Cactus, Rattlers and Bull Sharks (Oh, My!) – Trail Running the Sierra of Baja Sur

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We live in Alaska where there are no reptiles. Plenty of megafauna but not one snake. Thankfully there’s something primordial embedded in our DNA that kicks in during these kinds of encounters.

We were cruising a nice stretch of cactus-lined singletrack when we turned a bend and the rattler stopped us dead in our tracks. The snake was stretched out across the trail, sunning itself. It measured about as long as my arm. What were we supposed to do? Could we just jump over it? Should we try to scare it off the trail? Going around it wasn’t an option as spiny cactus and other sharp desert shrubbery hemmed us on both sides of the trail. It would have been no problem if it were a charging grizzly (stand your ground) or bull moose (run like hell). But this was something entirely different and it wasn’t doing anything. Then it flicked its forked tongue. We nearly turned around to run the five miles back to the car.

Our little stalemate happened on a network of locally maintained trails just outside the quaint Mexican town of Todos los Santos. We were putting the finishing touches on a week of trail-running photography around the southern cape. Starting in San Jose del Cabo, seven of us in two very average rental cars braved the rough and tough coastal road to Cabo Pulmo. The tiny community is hemmed in by the azure Sea of Cortez waters and a scrappy little range of mountains full of twisty singletrack. You can get a hand-drawn map from the locals. We continued up the coast to the Colonial-era capital of La Paz for a night on the town before crossing the peninsula to Todos los Santos. First on the docket was to check out a rugged coastal track along the Pacific followed the next day with exploring some trails popular with mountain bikers. This is where we encountered our not-so-little friend.

Baja Trail Running

The rattler wasn’t budging. Precisely, it was a Baja California rattlesnake, which translates to ”deadly” in every language. We got on the radio to call someone in the know: Moab ultra runner Meghan Hicks. She was on her own program that day to get her miles in, but still in the vicinity. Certainly she has run into a few snakes on her big distance days. By this time the rattler has slowly woken up and has tightened into a coil, looking right at us. I’m asking Hicks what the strike range is on this thing. Thankfully after some 15 minutes, the snake tires of us and slinks into the brush. We give it an extra five minutes before racing through the section at a dead sprint. Some of us may or may not have screamed as we ran through.

We wrapped up our week long road trip with an all-day mountain running adventure to the top of Picacho de la Laguna. At 7,090 feet, it’s the highest peak in the craggy Sierra de la Laguna that forms the backbone of southern Baja. We ended up in the back of a rancher’s pickup for the rough four-wheel-drive road that leads to the trailhead. It was still dark and our gang was a bouncing sea of headlamps making its way up the 12-mile trail leading to the top. Some of us were on the lookout for snakes. The 6,000-foot climb took us through several vegetation zones until we arrived on the cactus-studded summit. There was just enough room for the seven of us on top of the rocky pinnacle. From here, we could see both the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Cortez. We had covered a lot of ground in the last six days; quite a bit of it we could review from here. It was a good mental keepsake for the epic quad-hammer back down. Dropping six-thousand vertical is tough on the body and the gear. Wearing high-quality footwear and socks on something like that can mean all the difference. I’m happy to report that everyone emerged unscathed and walked just fine to the cantina that night.

Baja Trail Running

Cruising a nice stretch of cactus-lined single track in Parque Nacional Cabo Pulmo in Baja Sur, Mexico.

Baja Trail Running

Vince and Christina enjoy a sunset run along the trails above Cabo Pulmo, Baja Sur, Mexico.

Baja Trail Running

Sunrise above the Sea of Cortez in a scrappy little mountain town along the coast.

Baja Trail Running

Running along the crashing edge of the Pacific Ocean on a headland near Playa Punta Lobos outside Todos los Santos, Mexico.

Baja Trail Running

A headlamp start to tackle the 12-mile, 6,000-foot climb to the craggy summit of Picacho de la Laguna, the highest peak in the Sierra de la Laguna mountains near Los Cabo.

Baja Trail Running

From city street to feral trails, small shrines can be found like this one near La Laguna.

Baja Trail Running

Cabo Pulmo: No trip to Mexico would be complete without a little beach time.

Baja Trail Running

Stopping at small markets like this one makes traveling along Highway 1 in Baja Sur worth it.

Baja Trail Running

The weathered hands of a guitarist who serenades us during dinner in La Paz illustrate the rich culture of Mexico.

Explore Baja California on one of these REI Adventures trips: Baja California Family Adventure, Baja California Women's Adventure or Baja Kayaking Escape.

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