Past the little ranger station, driving on the main road, piles of geological wonders start popping up on the horizon while the dry bushes blur out your close up view. Saguaros parade alongside creating the most geometrically organized formations, while birds, rodents, and insects watch you pass by from their hidden nooks. You are on a surreal ride through multiple golden hours and beings. The heat of the midday finds forgiveness with the fall of the cool night.
Just a couple of hours south of the Mexicali border in Sonora, Mexico, stands a true natural marvel. One of the most distinctive landscapes in North America that can be viewed from outer space, The Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar is a desert for dreaming. Its vast biodiversity, active dunes, and the largest concentration of Maar craters in the world are the key characteristics that set this desert apart from others.
There is something very special, even magical, about a cared-for desert. There’s a reason why someone fought to protect to preserve this land; actually, there are many reasons. Walking back through history and even pre-history, El Gran Desierto de Altar, being a volcanic area, has been the epicenter of unbelievable energy shifts and literal outbursts. It has also been home to more diversity at a time than most places get to be during an era. Peoples have walked across its deathly but giving stretches for hundreds of years as part of their nomadic routes, others in the search for treasures, scientific evidence, and even astronautical training. Peoples have inhabited the land, giving it the respect it deserves, honoring its beautiful resources. Today we visit to stare in awe while being lucky to share the purified air with nature.
During our visit, we learned about these particular kinds of craters. In a nutshell, Maar means that the crater was formed during a low-temperature volcanic explosion and is, therefore, a shallow crater. Although there are hundreds of Maar craters in the area, there is only public access to 3 of them by a car-friendly dirt road loop. The route can take you a bit more than a half day if you decide to walk around the craters, but if you are just driving for the views, it should only take a couple of hours.
Descending to the craters is forbidden as the constantly changing geological conditions make the terrain unpredictable. You’ll see wooden crosses in the name of those deceased from not being careful enough around the crater edges. Keep your distance or risk a 200-meter fall.
More than 600 species call El Pinacate y Gran Desierto de Altar their home. Just imagine the kind of paradise this is for any wildlife voyeur. I felt enchanted by the pure closeness of the giant Chollas and Saguaros.
The rangers working there said they see wildlife all the time. As matter of fact, they sort of have a pet eagle. A rescue who never left the area who likes to land on people’s hats outside of the ranger station. Be prepared. We were lucky to see a Golden Eagle while stopping to take photos somewhere along the road. What a view when she took flight! Pro tip: Don’t forget your binoculars.
Saguaros, chollas, and bushes can be found sharing a small perimeter of soil. The beauty of these scenes transcends any scientific value you might find, it speaks to our ways of being in a community.
El Cono Rojo was our favorite campground out of the two options available. It is located at the foot of El Pinacate, the volcano after which the park takes on its name, and next to a giant mound of red ashes – from where the campground gets its name “The Red Cone”.
You will also get a beautiful sunrise and the most private experience. We shared the campground with one more car that night.
Hiking up to El Pinacate Peak is about a 35 km round-trip. We didn’t have the chance to hike it this time around, but we are looking forward to coming back to this beautiful, magical, place for more.
Gabaccia + Stranded on Land