Updated: Dec 23, 2020
Across the Sea of Cortez from Baja lies the beautiful and rugged state of Sonora. With its giant dune fields, deserted beaches, rugged canyons and hidden oases, the Sonora Discovery Trail is the perfect introduction to overlanding in mainland Mexico.
Adventure Rating: Baja
Trip Length: 744 miles, 10 - 18 days
Season: Year round, but October - April recommended to avoid scorching summer heat.
Technical Rating: This route has numerous blue sections, and only experienced overlanders should tackle segment 1 through the Gran Altar desert. The dune fields of the Gran Altar are incredibly remote, expansive and unforgiving. Traveling in a group of 3 or more rigs is recommended when traveling through the Gran Altar.
Typical Terrain: Lots of sand dunes (up to 200 meters in height ), sandy roads and beach driving, dirt roads with lots of washboards and whoops, rocky and eroded jeep trails, and some pavement sections.
Recommended Vehicle: High clearance 4x4 with all terrain tires.
Recommended Gear: A full sized spare tire and tire patch kit, air compressor, and traction boards (Maxx traxx) for sand recoveries.
Adventure Vans: Sprinter 4x4s should be able to manage portions of this route, but will likely need to avoid some jeep trails and will likely want to circumvent the larger dunes in the Gran Altar. Given the length of the route, the specifics in terms of what is/is not suitable for a Sprinter 4x4 is not available at this time.
Alternative Routes: n/a Traveling in Mexico: auto insurance + visa
Segment 1: The Gran Altar Desert
Trip Length: 179 miles, 3-5 days
Typical Terrain: Sand dunes, beach driving, sandy dirt roads. Segment 1 begins in the border town of San Luis Colorado and makes a beeline for the largest active dune field in North America; the Gran Altar Desert. Given the remoteness of the dune fields, novice overlanders are strongly discouraged from traveling this segment unless accompanied by someone with significant experience driving through expansive dune fields. It should be noted, that the route through the dune fields is an approximation. These are highly active dune fields that move and shift with the seasons. Some of the dunes within the Gran Altar approach 700 feet in elevation, so picking an appropriate line for your vehicle and skillset is all part of the fun! Discovery points within the Gran Altar include the dried lake bed Laguna Prieta (DP1) and the massive La Duna Reyna (DP2). You'll need to be mindful of the boundary for El Pinacate y Gran Altar Desierto Biosphere Reserve, as driving in the dune fields within the Biosphere is illegal. One thing to keep in mind while traveling the dunes: the dunes tend to get larger as you move east towards the border of the El Pinacate Biosphere Reserve, and smaller as you head east towards Highway 3. As you make your way south through the Gran Altar, the brilliant blue and aqua green waters of the Sea of Cortez come into view. El Golfo de Santa Clara (DP3) is a quaint seaside town that provides the perfect opportunity for grabbing a bite to eat and refueling your vehicle. As you make your way south towards Bahia Adahir, you actually have a couple of options. You can drive on the beach (be mindful of high tides), or you can take one of the numerous sandy tracks that run above the beach (a favorite among the buggy ans SxS crowd). The beach camping in the viscinity is fantastic-- miles of white sand beaches with seldom a person to be found. However, our favorite camp is at the cliffside palapas at Ejido la Frontera (DP5)-- you'll find this camp feature in Expedition Overland's Gran Altar episode! The route follows a series of mostly sandy roads that parallel the highway around Bahia Adahir. If bird watching is your thing, then consider making a lunch stop at Bahia Adahir. Once you reach the rail road tracks that run parallel to highway 3, you have two options. You can burn the pavement, or you can follow the dirt road running parallel to the tracks (north side of the tracks). We personally prefer running the dirt road next to the tracks-- there's nothing quite like pretending you're competing in one of the Sonora or Baja Rallies, just be mindful of those whoops! Segment 1 ends at the tourist town of Puerto Penasco, a favorite vacation spot for Arizonians given its proximity to the state.
Segment 2: Sonora's North Coast
Trip Length: 315 miles, 4-7 days
Typical Terrain: Sandy tracks, dusty dirt roads, and some connecting pavement. Starting in Puerto Penasco, head south on highway 3. The route takes a short detour into the Sonoran desert to the north. Some of these tracks are seldom traveled, so if you're not super keen on your navigation skills (or if you're in a Sprinter 4x4), you may want to skip this off road segment and continue south on highway 3. There is an inspection point south of Puerto Penasco, so you'll want to have your papers in order. Soon enough you'll be skirting the dirt roads on the cliffs and plains that overlook the magnificent Sea of Cortez, passing by through various pueblos and fishing villages. The native Seri people live along this section of coast, and you'll find them primarily Desemboque and Punta Chueca. There have been past issues with Seri people and outsiders. While these issues seem to have subsided, it's recommended that you camp outside of the vicinity of these two coast side settlements-- but don't be scared to stop by during the day. The locals will certainly appreciate if you spend your hard earned cash in their village. Once you depart highway 3 for dirt, you'll be worlds away from the obnoxiously large margarita glasses and gaggles of drunken tourist at Puerto Penasco. Welcome to Sonora's wild north coast! The Seri make up the majority of the population in Desemboque, with many relying on their heritage as expert fisherman to make ends meet. And like Desemboque, Punta Chueca is another fishing village across from the magnificent Isla Tiburon (Shark Island). The beach and cliffs outside of Puerto Lobos at Paradones are impressive, and would make a great location for camp. Further to the south, Isla Tiburon is home to the largest concentration of hammerhead sharks in the Sea of Cortez. With mountains to your east, and the west across the sea, the trail that travels adjacent to Isla Tiburon is quite magnificent, and you may not pass another non-local for days at a time in these parts! The route concludes at Bahia Kino, a hidden secret among American and Canadian expats. Bahia Kino retains much of its original charm, and has yet to meet succumb to mass commercialization like Puerto Penasco.
Segment 3: San Carlos Bay
Trip Length: 250 miles, 3-6 days
DP1 - Laguna Prieta
DP2 - La Duna Reyna
DP3 - The Gulf of Santa Clara
DP4 - The Cruces of the Gulf
DP5 - Ejido La Frontera
DP6 - La Salina Beach
DP7 - Bahia Adahir
DP8 - San Juan Hill (Competition Hill)
DP9 - Paradones
DP10 - Tiburon Island
DP11 - Bahia Kino
DP12 - El Himalaya Beach
DP13 - Canon of the Nacapule
DP14 - Cerro Tetakawi
DP15 - Mirador San Carlos
DP16 - Canon la Poza Manantial
DP17 - La Manga Water Eye
DP18 - La Manga Dos Beach
DP19 - Cerro el Vigia
Maps + Navigation
>> Always check with local land managers for road closures and conditions.
Gaia GPS (Gaia base layer, Outdoors Thunderforest Maps)
Download GPX files