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The following article is taken from a reprint given to me by a University of California, Riverside friend of many years before he died in 1992 - Homer Aschmann, a founding member of the UCR Geography Department. I don't know where the article appeared, but it included some photos which are not shown here.

Fred Metcalf (

Baja California Information Pages

The Baja California Highway
Homer Aschmann

European settlement of Baja California began in 1697 with the founding of a Jesuit mission in Loreto. Until their expulsion in 1768 the Jesuits extended a chain of missions over the southern two-thirds of the peninsula to Santa Maria, their last one, founded in 1766. Their Franciscan successors, with far greater governmental support, given for geopolitical reasons, founded a mission at San Fernando Velicatá and pushed on overland to San Diego whence the California mission system was extended. Baja California thus served as a strategic corridor to the frontier province up which personnel, livestock, plant propagating materials, tools, and church furniture were carried. It was regarded as a more secure route than the one by sea against strong northwest winds and a south-setting current. Briefly, from 1775 to 1781, another overland route from Sonora was used, but that was cut by the successful Yuma Indian revolt.

In 1773 Baja California was transferred to the Dominican order which missionized the gentile Indians of the Frontier between San Fernando Velicatá and San Diego and tended the declining older Jesuit establishments through the end of Spanish colonial times and into the period of Mexican independence. Records are less abundant in the first half of the 19th century than in earlier mission times, but until after the middle of the latter century there is no report of wheeled vehicles or roads for them anywhere in the peninsula. Note 1 Transport was exclusively along mule trails, a network of which came to connect widely spaced missions and other oasis settlements and ranches. Less affected by accidental topography than roads, these trails run fairly directly between points of interest. In rugged, subsequently abandoned regions, as around Mission Santa Maria, they can still be followed.

A backwash from the California gold rush brought a wave of prospectors into Baja California, and by 1870 a number of successful gold, silver, and copper mining properties had been located as well as a myriad of unsuccessful ones. For a time even high grade copper ores were hauled as much as 50 kilometers to coastal landings on muleback, as from Mina de San Fernando near San Fernando Velicatá, to the coast at San Carlos. Note 2 The need for heavy equipment such as boilers and stamp mills, however, was an inducement to construct wagon roads to coastal points, and once they had been established other mines would tie into them. By 1910 the peninsula had a broken net of mine roads, especially in the Northern Territory. Note 3

The development of irrigated agriculture in the Mexicali Valley, the accession of the powerfully independent and locally interested Governor Esteban Cantú (1915-20), and the advent of Prohibition in the United States combined to accelerate economic development in the northern part of Baja California. Cantú constructed engineered roads across difficult terrain from Mexicali to Tijuana and from Tijuana to Ensenada. Trucks and cars were available duty-free from across the border. Ranchers and farmers in the valleys and uplands north of San Quintin found or constructed tracks that were passable, at least in dry weather, in a widespread net.

In 1920 the geologist, Carl H. Beal, made an extensive reconnaissance of the peninsula for Marland Oil Company of Mexico seeking promising sites for petroleum drilling. The results of his work were not published until 1946, Note 4 with a map which includes his amazingly extensive itinerary, most of it followed by pack train. In January, 1922, apparently at the request of the U.S. military district in San Diego, still interested in Baja California as a hangover from World War I, he prepared a 27-page single-spaced typescript entitled "Baja California-Route Studies." Note 5 In it he identifies all the sections a wheeled vehicle might traverse, noting some wagon roads that an automobile should not attempt. He concludes that an automobile might be able to travel from Tijuana to the onyx mine at El Marmol, though evidently wagons were used to transport the onyx at that time. The road from Tijuana to Mexicali was established, and from it a number of passable tracks connected many of the ranches and mines on the relatively level plateau of the Sierra Juarez. The track south from Mexicali to San Felipe was passable at some times but carried so little traffic that someone stuck in the sand might die of thirst.

Farther south some disconnected roads from mine to coastal embarcation were noted. The most extensive set had been built by the El Boleo copper mine radiating out of Santa Rosalia. Only the one connecting that town with Mulegé, however, was passable, others having been washed out and not repaired. Finally, two passable roads led south from La Paz to Todos Santos on the Pacific Coast and to San José del Cabo at the tip of the peninsula. For both roads and trails he is meticulous in noting where water can always be or only sometimes be obtained, commenting further on its quality. The uncertainty, even danger, involved in traversing the peninusla is implicit.

General and ex-President Abelardo Rodriguez, who became governor of the Northern Territory in 1923, constructed the first paved road, from Tijuana to Ensenada. Even earlier road construction began in the Southern Territory of Baja California with a road pushed to Magdalena Bay in 1921 and others southward to Todos Santos and San José del Cabo. With its widely scattered intensively cultivated oases, the Southern Territory's road building followed the classic pattern. If the terrain obstacles were not too severe, roads would be built to tie together the settlements, following the topographically easiest course, but accepting detours if minor settlements could be brought into the system. Though his economic resources were far smaller, the governor of the Southern Territory was able to tie Comondú to Mulegé in 1927, connecting with the system of the Boleo copper Company which had independently laid roads south from Santa Rosalia to Mulegé and westward over the divide to San Ignacio.

The Automobile Club of Southern California and Governor Rodriguez, cooperating almost like sovereign powers, undertook to drive wheeled vehicles south from San Quintin to connect with the road system of the southern Territory. In late 1926 an Auto Club group make it to Rosario, Note 6 and in 1927 a combined expedition of the Mexican military, including the Governor, and the Auto Club drove to San Ignacio, then over the Boleo Company's roads to Santa Rosalia and Mulegé. Mining roads were followed where they existed, routing the track back and forth across the peninsula. Note 7 In 1928 the Auto Club installed its distinctive signs as far as Mulegé, noting mileages obtained in the previous years. Note 8 Random roadside vandalism, intensified by Mexican nationalism that resents the foreign signs, has obliterated or removed all the signs where the road is still followed. A few survive in spots infrequently visited.

For trucks or well equipped field vehicles the road was negotiable from Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas, but few tourists attempted it until after World War II. Onyx was hauled north from El Marmol and Cerro Blanco, Note 9 and in the decade of the 1940's shark liver buyers sought all coves where fishermen might put in. In the late 1940's out of season tomatoes were trucked from the Cape Region to the U.S. border; on a weekly schedule during the 1940's a 1932 Cadillac limousine carried mail and an amazing number of passengers from Tijuana to Santa Rosalia; some used passenger cars were driven from the duty free border zone for sale in La Paz, and modest but growing numbers of adventurous American tourists pushed southward, many to write books about their experiences. Note 10

In 1943 Ulises Irigoyen published in Mexico City a massive two-volume work on Baja California. Note 11 While it discussed the geography and history of the region in not too accurate detail, as its title suggests the book was primarily a strong appeal to the Mexican national government to build a paved highway the length of the peninsula. Such an enterprise would lead to economic development and strengthen the region's ties to Mexico. The effects of the work were slow in emerging, but when in 1972 the national government did build the highway the expenditures were justified on the same grounds.

During World War II the road had been paved south from Ensenada to Santo Tomas. In 1947 and 1948 a major project undertook to extend the paving to San Quintin. Grading was accomplished that far, but funds for asphalt pavement were exhausted at San Telmo, some 75 kilometers short. For twenty years the graded surface, becoming ever more washboarded and rutted, carried heavy truck traffic from the irrigation developments at Colonia Guerrero and San Quintin.

In 1956 a remarkable individual road-making achievement was carried out. Arturo Gross, a part time miner, prospector, and mine promoter, and long a resident of the Laguna Chapala and Calamajué district was offered 10,000 pesos ($800) by the State government if he could drive his truck up the East Coast from Calamajué to San Felipe. Carrying a pick, shovel, and some blasting material he did it. Within weeks tourists followed with four-wheel-drive vehicles. The northern part of the road has been improved, and now there are tourist fishing camps on the formerly completely uninhabited coast.

Curiously, it was the Southern Territory, with far smaller economic resources than the Northern State, that sustained the impetus of road building and improvement, both north and south of La Paz. Soon after 1950 a road was pushed south-westward from Loreto, until then accessible by road only from the north, to join the main peninsular road at Santo Domingo. This road made Mission San Xavier, the outstanding example of Jesuit mission architecture, accessible to tourists. A road was graded northward from La Paz to Villa Insurgentes by 1954, and paving proceeded steadily to the point by 1961. For the next few years, repairing washouts caused by severe storms seems to have occupied the road-building resources of the Territory, but in 1968 a major program paved the road south to San José del Cabo. At the same time a project was instituted to complete a paved road north from Villa Insurgentes to San Ignacio, the most northerly oasis in the Southern Territory. A completely new alignment was chosen, crossing the uplands in an east-northeasterly direction to reach the Gulf Coast south of Loreto. Grading preceded paving, often by a year or more, but work progressed steadily and reached San Ignacio in 1972. Note 12

Extending the northern part of the paved road south from San Telmo did not begin until 1968 and in two years progressed only 20 kilometers, and in a year and a half more, to early 1972, made only a like distance, though surveying and grading for a modern road had begun beyond San Quintin. Suddenly the operation was accelerated; federal money became available, and two major contracts were let to grade and pave the entire 600 kilometer intervening stretch to San Ignacio, working from each end. Hundreds of trucks and graders and thousands of laborers were employed. Various stages of construction, from bulldozing a brecha to final hardening of roadside gutters in cuts, were carried on simultaneously over one-hundred kilometer stretches to hasten essential completion of the highway by the end of 1973.

The heavy investment in the new highway is being justified by its attraction of vastly increased numbers of American tourists and the employment that will be created in providing them with services. The American visitors prior to the paving of the highway have been of two classes, the drivers who traveled slowly, enjoying the scenery and the nearly empty country, camping out and spending relatively little money; another group flew to luxury resort hotels, particularly for fishing. The Mexican government's planning assumes that with a paved highway the additional drivers will seek and pay for luxury hotel accommodations and several rather luxurious hotel-restaurants have been established at formerly unpopulated sites as well as new hotels at established resorts such as Cabo San Lucas and Loreto.

The "Baja 1000 Rough Road Race" has attracted annually a further set of tourists, concerned to tear up the countryside rather than look at it. The hope that the paved highway would end this desecration of the landscape was vain. In 1973 the race was run cross country on a newly staked out track. It has been continued with completely new lineation but the course has been shortened to 500 kilometers.

Though it is only two lanes wide, less than ten meters in the least traveled middle of the route, the new highway was designed and built by modern engineers given free rein. Curves are broad and gentle, grades are moderate, and visibility is generally good. Since water for construction was always scarce and sometimes had to be hauled scores of miles, and ingenious, water sparing roadbed construction scheme was devised. Crushed gravel, sand, and cement were mixed dry, spread and graded into place, sprinkled with water and then rolled. The resulting surface is smooth and hard though how it will hold up will be determined in years ahead. The final surface is oiled and covered with fine gravel.

Except where the highway is actually cut into a hillside, it runs on top of an artificial ridge more than a meter high and only slightly wider than the roadbed. To build this ridge, earth was scraped from as much as a hundred yards on both sides, destroying the vegetation, much of it unusual endemic plants, and leaving a scar that will remain for decades if not for centuries. Protection against washouts rather than maintaining the wildly beautiful desert environment clearly had precedence in the engineer's plans.

There are almost no places that a car can be stopped safely, and getting off the ridge on which the road rests is difficult and even dangerous. Clearly the Baja California Highway will funnel tourists directly to the resort centers. Pausing to examine the extraordinary flora and the attractive desert terrain, the features that attracted the driving tourist of the past, is discouraged and often made impossible. One could drive to La Paz without being conscious of more than a long dull highway interrupted by a few settlements.

The alignment of overland transport routes in Baja California has changed in one rather consistent pattern from earliest historic times. The earliest mule trails and probably their Indian trail predecessors went rather directly from water source to water source. These streams and tanks were settlement sites, and in general are concentrated in the rugged uplands of the center and eastern edge of the peninsula. The mines which gave rise to the first wagon roads tended also to be in the rougher country, but they sought the shortest and easiest route to the coast, either Pacific or Gulf. The pattern of swinging back and forth across the peninsula that marks the original road for wheeled vehicles derives from two tendencies, the effort to utilize the mining roads whenever feasible and seeking lower and leveler land. Water sources and settlements were still connected if possible, but a number of oases that had held missions -- San Borja, Santa Gertrudis, Guadalupe, and San Xavier -- either long did without any road connection or were tied to the main road by long, poorly maintained side tracks.

The new highway continues this trend. The biggest shifts in alignment involve staying far out on the flats of the Vizcaino desert almost to the latitude of San Ignacio before heading east to that point, thus by-passing the former mining and trading centers of Calmalli and El Arco, and following the Gulf coast well south of Loreto before crossing the drainage divide into the Magdalena Plains. The mission oases of La Purisima, Comondú, and San Xavier are by-passed.

In its most recently completed sector, from Rosario to San Ignacio, the highway has been consistently displaced one to three kilometers west of the old road except west and north of San Ignacio where there is a completely new alignment. All the tiny settlements along the old road that eked out a precarious existence serving tourists have been by-passed as have some larger ones. In some instances, their residents have been able to move to a new site on the highway, but this requires more capital than many possess. Further the new alignment, in contrast to the old, is not focused on hitting the infrequent spots where water can be obtained.

Finally, the long term residents who have depended on tourists geared their services to the minimal requirements of the rough-road camper. The tourist whom the new highway is designed to attract will be served by new entrepreneurs from Mexico City who will provide, at high prices, what might be found in an American resort. Profits are going to the investors and managers imported from the mainland. Mexico's problems of underemployment and her need to develop lucrative economic activities cannot be ignored. One can only hope that the benefits gained by the crassest touristic development of the wild lands and shores of Baja California will be worth it.


  1. It is possible that a wagon road ran over the 25 miles between the silver mines of Santa Ana and La Paz. The mines were opened in 1748 and worked sporadically for several decades. No mention of such a road has been discovered, however. Zephyrin Englehardt, Missions and Missionaries in California, Volume 1, Lower California, Santa Barbara, 1929. The drawings of Fr. Ignacio Tirsch, presumably describing Baja California in 1767, the time of the Jesuit expulsion, offer two views of San José del Cabo, Plates VIII and IX, and several other scenes in the Cape area. San José is shown as a busy port, but the paths in and out of town are only for riding animals, and many of them, but no wheeled vehicles appear in his several scenes. The Drawings of Ignacio Tirsch: a Jesuit Missionary in Baja California. Narrative by Doyce B. Bunis, Jr. Translation by Elsbeth Schulz-Bischof, Dawson's Book Shop, Los Angeles, 1972.
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  2. Homer Aschmann, "Recuperación de la vegatación desertica," Calafia, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Oct. 1976), pp. 52-57.
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  3. Jorge Engerrand and Trinidad Paredes, "Informe relativo a la parte occidental de la región Norte de la Baja California" in "Memoria de la Comisión del Instituto Geológico de México que exploró la región Norte de la Baja California." Parergones del Instituto Geológico de México, Vol. 4, 1913, pp. 277-306.
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  4. Carl H. Beal, Reconnaissance of the Geology and Oil Possibilities of Baja California, Mexico, Geological Society of America, Memoir 31, 1948.
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  5. A copy of the typescript, evidently the original, is in my possession.
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  6. "Report of the trip made by C. B. Salisbury and J. E. McLean of the Automobile Club of Southern California from Los Angeles into Lower California for the Purpose of Ascertaining Road Conditions as well as Outing and Hunting Possibilities, and to Take the Necessary Notes and Data with which to Compile a General Map, Particularly of the West Coast Portion." (1926) Automobile Club of Southern California, Los Angeles.
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  7. Personal communication from G. P. Parmalee, Automobile Club of Southern California, retired.
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  8. Manuscript of lecture given by G. P. Parmalee, June 1967, entitled "History of Road Signing in California."
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  9. Personal communication from Paul Jacot of San Diego, California who trucked onyx for his father's mine in the 1940s.
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  10. Reference must be made to the Baja California Guidebook by Peter Gerhard and Howard E. Gulick, Arthur H. Clark Co., Glendale, Calif. four editions beginning in 1956. With its accurate discussions of road conditions and mileages to the tenth of a mile, becoming lost -- even on side roads in uninhabited areas -- was no longer an unavoidable risk.
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  11. Ulises Irigoyen, Carretera Transpeninsular de la Baja California. Editorial America, Mexico, 1943, 2 vols.
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  12. The dates are from my own observations and personal communications from Howard E. Gulick of Glendale, California.
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Although he was born in San Francisco, Homer Aschmann took his early schooling in Los Angeles. He later attended Los Angeles Junior College and eventually earned his A.B. and M.A. degrees at U.C.L.A., the latter in 1942. Following four years in the U.S. Air Force, Dr. Aschmann resumed his studies, taught at San Diego State for two years, and eventually earned a Ph.D. at University of California, Berkeley, in 1954. Since that time he has been a professor of geography at the University of California, Riverside. He has also taught summer classes at a number of universities and has done extended geographic fieldwork in Baja California, Columbia, several Atlantic islands, and in Chile. He has been involved in numerous professional associations and in 1972 received the Award for Meritorious Achievement in Geography from the Association of American Geographers. He has many writings to his credit in the geographic field.

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