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It's no wonder the earliest explorers thought Baja was an island: Its jagged mountains rise like a mirage from the endless sea, and its coastline, all 4,800km (2,976 miles) of it, goes on until eternity. But in fact, it's a peninsula, 1,220km (758 miles) long, jutting out from Southern California deep into the Pacific, slicing the Sea of Cortez from the ocean like a finger from a palm. It's skinny, from its widest point -- 193km (120 miles) at the U.S. border -- to its narrowest, 45km (28 miles) of desert between the Bay of La Paz and the Pacific coast. And it's tall: The mountain ranges that run the length of the peninsula soar up from the sea as high as 3,095m (10,152 ft.) at Picacho del Diablo, the menacingly-named Devil's Peak. All this geologic action would speak of diversity, but in fact, more than 65% of Baja is desert, and despite conifer forests in the north and scattered oases in the south, the peninsula is for the most part an arid, rocky, mountainous land.

Natural Life & Protected Areas

Baja has two national parks on land and two in the sea, all considered some of the region's most spectacular places. The 5,000 hectare (12,372 acre) Parque Nacional Constitución de 1857 is at high altitude within the Sierra de Juárez mountain range, a landscape of diverse pine forests with some trees growing to heights of over 30m (98 ft.), that attracts hikers, climbers, cyclists, and bird-watchers. The area was declared a national park in 1962, and in 1983 it became a part of the country's protected natural areas, offering some protection to the park's population of pumas, golden eagles, coyotes, and bighorn sheep. You can camp in official campsites or rent one of a few simple cabins directly from the park. Two ecotourism ranches, Rodeo del Rey and Los Bandidos, offer rustic rooms in the park as well, along with campsites and related services. An information booth with maps is just past the entry point; a per-vehicle entry charge applies.

The Parque Nacional Sierra San Pedro Mártir, 210km (130 miles) southeast of Ensenada, is at lower altitude than the Sierra de Juárez, but you're still likely to see snow in the winter -- dress warmly! The 72,000 hectares (177,840 acres) of pine forests are home to Mexico's National Astronomical Observatory and to a small population of California condors who've been reintroduced to the wild. Hike 2km (1.2 miles) up to the El Altar viewpoint, at a 2,888m (9,473 ft.) elevation, for a view of both the Pacific Ocean and Sea of Cortez. In the southeast portion of the park is the highest peak in Baja, Picacho del Diablo (Devil's Peak), at an elevation of 3,095m (10,152 ft). It's a popular place for mountain climbing and rappelling. No services are available once you're inside the park, so it's essential to bring your own supplies. Camping areas, restrooms, and forest ranger services are available.

Jacques Cousteau called the Sea of Cortez "the world's aquarium" and "the Galápagos of North America." A visit to its marine parks shows you why: Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park, 64km (40 miles) east along an unpaved road from the Los Cabos International Airport, is a paradise of 7,111 hectares (17,571 acres) of coral reefs, seamounts, wrecks, warm blue waters, and hundreds of species of fish. Stretching 11km (7 miles) from Bahía Las Barracas in the north to Bahía Los Frailes to the south, this Sea of Cortez haven is open to anyone but fishermen: Snorkeling (which can be done right from the shore), scuba diving, freediving, and kayaking are all fair game. Prepare to see anything from manta rays and giant grouper to sea horses and whale sharks, against a backdrop of bright swaying corals and myriad colorful reef fish. Beach camping is popular on Playa Los Arbolitos, and bungalows are available through Cabo Pulmo Beach Resort or through independent homeowners in this dusty cash-only town.

The deep waters of Loreto Bay National Marine Park are the stomping grounds for blue whales, orcas, and dolphins, as well as sea turtles, mantas, and your everyday giant squid. You can explore the park underwater by snorkel or with your scuba diving equipment; from the surface by kayak and sailboat; or skip the wet stuff altogether and simply bask on the beaches of Coronado, Carmen, and Danzante islands, all easy day-trips from Loreto. In summer, Loreto Bay has some of the best sportfishing in Baja.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.