Memorial Day Weekend in May of 2010 six vehicles made their way to the last mission founded in the New World by the Jesuit Order. Santa Maria de los Angeles was established in 1767 in a remote, oasis canyon. Even today the location is still difficult to reach. Only the few brave adventurers with equipment tough enough make the journey.

Two new style Toyota Tacomas, one older Tacoma with a camper, a Toyota 4Runner, a Dodge Dakota, and a custom-built 4WD ‘motor home’ V-8 van (with front and rear differential lockers) made the journey in.

One vehicle was unable to leave under its own power, after the trail ‘consumed’ its rear differential.

Baja California

One of the world’s longest peninsulas, it was originally believed to be an island. The Spanish named it ‘California’. Spain used missions to occupy the territory. The first successful mission was at Loreto, in 1697. Santa María was the 17th California mission to be founded, San Diego was the 19th.

Mission Santa María is 300 highway miles south from San Diego and 14.4 miles off the main road on a 4WD trail, between Cataviña and Bahia San Luis Gonzaga.

The great Neal Johns (our ‘Aridologist’) and Teddi Montes (‘Baja Bucko’) at the dinner table of Ed Lusk’s Baja Best B&B, El Rosario.

Highway 1 passing through the desert south from El Rosario made colorful from the heavy winter rains this year. The mission road begins at Rancho Santa Ynez, 78 miles from El Rosario or about 300 miles from San Diego.

Following me in my 2010 Tacoma, is Paul (HB Murphy) in his 2009 Tacoma. Here, crossing the first big gully after leaving Rancho Santa Ynez. Paul’s passenger is Zoom.

Next is the Toyota 4Runner of Steve (BajaTripper) and Zully, followed by Neal Johns in his 2003 Tacoma with pop up camper. Neal’s passenger is Teddi (Baja Bucko).

The fifth vehicle is a Dodge Dakota driven by Chris (CG) and his passenger is Kurt G.

The sixth vehicle is the amazing custom built 4WD van / motorhome of Art (edm1). Equipped with front and rear ARB lockers it surprised everyone with its ability and Art’s driving skill. Art’s daughter Mia was his passenger.

HB Murphy (Paul) chats with Neal Johns.

Baja Angel and David K on the peninsular divide (high point) almost 10 miles from Santa Ynez. The Sea of Cortez at Punta Final can be seen from here.


BajaTripper, Zully, CG, Baja Angel, Kurt G, Neal Johns, Baja Bucko, Art, Mia,

HB Murphy, Zoom. Photo taken by me, David K.

The road is not much more than a gap between rocks and cactus… Off road only vehicles in here!

When we are not between boulders, we are driving on top of boulders.

Neal Johns doesn’t let his many years stop him from tossing rocks to improve the road..

Easy does it!

CG’s Dodge Dakota was equiped with a rear differential locker, as were all the others except the 4Runner. 4WD plus a locking rear differential or traction control system were needed on this road.

Art’s motorhome has front and rear locking differentials… the thing was a beast on this road!

The final 4 miles to the mission are nearly all downhill.

Did I say the road is steep?

Perhaps the one most famous part of the Mission Santa Maria road is this one steep, rock filled grade. It tossed me off a quad and BajaMur off his motorcycle, back in 1999. Our blood spilled on the rocks is what inspired me to name this ‘The Widowmaker’. See my first trip in:

Amazing Art, coming down the Widowmaker!

BajaTripper (Steve) let everyone pass and then followed Art down the Widowmaker. Steve’s 4Runner was stock, no rear locker, and had basic street tires.

The Bog

Following the Widowmaker, the road soon enters the bog where you drive right in the oasis water. Heavy winter rains of January, 2010 charged up the water table and made the bog the hardest part of getting to the mission.

The 4Runner (lacking the rear locker) couldn’t drive through the 3 foot deep water and mud, so Paul turned around and went back in to pull Steve out.

Our epic 2010 trip to Mission Santa María on video, from HB Murphy & Zoom:

Video one is coming down the Widowmaker in the lead Tacoma.
Video two is my Tacoma followed by the rest of the gang, coming down the Widowmaker.
Video three is the first Tacoma going through the bog (be sure to have the volume up, as Zoom in the lead Tacoma is quite funny).


Teddi sings her Baja Cowboy love song at the campfire:

Misión Santa Maria de los Angeles, 1767-1775

Founded by the Jesuit Order, the adobe church and side rooms were constructed by the Franciscans who replaced the Jesuits in 1768. The king of Spain expelled the Jesuits from the New World believing rumors that they were acquiring treasures and not sharing them with him.

Neal Johns and Mia get some mission shade to unwind from the harrowing drive.

Steve and Zully take this photo from the hill overlooking the mission. They find many rock walls.

Everyone sets up their camp next to the mission.

The Next Day: side trip to the end of the road east

My Tacoma dropping of the cliff-road, east of the mission.

Paul’s turn!

Paul makes it and is followed by Chris with the Dodge Dakota. The others who follow us elect to walk.

View up Arroyo Santa María. We camped down there in 2007 by a large oasis pool. See the bighorn sheep that visited us:

View East towards Gonzaga Bay

The road drops into the arroyo and follows it for a half mile ending in the palms. A hidden side road goes left, out of the arroyo before the palms. Road building ended on the ridge seen in the distance, overlooking the deep canyon beyond.

Zoom and Paul at the arroyo view.

Chris (CG) at the arroyo view.

HB Murphy’s and David K’s 4WD Off Road Tacomas at the end of the drivable track in Arroyo Santa María. We hike on to see the Camino Real where it switchbacks up the canyon side.

El Camino Real

In California, a four lane or bigger road is built over the mission trail. Here in Baja, it is not much changed over the past 240 years.

Paul and Zoom walk up the road past the Camino Real to the canyon overlook where the road building attempt to reach Gonzaga Bay ended. Here we are walking back to our trucks.

The climb back up the cliff to the mission has you gripping the wheel and saying a prayer!

I can’t say enough good things about my new 2010 Tacoma and the new traction control system, called A-TRAC. There was no place I had any difficulty including the rocky hill climbs or deep water crossings. A-TRAC is like having front and rear locking differentials, giving all 4 tires with traction engine torque.

We get back to the mission and find everybody has already begun to head out. Art is waiting for us just off to the right.

Nearing the bog we come to the rest of the gang and hear that Neal Johns no longer has any rear wheel drive!

It will be a long afternoon.

CG’s Dakota in the deep water of the bog. Only Neal (with a blown differential) and Steve (with street tires and no rear locker) needed help getting through the bog.

Steve’s 4Runner

The Widowmaker

Going down seemed easy when you are faced with going up!

Art is unstoppable in his off road machine! He also pulls Neal’s Tacoma camper up the mountain!

It was a long night and we finally stopped a bit after 1 a.m. when Neal’s tie rods gave up. But, we were past the high point in the road and about 8 miles from Santa Ynez.

Neal stayed with his truck and CG would return with parts to get him drivable, with help from Antonio at Baja Cactus Motel, in El Rosario.

It was a rough and tough weekend… but with teamwork, everyone got out and upon reflection had a most memorable Memorial Day weekend!

Our epic 2010 trip to Mission Santa María on video, from HB Murphy & Zoom.