Campo, California - The Pacific Crest Trail begins on a barren hill about 25 feet from the US-Mexican border.
Three mini-obelisks mark the spot, reminding hikers that it is 2,397 miles to the trail's northern end, while a corrugated metal wall separating the two countries stretches, apparently endlessly, on either side.
From March to May every year, as many as 50 hikers a day pass through the nearby town of Campo, California, on their way to the trail famously portrayed in Cheryl Strayed's bestseller Wild. Some pitch tents behind the Gaskill Brothers Stone Store Museum, a mile north of the trailhead, but most linger only long enough to snap photos in front of the marker and sign the trail register, eager to begin their long walk north.
Few realise that Campo and Highway 94, the east-west road that intersects it, have a rich history that predates the trail and invites lingering for a day or two. The Buffalo Soldiers, an African-American cavalry regiment of the Army, patrolled this rough border terrain during World War II. Half a century earlier, bands of horse thieves linked to Tiburcio Vásquez plotted raids amid the chaparral-spiked hillsides, while post-Civil War settlers made their way to San Diego from Texas and points east on Highway 94 (then called Campo Road).
My husband and our two boys, ages seven and 11, discovered Campo's diverse roots on a recent weekend visit that included not only hiking and camping but also a vintage train ride, an old-fashioned fish fry and a converted feldspar mill full of so many dilapidated antique vehicles that I kept expecting the talking tow truck Mater, from the animated Cars movies, to show up. A growing collection of boutique wineries along Highway 94 added a modern-day element to the experience.
We stayed at Lake Morena, a county-run park with tent and RV sites, and cabins near a boating and fishing lake. The Pacific Crest Trail skirts it at mile 20.2 (a strenuous trek up from Campo), and it's a popular overnight stop for “thru-hikers,” those planning to walk the entire length of the trail. It's easy to do some moderate section-hiking north of here, and it's also a good base from which to explore the region's history. We were able to do both during our 48-hour stay.
Campo first landed on the map in the 1860s when two brothers from the Midwest, Silas and Lumen Gaskill, settled here and opened a general store, hotel, blacksmith shop and other rest-stop fixings. Texans and others looking to put down new roots in the aftermath of the Civil War started showing up.
Known as Little Texas, Campo had a prosperous-enough vibe to lead a gang of border bandits to raid it one fateful day in 1875, according to Larry Johnson, president of the Mountain Empire Historical Society. The bandits weren't prepared for the townspeople's counterattack, and several died or were wounded that day at the Gaskill brothers' store in one of the bloodiest civilian gun battles of the era.
“Everyone was shooting inside and outside and at close range,” Johnson said. “That gunfight ranks right up there with the OK Corral,” the 1881 Wyatt Earp-led showdown that made Tombstone, Arizona, famous.
The Stone Store Museum, rebuilt on its 1885 foundation, chronicles the Campo shootout, and a plaque nearby marks the tree stump from which two of the bandits were hanged.
Upstairs, a collection of photographs and artifacts details another historical milestone for Campo: its role as a key Army base that served as the last home of the 10th Cavalry Regiment of Buffalo Soldiers. The skilled horsemen protected the area's water supply and railroad line until the regiment was deactivated in 1944. Two years later, the base, known as Camp Lockett, became a postwar convalescent hospital and held Italian and German prisoners of war.
Today, Camp Lockett is a private equestrian centre and hikers' last brush with civilisation before a hand-painted plywood sign directs them to a dirt road leading to the Pacific Crest Trail. The stone marker is worth a stop even for those not planning to hike, if only to see the remarkable views of the border wall stretching into the distance on either side, flanked by a wide dirt road and miles of rugged, undeveloped landscape.
The tracks and rail yard that the Buffalo Soldiers once protected are also nearby, now operating as a weekend museum and offering hour-long rides in restored early-20th-century cars. The 148-mile San Diego and Arizona Railway once ran regular transborder passenger service between El Centro, California, and San Diego, with stops in Campo and the Mexican towns of Tecate and Tijuana. The train turned back at International Tunnel No. 4, but did give a unique glimpse of Mexico, unwalled and framed by the old mountain tunnel. Another highlight of the ride: crossing the 100-year-old Campo Creek Viaduct, which soars 200 feet and was part of the original railroad route.
Railroad tracks also run past Campo's Motor Transport Museum, a former mill property north of town that is filled with about 200 motorised vehicles in various states of disrepair. Docent Bryan Butler, who lives on the property, pointed out two prized items - a restored 1923 Mack truck featured in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator and a pristine 1920s stagecoach once used to ferry people to the old gold-mining town of Julian. From 1926 until the 1940s, the mill processed feldspar - a mineral, used in porcelain products, that was discovered in nearby Hauser Canyon in 1918. A small group of local truck enthusiasts pooled their resources in the 1980s to buy the property, Butler said. He encouraged us to wander freely among the cherry pickers, milk trucks and belt-powered log splitters.
Later, we were once again immersed in nostalgia at Barrett Junction Cafe, a 1915 general store that in the 1940s became a dance hall and restaurant known for fish-fry events in its parking lot. All-you-can-eat cod is still on the menu, and we joined a handful of diners digging into big plates of it at long tables set amid vintage signs, fun-house mirrors and ceramic Elvises. The kids were most impressed by the mounted 55-pound fish, caught locally in 2002.
Like the cafe, much of the Campo area has an unhurried, frozen-in-time vibe. Even the region's newest additions - a handful of small wineries that offer tastings on weekends - have kept their businesses low-key.
But greater attention may be on the horizon. Campo, with its warm days and cool nights, has a similar climate to Mexico's Guadalupe Valley, a flourishing wine region about 45 miles to the south.
“It's ideal for certain varietals like syrah, cabernet, merlot and viognier,” said Mary Coppa, whose family runs Campo Creek Vineyards on a former cattle ranch abutting the Mexican border. In 2014, she joined other local growers in organising a Highway 94 wine trail to showcase their vintages. Most have tasting rooms, a stay-as-long-as-you-like attitude and the same striking views of rolling chaparral hillsides that flank the early stretches of the Pacific Crest Trail.
“Most people are driving by and shocked that there's a winery here,” Coppa added with a laugh. Indeed, it's not the only agreeable surprise awaiting visitors to this Old West town.
* Randall is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
If you go...
Where to stay
Lake Morena County Park
2550 Lake Morena Dr., Campo
A boating and fishing lake sits near 10 rustic cabins (bring your own sheets) and 86 tent and RV sites. Cabins from $55 (about R800, tent and RV sites $25.
Jacumba Hot Springs Spa & Resort
44500 Old Highway 80, Jacumba Hot Springs
Modern rooms, two spring-fed pools and a Southwest-themed restaurant and bar. Rooms from $99.
Where to eat
Barrett Junction Cafe
1020 Barrett Lake Rd., Dulzura
Memorabilia-filled former general store known for its beer-battered cod and breakfast buffet. Entrees start at $10.
1247 Sheridan Rd., Campo
Espresso bar with light fare and vintage art on walls. Personal pizzas start at $7, sandwiches at $5. Closed on Sundays.
What to do
Gaskill Brothers Stone Store Museum
31130 Highway 94, Campo
Local history exhibits in an 1880s general store. Open Saturdays-Sundays, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Donations suggested.
Pacific Southwest Railway Museum
750 Depot St., Campo
Vintage train rides on weekends, and displays of equipment and artifacts from Pacific Southwest railroads. Open Saturday noon-7 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m.-3 p.m. from June 19-Oct. 9. $18, $9 kids.
Motor Transport Museum
31949 Highway 94, Campo
More than 200 vehicles and industrial equipment in various states of disrepair are on display, including olive presses and a restored 1923 Mack truck. Open Saturdays 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Free.
To learn about wineries and other points of interest on Highway 94 in Campo, visit thewineriesonhighway94.com