The Land

Baja California is a desolate but vastly scenic peninsula of mountains, deserts, headlands and beaches flanked by the Pacific Ocean to the west and the Sea of Cortez (also known as the Gulf of California) to the east. Its irregular, snakelike outline stretches 1250km (775 miles) from mainland California to Los Cabos, though its width ranges only from 50km to 230km (30 miles to 145 miles). On its northeastern edge, Baja also shares short borders with the US state of Arizona and the Mexican state of Sonora, both across the Río Colorado delta. (The southern part of the cape, loosely from La Paz south, is known as the Cape Region.) With a total landmass of about 143,000 sq km (55,000 sq miles), it is about the size of the US state of Illinois, or of England and Wales combined. And here's the best part: more than 4800km (3000 miles) of spectacular and varied coastline wrap the peninsula.

Baja's unique topography is partly the result of tectonic uplift, during which the peninsula tilted westward over millions of years to form three of the four main mountain ranges: the granitic Sierra de Juárez near the US border, home to the Parque Nacional Constitución de 1857 (p111); Parque Sierra San Pedro Mártir (p114), crowned by the 3046m (10,154ft) Picacho del Diablo; and the Sierra de la Giganta (p176), which stretches from Mulegé nearly to La Paz. The fourth range, Sierra de la Laguna (p203), is volcanic in origin. With peaks up to 2100m (7000ft), it divides the southern cape in half.

Similar to mainland California's Sierra Nevada, the western slopes of Baja's ranges feature low foothills gradually giving way to pine forests and granitic mountain peaks. On the eastern side, the mountains rise up abruptly and the landscape is more arid and rugged.

Dotting Baja's gulf waters are numerous islands, which are undersea extensions of peninsular mountain ranges. The largest island, Isla Ángel de la Guarda (p151), is 68km (42 miles) long and 16km (10 miles) wide.

The Tropic of Cancer runs almost precisely through the towns of Todos Santos and Santiago, about midway between La Paz and Cabo San Lucas.

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