Article and photos by David Kier
On one of my early childhood trips to Baja California with my folks, we stopped in at Arnold’s Del Mar Café in San Felipe. The year was probably 1966 or 1967 and Arnold was providing us with ideas of places to explore with our Jeep Wagoneer.
One of the places Arnold said would interest us was the waterfall in Matomí Canyon, thirty-some miles up the long desert dry wash beginning about ten miles north of Puertecitos. Arnold marked the location in my dad’s copy of the Lower California Guidebook. He described a waterfall that dropped into a large boulder that had a depression the size of swimming pool on top.
As we were solo travelers, a second vehicle was recommended but not available on our trips. Matomí would have to wait for me to grow up and go on my own. The place was always a Baja fantasy location since hearing Arnold’s description.
On high school and college vacations I spent many days camping south of San Felipe and exploring the dirt roads and dry washes that headed to the mountains. A (once) little-known road connected the sulfur mine south of San Felipe with Valle Chico and the canyons of the San Pedro Mártir mountain range. The road is in a pass named Cañada el Parral on topo maps. It is also called Azufre Wash by SCORE and called “Crazy Horse Canyon” by some locals. In 1978, I used this road and made it across the coastal mountain range. While we were just four miles north of Matomí Canyon where that road connected with the Valle Chico road, the lack of remaining daylight left no room for exploration.
A few weeks later, I returned to the same junction but turned south this time towards Matomí. A ranch house was located where the Valle Chico road dropped into Matomí Canyon and there I met Tomás Dowling who informed me of his second ranch, about five miles up the canyon. He got in my four-wheel-drive Subaru wagon and we headed up the arroyo. Maybe a mile short of his other ranch, a flash flood blocked our way! I turned back and at the previous arroyo crossing, the water was already there. As I began to cross, the Subaru bogged down and I was stuck. With water rising and nearly into the doorway, I analyzed that it was sand I was stuck in and reached underwater to my valve stems and let air out, as we do for any sand driving. It worked, and I didn’t lose my little car to the flash flood of Arroyo Matomí.
The following June, with another vehicle along, I returned and made it to the
upper Matomí ranch house, visited with Tomás, and asked about the waterfall.
There were six of us, all very hot and worn-out from the long drive, and saw no
sign of water at his ranch other than
In June of 1979 my friends and I enjoyed the oasis of Matomí. some blue palm trees nearby. Tomás said the waterfall was just down a path from his corral. There we indeed found a summer Shangri-La complete with waterfall. It wasn’t quite what I had envisioned from Arnold’s story twelve years earlier, but it worked to keep my new friends from being disappointed! I had described to them an oasis paradise, earlier at our beach camp on that hot June day.
In the 1980s, an ejido built a 4.2-mile-long fence across the southern part of Valle Chico, cutting off the old road from the sulfur mine just as it entered Valle Chico. The fence line road was now the route to or from the sulfur mine and that fence has mostly vanished in recent years.
I have returned to the Matomí waterfall oasis a few times between 1979 and 2006. Tomás was long since gone on my last visit and the nobody was there that day. A straight section of the road just east of the ranch had served as an airstrip. Tomás had mentioned he was hired as a bighorn sheep hunting guide. Hunters flew into that strip back in the day.
The road in Arroyo Matomí is sometimes not passable after flash floods, however it was recently utilized by SCORE for the 2016 San Felipe 250 race, after being blocked by rocks for a few years. The Valle Chico road has remained an alternative route in. A loop trip via Matomí makes an interesting back-country drive for four- wheel-drive vehicles. Rocks in the upper few miles of Arroyo Matomí and deep sand in the rest of the arroyo down to Highway 5 are the toughest off road conditions of the trip. The Valle Chico east road all the way to San Felipe is mostly a fast, graded road.
David Kier is a veteran Baja traveler, author of 'Baja California - Land Of Missions' and co-author of 'The Old Missions of Baja and Alta California 1697-1834'. Visit The Old Missions website.