XP Turbo Dynamix units. Both were properly set up for Baja and sported navigation & communications amongst all other safety features such as seats, harnesses, roll cages, fire extinguisher, and more. The 4 seat machine would be piloted by my wife & 14 year old daughter with one of my boys in the back. I would pilot my two seat machine with one of the kids with me at all times. Both machines run on 15″ bead-lock wheels with new 32″ BFG KR2 BAJA T/A UTV tires, a great tire for any type of off-road adventure but ideal for Baja due to its durability and size. The added ground clearance is great and knowing we would have some highway time, having a tire I am comfortable pushing on blacktop is neccesary. Having communications is a requirement and both vehicles are equipped with PCI iCom 50w radios & intercom systems. We require all attendees to have radio communications. In addition I brought a full size spare for each car, luckily neither needed their spares on the trail, thank you BFG. Both cars had storage bags that carried basic tools, two spare belts, tire repair kit, 12v compressor, various items such as zip ties, tape, flash lights, lighter, etc, and of course snacks! I learned long ago, when you travel off-road in Baja you need to be prepared to be your own mechanic, your own restaurant, and be ready to spend the night on the trail which means having a jacket even if it is 100 degrees outside. Both machines had proper preps ensuring the belts & clutch were clean and inspected, fresh fluids and air filter and all hardware checked.
You NEVER want to travel to Baja with a machine that is not prepared to go off-road and you should always have basic understanding of your vehicle. You may be able to get away with a “used up” machine when you are only riding a few miles away from help and have constant cell reception, but when going to Mexico or any big adventure ride you need to make sure your equipment is up for the task. In addition, you need to learn the basics of your vehicle such as where the battery is located, what types of fluids it requires, and in the case of UTVs its good to know how to change a belt properly, how to replace an axle, and of course; how to change a tire!
The Legends Rally is a group ride, and like any group ride, your machine can affect everyone’s experience if you are having regular issues that could have been prevented by performing basic service. But some vehicle failures are unexpected and can come strait from the unforgiving terrain. Luckily for attendees of The Legends Rally we are partnered with Horsepower Adventures who provide on the trail service for those who do have a mechanical while on the ride. These guys allow the group to carry on while stopping to assess and repair almost all failures. Its amazing to see these guys in action. We saw them repair radius rods in minutes, change belts just as quickly, tow machines for 10’s of miles, and even turn their own rental vehicles over to the broke down attendee so they could keep on the trail while they stayed back to repair the wounded machine. This service is all included (replacement parts come at a cost) as part of The Legends Rally adventure.
THE RIDE: DAY ONE
OK, with that out of the way it was time to get it on! The Legends Rally makes it easy to cross the border. Our team gives you information when you sign up that allows you to have all of your paperwork sorted to make crossing the border a breeze. A meeting point is set on the USA side and the group crosses together making travel to Horsepower Ranch (HPR) simple and safe. Horsepower Ranch is a very popular off-road destination located just outside of Ensenada. Comfortable accommodations, great food and an awesome atmosphere make it the perfect place to base our trips out of. It takes about two hours to get to HPR from San Diego and the ranch has plenty of secure room for trucks and trailers of all sizes. There is a variety of rooms available and we had a room with 4 beds giving my entire family a very comfortable stay. It had been 10 years since my last stay at HPR, it was great to see the place looked exactly the same due to the fantastic maintenance and upkeep of the property.
We got into HPR and were greeted by the very courteous staff, given our room key and supplied some great gifts from ride sponsor Rockford Fosgate. To top it off, we supplied all attendees with a Legends Rally shirt & hat. After getting situated we all boarded a bus and were taken to Legend Rally Chef, Drew Deckman’s amazing restaurant aptly titled “Deckman’s”.
The Legends Rally is an all-inclusive vacation. Your per person fee covers all meals, accommodations and more. What separates it from the regular type of off-road tour is its unique trail selections for riding and its food. Matt is a bit of a foodie you could say so he has gone over the top as it pertains to making sure people don’t just get a meal, they get an experience. Chef Drew Deckman is a Michelin Star Chef, that basically means he is amongst the best in the world and not only is his food insanely good, the setting for his restaurant which is located in Baja’s “Valle de Guadalupe” Guadalupe Valley wine country is as beautiful as any place you could ever dream of dining at. It was the perfect way to kick the trip off and get to know the group. For those who were still a little hungry, a quick stop by El Trailero, one of the best taco shops in Baja, was made on the way home.
We settled back into our room for the night and got rested up. We would hit the trail at 9am on Saturday morning and the first day would have us clicking off about 140 miles. We split the group of around 30 UTVs into two groups. Larry Roeseler would lead everyone but each group had a lead and sweep vehicle as well as a couple HPR chase cars. In addition we had two chase trucks shadowing the ride via the highway. They would act as support when neccesary, carry the larger luggage items, spare parts and fuel.
We pulled out of HPR and made our way north east towards Ojos Negros. Our first planned stop was at La Huerta, an old native camping location surrounded by trees, a creek and very cool (modern) bridge. It was the perfect place to get out of the sun, grab a cold drink and stretch the legs. From there we made our way up and through the “Pine Forest” towards the town of La Rumorosa (just outside of Tecate) where we would have lunch at a restaurant in town. After an amazing and very filling lunch, we made our way to the top of one of Baja’s most infamous trails. The La Rumorosa Grade was built over a hundred years ago by hand and features a massive switch back trail just wide enough for a full size vehicle. The trail is packed with amazing views but is listed as one of the worlds most dangerous roads. Its not for the faint of heart. Its rocky, at times very slow, and one mistake could send you down one of its many very steep drop-offs. My daughter drove our RZR XP4 Turbo with my wife navigating and she did amazing. At 14 she has quite a bit of seat time, but after making it down La Rumorosa Grade, she should instantly be awarded a drivers license!
La Rumorosa dropped us down into the top of Laguna Salada, one of the harshest and hottest places in all of North America. My first Baja pit experience was in Laguna Salada, come to find out, thats usually where teams send the rookies, because it sucks there! Its hot, desolate, and usually the furthest drive from Ensenada when racing. This time of year is usually pretty mild but the temps increased to over 100 degrees as we made our decent. With that, our speeds also increased! Once we hit the valley we were able to jump on some very familiar race course terrain and get our machines opened up over some very big but fun whoop sections and trails. We all spread out a bit and ran wide open for the next two hours as we made our way back south to Guadalupe Canyon Oasis which is where we would end day one.
Guadalupe Canyon Oasis is truly an oasis tucked right up against the beautiful Guadalupe Canyon mountain side. The Oasis has been operated as a camping resort for well over 100 years by the same family. Despite the government trying to take it over, the family has maintained its ownership and entertains guests year round. The resort plays home to an assortment of both natural hot & cold springs giving each camping area its own selection of hot & cold pools to relax in. Mexican fan palms surround the entire Oasis giving shade and a very tropical and unique ambiance to the resort. Its only accessible off-road which makes it the perfect destination point for The Legends Rally.
Upon our arrival we were greeted with a cold beverage and the HPR crew immediately jumped into action refueling all of our machines. A little side note, the RZR XP Turbo is good for about 117 miles of range on a stock fuel tank. I know that because thats exactly the mileage I had when I ran out of gas on the highway on the way to lunch. Luckily the HPR chase truck was right there and had me and others topped off and on our way in minutes!
With our machines being tended too, we were all given a campsite number where we had a brand new tent, cot, sleeping bag, pillow and flashlight waiting for us! My family had two tents and were positioned beneath the palm trees making it a picturesque and beautiful setting. We jumped into our swim trunks and hit one of the many rock pools to clean up while others were enjoying some amazing appetizers and cocktails being made by Chef Deckman who traveled early in the day to Guadalupe Canyon to prepare food for our arrival. Following appetizers came one of the best meals you could ever enjoy on an off-road excursion. Not one, but four pigs were being roasted over an open fire, fresh farm raised striped sea bass, ceviche, oysters, clams, chips, salsa, salad, quail, and more were all on the menu and no one went to bed hungry!
THE RIDE: DAY TWO
The hot desert sun, and some anxious mechanics woke us up at about 5:30am as they finished prepping cars for the days ride back to HPR. It was supposed to be a long morning, sleep in, eat a late breakfast and get on the trail around 11am. But with the early wake up call everyone jumped into action and the decision was made to get on the trail by 9am. This was a good call as it was calling for even warmer temps in the valley and we all wanted to get back up into the mountains. We pulled out of the oasis after another amazing Deckman’s meal, and headed south towards Cohobuso Junction. From there we began our climb over the Sierra de Juarez mountain range. The desert run to Cohobuso was a lot of fun but at times the whoops were massive because we were running on regularly used race course lines. It really tested our suspensions and the machines ability to cool itself off. Group 1 skated through, while group two had some early vehicle casualties slowing it down a bit. Nevertheless we hit the Sierra de Juarez trail and headed back west!
The climb into the mountains was slow and technical. We ran in LOW for most of the climb and it reminded me a lot of trails I had done over the years in Moab. Very rocky but like La Rumorosa, once you start hitting elevation, the views really come alive! We made a few stops along the way to keep the group together and to take time for a photo. We made our way back into the “Pine Forest” which for me houses some of the absolute funnest roads you will ever drive in Baja. Fast, twisty and full of high speed rollers make for one epic time. The RZRs are ideal for this type of riding and both my wife and I were having a blast dicing it up, sliding the corners and catching air any chance we could.
We met back up with the chase truck around KM79 off the side of HWY3 to fuel up. From there we charged further west to Ojos Negros where we would ceremoniously end our trip at La Cava de Maecelo AKA The Cheese Cave. The Cheese Cave is a 100+ year old dairy farm that produces some of the worlds best cheese. An underground bunker called the “cave” or “cava” is used to cure this cheese and the property hosts tours weekly. We enjoyed an amazing dinner that consisted of portobello tostadas and rib-eye steak to name just a couple. Local wine was served alongside fresh bread and the stories of the days adventure were shared. We all toasted to the trip and watched the sun go down before saddling back up for our quick jaunt back to HPR.
VAYA CON DIOS
My family and I were super excited for our beds when we arrived back at HPR. While others stayed up, we cleaned up and hit the sack. We woke up at our leisure on Monday morning and decided to head back to California on our own. There were two planned departures so that the group could also navigate the tricky border as a group, but we had other plans. We set off back North west through Ensenada and headed to Puerto Nuevo, AKA “The Lobster Village”. This is one of my favorite places to visit and to eat in all of Baja and is one of the first places I had a true meal in Mexico beyond the average taco of course. I have many stories from there, most good, but one very scary that I will save for another time. But after a fantastic lunch with my family we made our way back home.
Mexico, and specifficly Baja is indeed a special and magical place. Those who know, know… Those who don’t, need to experience it to understand. The people, the food, the culture, the scenery and landscape make up for one of the worlds most special places. As an off-road fanatic, one trip to Baja and you will understand why we call it off-road heaven.
I want to send a special thank you to Rockford Fosgate for sponsoring this years Legends Rally Guadalupe Canyon ride. It was a lot of fun having them along for the ride and keeping the party rocking at every stop. I also want to thank Larry Roeseler for not only guiding the trip but also helping mark this fun and challenging course. A big thank you goes out to the staff at Horsepower Ranch for their amazing accommodations and even more amazing support on the trail. Those guys worked their butts off to keep everyone up and running smoothly and quickly! Of course we have to thank Chf Drew Deckman for cooking his tail off and feeding us some of Baja’s most special cuisine and for hosting us at his amazing restaurant. To all of the attendees, thank you for joining us and for riding alongside, sharing your stories and just being awesome! Lastly, thank you to Matt, Kilian, Izzy, Vinny, and Chris at The Legends Rally for all of their efforts putting this ride together and for representing UTVUnderground.com in Baja like they do! It takes a lot of work to put an event like this together and your efforts do not go unnoticed.
Enjoy all of Vincent Knakal’s fantastic photos of the trip in the gallery below and make sure to join us for The Legends Rally in October when the team leads us all down the pacific beach coastline!!
Until next time….
Join us for the next Legends Rally called “Sea To Sky” by CLICKING HERE