In between the tranquil Sea of Cortez and the powerful Pacific Ocean, a range of 1,500–2,100-meter granite peaks runs north to south, from the plains south of La Paz  to the edge of San José , dividing the East Cape  and West Cape  regions of the Baja Peninsula.
Its freshwater springs, unique flora and fauna, and dramatic weather patterns contrast radically with the desert-tropical environment along the coast. And yet the access points for the Sierra de la Laguna are only minutes away from the Transpeninsular Highway and Mexico 19.
There are good reasons why Backpacker magazine calls this area the best midwinter trail hiking on the Baja Peninsula.
There is some dispute about the highest peak in the range, but Picacho de la Laguna (elev. 2,161 m) is most often cited as the tallest. The meadow that stretches the 6.4 kilometers between Picacho de la Laguna and Cerro las Casitas is called La Laguna, since it used to be a lake until around 1870. (The lake was drained to support agriculture and mining operations in the late 1800s.)
The peaks are a genuine cloud forest in the late summer months and can receive more than 100 centimeters of rain a year.
The range’s unique position between the desert to the north and the water on the other three sides creates a rare ecosystem of lush subtropical, alpine, and desert vegetation. The waterfalls that run until late spring add to the stunning scenery.
The peak hiking season here is late October through early spring, after the summer storms have subsided and the waterfalls are running. Temperatures at La Laguna can drop below freezing during the winter months, when the daytime highs range 10–20°C. In spring, daytime temperatures climb to around 25°C.
Drenched with far more annual precipitation than any other part of the peninsula, La Laguna has become an isolated microclimate that sustains plants and animals long gone from the desert plains below. There are more than 900 plant species growing in the range, 70 of them indigenous. More striking than the number of species is the unusual combination of plants typically associated with opposite climates. This is a place where moss grows next to cacti and palms thrive beside willows. Naturally, the area is popular with avid bird-watchers.
In 1994 the Mexican government designated the Sierra de la Laguna a “biosphere reserve,” a designation long sought by local environmentalists. The reserve encompasses 11,300 hectares, divided into a core zone, in which development is prohibited, and a buffer zone, where ranchers may graze livestock.
Hikes in these mountains typically follow canyons, trails, or cow tracks—or a combination of the three. There are three main routes into the sierra from the east side of the range: Cañon San Dionísio, with access from Santiago ; Cañon San Bernardo, with access from Miraflores ; and Cañon San Pablo, with access from Caduaño (4 km south of Miraflores). The main access point from the west side is at La Burrera, between Pescadero  and Todos Santos . A couple of representative hikes are described here; local guides can make additional recommendations based on current conditions and client preferences.
La Laguna and Picacho de la Laguna Summit: The most popular hike in the area is a round-trip summit of the highest peak in the range via Cañon San Dionísio, with an overnight stop to camp in the oak meadow at La Laguna. The summit is best attempted from west to east because the terrain in this direction is more direct and easier to navigate. You do not need a guide to do this hike; however, SEMARNAT, the government agency that manages the biosphere reserve, asks hikers to obtain a permit from its office in La Paz (Ocampo 1045, second floor, tel. 612/123-9313, US$1 pp).
The total distance for the hike is 24 kilometers, with 1,800 meters of elevation gain. Many people leave before sunrise under a full moon to get off the exposed face before the sun hits the west slope. There are a few forest ranger and military buildings in the meadow.
Access to this hike begins at the village of La Burrera, near Todos Santos. Look for a dirt turnoff from Mexico 19, about 100 meters south of the road to Punta Lobos. After the old water tower, take the first left and continue straight through several intersections until the road ends at a gate and parking area.
From the gate, follow the dirt road all the way to La Burrera, about 25 minutes more. Continue on the same road for 20 minutes more until you reach a clearing on the right that has been used for camping; a sign here reads No Tire Basura (Don’t Throw Trash). Just past the sign, the road climbs a small rise, and the trail begins from here.
Enjoy the first few steps of flat terrain because the trail gets fairly steep in a hurry. The trail to La Laguna is 11 kilometers, which takes 5–8 hours, depending on your pace. As you approach the meadow, the dense vegetation gives way to panoramic views of the mountains and ocean below. In the southeast corner of the meadow is a waterfall and swimming pool. Pack enough drinking water to get you to La Laguna, as there is no permanent source of water along the trail.
If you need transportation to the trailhead, stop by the Siempre Vive grocery store (Juárez at Márquez de León, Todos Santos) in the late morning, or check with Todos Santos Eco Adventures (www.tosea.net ) for organized trips. Taxis waiting at the taxi stand by the town park will also drive you there.
Guides are strongly recommended to do this trip from the eastern approach, due to the complex network of cow tracks. (Ask in Santiago.) Most hikers allow 3–4 days to cover the 12.8 kilometers to La Laguna. Make sure to bring enough water for the whole journey.
Cañon San Bernardo presents the easiest route for crossing the range from east to west. From the village of Boca de la Sierra, you climb to an elevation of 1,000 meters over the course of about 16 kilometers and then descend to Santo Domingo on the west side. There is drinking water in year-round pools along the way. Allow 4–5 days to complete the 22.5-kilometer hike.
At a minimum, you need a reliable compass and topographic map for any of these hikes. Relevant topo maps include El Rosario F12B23, Las Cuevas F12B24, Todos Santos F12B33, and Santiago F12B34. Pack warm layers and sleeping bags for the higher elevations, even in the spring. Long pants and sturdy footwear can protect bare skin from the getting jabbed by cactus needles.
Although some routes have water along the way, it’s best to bring your own and use what’s there as backup. Remember to purify any water you collect from mountain pools.
For hikes from the east side of the sierra, guides are recommended and readily available Santiago  and Miraflores . Rates are about US$30–35 per day per person, plus an extra US$15 per day per pack animal. Rancho San Dionísio charges US$30 for a guide without mules, no matter how many people are hiking.
A guide is not essential to hike from the west side, although it helps to have someone show you to the trailhead. In Todos Santos , Fernando Arteche (sierradelalaguna [at] hotmail [dot] com) has been leading trips for many years. He speaks excellent English and knows a lot about the Sierra de la Laguna. Trips are on mule or by foot.
Juan Sebastián López (onejohnone [at] hotmail [dot] com) runs three-day trips on horseback, with packhorses to carry your gear.
At Rancho Pilar (Km. 73, Mexico 19, ranchopilar [at] hotmail [dot] com), artisan and amateur naturalist Cuco Moyron can arrange mule trips into the Sierra de la Laguna and is a good source of information about sierra flora. He’ll need about a week to make the arrangements.
Todos Santos Eco Adventures (www.tosea.net ) leads organized group trips into the sierra.
With high clearance and a sense of adventure, you can drive across the mountains from Mexico 1 north of San José del Cabo  to Mexico 19 on the Pacific side via an ungraded road called Los Naranjos. The road is 42 kilometers long and ends at the village of El Aguaje, near El Pescadero.
From the Los Cabos airport, head north until you pass Santa Anita and go about eight kilometers more. Turn left onto Los Naranjos road, which ascends from the flats up into the sierra.
Bring along a copy of the Baja California Plant and Field Guide, by Norman C. Roberts.
Follow the switchbacks to a plateau and then continue west until you glimpse the Pacific Ocean in the distance. At this point, the road frequently washes out and may not be passable. If it’s clear, you can continue on to El Pescadero.