Labor Day 2014: Baja Beach Get-a-way!

Now, one would think that Labor Day, the last big weekend of summer, would mean every beach is going to be crowded, yes?

Not true!

On Labor Day 2013, a tropical storm was dumping rain on San Felipe, so our customary 3-day beach get-a-way didn’t happen. We had gone down on Memorial Day 2013, but the water temperature is still a bit chilly for our liking. July-Sept. the Gulf of California near San Felipe is like a warm bath, still cooler than the air, but so nice and relaxing that it is therapy to us. Over a year since our last visit to Shell Island really had me stressed, as I am so connected to that beautiful beach, nearly 20 miles from San Felipe.

Saturday Aug. 30, 2014

I loaded up the Tacoma with the essentials for a beach weekend in Baja: Sun canopy (Coleman Easy-up), Tent (Coleman Instant Tent), chairs (yup, Coleman), table, stove (guess what brand!), two X-treme ice chests (one for food using block ice and one for beer and water and some mango-ritas using crushed ice). We have an air mattress with an electric pump that I plug into the 110v outlet that Toyota puts in the bed of the TRD Tacomas.

Another reason for Shell Island as our destination is that my wife Elizabeth (‘Baja Angel’ on Baja Nomad) loves Shell Island and it is her birthday around Labor Day… works for me!

We were on the road at 8:09 am, stopped for gas in El Cajon at 8:54 am, topped tank at El Centro at 10:40 am and crossed into Mexico at 11:00 am.

The drive from Mexicali to San Felipe was fast and easy. There are no more detours along the way as all highway widening is now complete.

The mirage at the base of the mountains around Laguna Salada was going on… it was 108ºF

We made a stop and saw that a lot of water had been falling from the sky sometime earlier in the month from the puddles and dried mud…

We stopped for gas at the El Dorado Pemex station (1:05 pm), which is just past the giant Rockadile sign. The station was fully open, as was the convenience store there. Magna Sin (Regular unleaded) gasoline was 12.95 pesos per liter. 500 pesos topped my tank (38.6 liters). The exchange rate offered was 12.80 pesos per dollar. I paid $39.00 for the gas and a dollar tip to the attendant (who did not wash the windows) but was otherwise friendly and wanted to speak to me in English.

As there was some interest in the gas station situation in San Felipe, I noted the other stations…

There was a second Pemex station open, a few more miles south, before entering town. Just past the arches (town entrance) is the third Pemex station on the right. A few stop signs, a couple of new super markets, and the Clam Man building is passed before reaching the traffic circle where we turn south (right) to leave town. At the traffic circle are two Pemex stations. Just south, about 3/4 mile from the traffic circle, the final town Pemex was closed and the pumps had their hoses removed.

The drive south was easy and almost no other traffic on this U.S. holiday weekend. Near Km. 20 the road to Rancho Percebu is passed (this is not a ranch, but a beach camp for tourists along with private homes). Some years ago, many of the campos became ‘ranchos’, perhaps for tax reasons the name change was made. Before, it was called Laguna Percebu. It is the lagoon that begins here which creates the barrier island I call Shell Island which runs all the way to Bahía Santa María, 5 miles from Rancho Percebu.

The access road to Shell Island is by the Km. 26 marker and some cinder block columns. It is less than two miles to the beach. During high lunar tides, the road is under water the final half mile… it really does become an island!

Some photos on the access road east from Hwy. 5, and on the beach…

Instead of heading towards the old concrete bridge along the once elevated causeway onto the island, we took the more traveled and original access road that veers to the right towards the fish camp site/ shack. If you find this area underwater (full or new moon), the best bet is to stay on what appears to be the heaviest used track, as that will be the most compact… and often the most water as it is lower by a couple of inches. This trip, the moon was closer to a quarter phase, and the high tides were about 14 feet. When they are over 18 feet is when Shell Island becomes surrounded by water.

Heading north.

Looking back south.

We were on the island at 1:55 pm, less than 6 hours from home (North County San Diego). The temperature was 98º

Camp set up… our view from under the sun canopy…

There was NOBODY else on the entire beach, even the fisherman camp was abandoned… Where else can you go on a Labor Day weekend, 6 hours from Southern California cities and have an entire island/ beach to yourself?

Sundown Saturday… view of Diablo Mountain…

Answering a question about tire pressure for sand driving, and our meals on Shell Island:

As this was the first time on Shell Island for this tire on this model truck, I drive as far as I am able to see how well it does… and I was amazed that with my heavy load in the bed (2 ice chests, etc.) that I drove onto the beach and down to the surf line and even continued about 1/4 mile before the truck struggled. The tires (Destiny Dakota AT) were at 35 psi and I was in 4WD-HI with traction control (limited slip) on.

I stopped and Baja Angel began shell searching while I deflated the tires. I simply use a tool on my car keys that is like a small screwdriver to depress the air stem valve. It takes like 2 minutes and 15 seconds (I am counting as the air is released) to remove 15 pounds. Since the tires did so well at 35 psi, I only dropped to 20 psi… and sure enough, they did great the rest of the time driving to our camp spot and back to the road-head. We camp 2 miles down the beach from the road-head.

After I switched from a cigarette lighter connected compressor to the Harbor Freight battery connected compressor, the fill time was 3 times quicker (2 psi per minute to 6 psi per minute). However, I had issues with the Harbor Freight compressor fuse holder melting, and fuses melting. I was later given a Tsunami MV-50 red compressor… it is less bulky, has a smaller carry case than the Harbor Freight one, and does not melt the fuse folder or fuse when used. It is a little slower at 5 psi per minute, but that is the one I use.

We did not leave the island for meals or anything. In the past we gone to or have joined with Baja Rob and Connie, and eaten at the places in Colonia Delicias (5 miles south on the highway) sometimes. This is rare compared to eating simply while we are on the island.

Since these beach trips are a get-a-way from the usual for us, and I usually cook at home, there is not much to our eating… and we want to lose weight anyway!

Breakfast is cereal (oatmeal or raisin bran was brought), we had some bananas also. Baja Angel likes coffee. We have orange juice, too.

Lunch is sandwiches, and Baja Angel makes great ones. We have tomatoes and sweet onion, use sandwich buns. Chips and beer (Tecate Light) with lime juice complete that meal. Snacks are cheese and crackers or chips and salsa.

Dinner can be sandwiches, snacks, or a hot freeze dried meal in a bag (just add a pint of boiling water) and plenty for two. We had beef stew Sunday night. Our favorite is the beef stroganoff and I also like the chicken and rice.

We drink lots of water, beer, ice tea, mango-ritas. We enjoy a camp fire, and in the summer, we just don’t need to sit close to it! We bring a couple of those 4-hour instant logs and a bundle of store firewood. This last weekend, some fisherman had camped at our spot and left a pile of local wood there (see it in the photo above).

The whole idea is to unwind and not work anymore than what is needed to set up and tear down camp. We haul out any trash that doesn’t burn along with the mess the fishermen left when they went away (cans, tequila bottle). We are fine with simple camp life and the only use for the stove is to heat water for coffee and the camp meals in a bag. When we were younger and took our kids camping, we cooked up scrambled eggs, burgers, etc. Now that it is just us, we don’t need to do that, so we don’t!

I was a fisherman and may be again still… I just didn’t fish much after my dad died… it was his thing and reason for going to Baja. My reason to go to Baja is to explore, relax, photograph, write travel stories. I love to eat fish, but am just fine if they are caught by someone else. I did mention to Baja Angel as we were floating in the Sea of Cortez and had fish jumping out of the water all around us, that I would like to bring a pole down and maybe fish off the beach again, as I had with my dad in the same area from 1966-1983.

Good Sunday Morning Shell Island!

Looking north to Rancho Percebu, which is across the lagoon from the north end of the island.

Looking west from the island.

Looking south.

Yes, the vehicle that takes us where we want to go, a 2010 Toyota Tacoma 4WD TRD Off Road Double Cab.

The day was beautiful, but about 11 am the wind picked up and stayed with us until about 5 pm. In the past, the wind in September was none existent. That keeps it hot, but the sea is flat and nice for swimming/ floating. With the wind created waves, swimming at high tide was not easy. High tide was about 4 pm. We did go to the lagoon at high tide where it is as calm as a lake and floated in there to almost sundown… NICE!


Since we wanted an early start, we collapsed the sun canopy and packed it in its case the night before… We had our breakfast of orange juice and crunchy raisin bran, burned all paper trash and cleaned up the cans and bottles left by the previous camp site guests. There was a surf board and a glove box along with some plywood that was a wind break, I didn’t have room to haul away.

We were packed, washed, and driving away at 9:23 am. It was 78º and a beautiful morning!

Wow, I hate to leave this perfect place!

Off the deep sand and on the hard-dry mud flats, I stopped to refill the tires back to 35 psi from 20. We were once again driving at 9:53. The distance from the beach to Hwy. 5 (Km. 26) is 1.9 miles and just under 1/2 mile is on the mud flats. During a high tide of over 18 feet, the sea floods the flats as the lagoon from Percebu and the back bay of Bahia Santa Maria connect and make Shell Island surrounded by water, as the map shows…

The umbrella is close to where we camp. Rancho (Laguna) Percebu is at the end of the road with ‘Castañeda’ on it.

It’s about 22 miles back to the San Felipe traffic circle, where it is 10:30 am and 95º. No need to buy more gas, as I am still above the 3/4 full line. We head north on Hwy. 5.

The military check point at the Hwy. 3 junction was the fastest ever. This was the first time we were not asked to get out of the Tacoma for a search, northbound!

At Km. 106+ we take the graded road east towards the Arroyo Grande wells that supply water to the large gold mine that is passed north of El Chinero mountain (north of Hwy. 3). We take a break about a mile into the desert and make lunch. Soon I see a large earth mover scraping the road and when he nears us I hold up a cold bottle of water and a mango-rita for him to enjoy. He tells me he is grading the road to the water pumps (wells). I take a photo as he drives on west…

Here is the arroyo gully by our lunch stop…

We leave at 11:49 am and it is 99º… La Ventana restaurant/ store is just north of the Arroyo Grande well road, maybe 1/4 mile.

We are headed to Tecate, and the fast, Libramiento de Mexicali goes over Hwy. 5, about 10 miles south of the Mexicali/ Calexico border crossing. To get onto it, you must drive a ways north and make a U-turn and enter it going southbound on Hwy. 5. The toll booth is soon reached and it is 68 pesos. The time is 12:40 pm, and it is 105º.

Hwy. 2 is reached in 18 miles, 1:02 pm (we made a stop along the way) and still 105º.

The next military checkpoint was interesting in that the first gun holder asked to see inside my ice chest… I offered him a cold water. He ordered me to the pull over lane where his comandante wanted to see inside the same ice chest. I again offered them cold water (Kirkland bottles) but the comandante wanted a mango-rita… and the machine gun holder reached in and helped himself to a can of ice tea. OK, but maybe ask to be polite amigos, right? Before going to the back of my truck, the comandante did search behind my seat and unzipped the tote bag of my air pump, before asking me to show him my ice chests. That’s it… adios!

The toll both at La Rumorosa would not take any U.S. coins (we were out of pesos), just paper bills and she asked for $2. Then she gave me 3 pesos in change! It was 1:34 pm and 92º. The final toll booth is El Hongo, it was US$5.05 (the nickel coin was ok). It was 1:49 pm and 92º.

Stopped at the Pemex on the right coming into Tecate on the free road, the final miles to the border access road. Magna Sin was the same $12.95 pesos/ liter (as it was at San Felipe). The exchange rate was 12.70 pesos: dollar. I put in 69.5 liters (18.3 gallons) per the pump (which I know was not accurate as my low fuel light comes on at 17 gallons consumed and it hadn’t come on yet). It was 900 pesos or US$71 (really $70.86). The attendant was really nice and did a great job washing the windshield, which was pretty buggy, told me he has family living in the L.A. area, and I gave him a big tip.

New surprise at Tecate border line northbound… the street along the border fence has been extended along the fence further east and it was long! So instead of turning west to head up the big hill the line began to the east a half mile away, where we drove and made a U-turn to get into the back of the line. Not sure how far this new border fence road goes or how to get on it without doing the U-Turn from the previous entrance. One thing it does is removes long lines from in front of businesses along the free Mexicali highway.

Here is the big hill, west of the access road.

The end of the border wait line was reached at 2:21 pm Monday. It took one hour to travel 0.4 mile (not quite to the access road from Hwy. 2). In 2 hours, we traveled 1.0 mile. The border had 3 gates open. The standard two and one of the commercial truck lanes was being used for automobiles to help the line. We got to the border at 4:33 pm (2 hr. 12 min.) after driving a snail’s pace in a 1.2-mile-long line. The U.S. officer was great (and a pleasant change from the one we got here a year and a half ago who asked us the most bizarre and racist questions). I handed him our passports, rolled down my rear passenger window, removed my dark glasses and exchanged greetings. He only asked what was in my ice chests, and sent us on our way.

We were home in less than 2 hours, and while the wait was little fun, it didn’t ruin our quick Baja beach vacation!

Going to Shell Island (our favorite beach get-a-way spot) was really needed by both Baja Angel and myself after a hard summer of work and health issues. We both needed it, and Baja didn’t let us down!

Sad that so many Americans are afraid of going to Mexico. Sure it is different, but it is not dangerous. It is wonderful and does for us something that I have not found north of the border. It is probably the same for most of you who do go to and enjoy Baja California?

THANKS to Baja Angel for being such a wonderful partner in life and sharing my love for camping and four wheeling. A big happy birthday to you as well today!

THANKS to Toyota de Baja California for building such an awesome truck and Toyota Corporation for great quality in the engine, transmission and four-wheel drive system!

THANKS to Baja Nomad forums for great friendships, an opportunity to share and to help others!

See more great Baja California trips and information on my website: