Choral Pepper was an amazing woman who found adventure in the deserts of California, both Baja and Alta. With husband Jack, she edited and published DESERT MAGAZINE in the 1960’s.
Mystery novel author and Perry Mason creator Erle Stanley Gardner loved the desert and Baja California. ‘Uncle Erle’ as he was known to those close to him, invited outdoor enthusiasts to join in on his expeditions of discovery. Gardner came to Pepper’s Palm Desert office and invited Choral and Jack to join him. The following sample of black and white photos is but a preview to a new web site being built for the entire collection of Choral’s Baja photos. Entire contents of this web site protected by copyright ©2004-2022. See also the Erle Stanley Gardner camera photos:
https://vivabaja.com/esg/ February 1966, exploring south of L.A. Bay
Using helicopters, these giant cave paintings were visited. Several were previously unknown, as they could be seen from the air, but not the from canyon trails, below.
Choral spotted a giant mural while riding in the copter. From Mexico City, archeologist Dr. Carlos Margain (his map shown here) was in the copter with Choral and J.W. Black. Margain named the find ‘Pepper Cave’. Choral refused the recognition, unless she physically went to the cave!
J.W. Black and Choral risked death to climb the canyon walls! The helicopter had landed across the canyon, from where Dr. Margain took this photo. Pepper Cave
J.W. Black provides scale of this tremendous discovery.
Dr. Carlos Margain at a rock petroglyph near Mulegé. Mulegé
Here the Baja ‘highway’ (in the 1960’s) had very little traffic. Meeting another vehicle was rare… and required one to back up a considerable distance! Today, this is near Km. 108 as the highway was built on top of the old road, here.
Baja Air Service’s Captain Francisco Muñoz has a chat with Uncle Erle (seated in one of J.W. Black’s off road inventions, the ‘Butterfly’).
Uncle Erle finds a new friend at a Baja rancho. Note the clever use of a truck tire for furniture!
T.V.’s Perry Mason income helped to bring helicopters into Baja, for writer Erle Stanley Gardner.
Captain Francisco Muñoz and Dr. Carlos Margain San Francisco de la Sierra
Choral Pepper (wearing hat) stands with the young female inhabitants of this tiny village. Never before have these folks seen outsiders. A three day mule ride was (then) needed to reach San Ignacio from San Francisco de la Sierra. An auto road was constructed 20 years after Choral visited by helicopter. El Barril
Mission San Borja
As seen by members of the Gardner party, 40 years ago.
Only the church ceiling had a collapse, otherwise San Borja was well preserved for the 150 years since it was abandoned. A favorite Gardner camp…
… was here along the road to Bahia de los Angeles. Clockwise from left: J.W. Black, Erle Stanley Gardner, Ricardo Castillo, Bruce Barron, Jorge Yee, and Sam Hicks. Photo by Choral Pepper. Another…
Famous Author and Arrowheads
The presenting of arrowheads to Dr. Margain in Mulegé. This moment was made ‘famous’ in Jimmy Smith’s book. ‘Made in Japan’ was not printed on them as Jimmy says, but, that was a good yarn!
Erle Stanley Gardner at Bahia de los Angeles.
Pilot whale and a local sailboat on La Paz Bay.
The Gardner party meets with San Ignacio’s Frank Fischer about the location of the Cave of the Serpent.
A rancher chats with Sam Hicks.
San Ignacio from above.
San Francisco de la Sierra
San Francisco is much higher and cooler than the surrounding deserts.
When she asked about these walls, Choral Pepper was told they are what remains of the first site of Mission Dolores del Norte. Its location was unknown to outsiders.
San Pablo Canyon begins at San Francisco de la Sierra. It contains the giant rock art sites made famous by Gardner. Pepper Cave
Choral Pepper at the cave she and J.W. climbed to after spotting it from the helicopter.
J.W. Black, the mechanical genius who created the Grasshopper, Butterfly, Pak Jak, and Burrito off road vehicles.
Capt. Muñoz expresses himself with Dr. Margain.
Gardner at the Santa María Sky Ranch (just south of San Quintín) waiting out bad weather. Note the clam shells on the roof. Baja Cowboys (Vaqueros)
Lorenzo and Higinio Villavicencio of El Barril were encountered as the Gardner party were making a road south of Bahia de los Angeles in 1966. Erle Stanley Gardner and Choral Pepper
Baja was a wonderful and magic place to them, as it continues to be for so many of us nearly 40 years later!
JW Black examines a vaquero’s spurs.
Horno at Rancho El Barril (Villavicencio Bros.)
Turtle in Papa Diaz’ pen, Bahia de los Angeles.
JW Black examines a still to convert sea water to fresh, at Bahia las Animas Feb., 1966.
‘Uncle Erle’ tells a story to Choral Pepper and others around the campfire.
Mission San Miguel Arcángel, next to the Ensenada Highway (La Misión). View south.
Mission San Miguel, view north.
Choral Pepper, Frank Fischer, Erle Stanley Gardner, in San Ignacio.
Sam Hicks leads Erle Stanley Gardner to the Cave of the Serpent, Sierra San Francisco.
Cave of the Serpent
Cave of the Serpent
El Parral Cave
Gardner Cave as seen from the canyon floor. (‘Gardner Cave’ so named by Mexico’s archaeologist Dr. Carlos Margain, was renamed ‘Pintada’ later by the government, which is what the local ranchers called it before Gardner brought Margain to the canyon, by helicopter. Harry Crosby credited another archaeologist with renaming the cave, a Dr. Clement Meighan also brought to the caves by Gardner. Meighan was from UCLA, and had authority from Mexico City to investigate the caves.)
In April, 1967, Choral Pepper was invited by Erle Stanley Gardner to join him and others for the first blimp trip into Baja on the Goodyear blimp. This is the parking area for La Bufadora… just missed seeing the spray!
This is the border wait at San Ysidro… brutal!
Uncle Erle and his Baja Chopper
Seated by her favorite (Baja inspired) painting, artist, author, gourmet cook, syndicated travel writer, and great Baja explorer was Choral (‘Corke’ to her friends, silent ‘e’).
Choral Pepper with David Kier in Coronado, California.
Choral’s son Trent and daughter Ming, informed me that it was their mother’s wish her collection of photos and documents from the years exploring Baja with Gardner be given to me along with that special painting.
Choral knew of my love for Baja and my ability to share with other Baja enthusiasts would keep the spirit of adventure alive. I also hope to preserve the memory of this wonderful lady.
Please read the kind words she wrote in 2001 and asked me to read to my guests at my Viva Baja party:
See more photos from that golden era of Baja exploration from the camera of Erle Stanley Gardner:
I also have the manuscript of Choral’s unpublished ‘Baja: Missions, Mysteries, Myths’ *
*2016 update: I have included some of Choral’s book content into my new book,
Baja California Land of Missions.
Choral’s magazine (
Desert in the 1960s) and some of her books: