Nothing prepares one for the surprise of Palomar. There it stands, a hanging garden above the arid lands. Springs of water burst out of the hillsides and cross the road in rivulets. The road runs through forests that a king may covet--oak and cedar and stately fir.
--Professor W. J. Husse while scouting for a telescope site
Astronomer George Hale will be remembered both for his scientific discoveries and his vision of constructing great observatories. His first vision materialized as the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wis., with its 40-inch telescope; his second as Mount Wilson Observatory, near Pasadena, with its 60-inch and 100-inch telescopes, and finally Palomar Observatory, near San Diego, with its 200-inch telescope. The Great Glass at Palomar is the most powerful telescope in America and has done more to increase our knowledge of the heavens than any other instrument.
Most visitors traveling to Palomar drive their cars all the way to the top, visit the observatory and drive back down. Too bad. They miss a nice hike. Observatory Trail roughly parallels the road, but is hidden from the sights and sounds of traffic by a dense forest.
Palomar Mountain doesn't have the distinct cone shape of a stereotypical mountain top. It soars abruptly up from the San Luis River Valley on the south but flattens out on top. Atop and just below the long crest are oak and pine forests, spring-watered grasslands and lush canyons. All the great views from the top do not come from the Hale telescope! Palomar Mountain provides a bird's-eye view of much of southernmost California. Miles and miles of mountains roll toward the north, dominated in the distance by the San Bernardino Mountain peaks. Southward, Mount Cuyamaca is visible; even farther south, the mountains of Baja California. At dusk on the western horizon, orange sunset rays floodlight the Pacific.
Observatory Trail, designated a National Recreation Trail by the Forest Service, is a delightful introduction to the geography of the Palomar Mountains. It takes you from Observatory Campground to the peak, where you can learn about the geography of the heavens.
Directions to trail head: From Interstate 15, exit on Highway 76 east. Proceed to Rincon Springs. For a couple of miles, S6 joins with Highway 76. Continue on S6, forking to the left at South Grade Road (Highway to the Stars). South Grade winds steeply to Observatory Campground and up to the Observatory. Turn right into Observatory Campground. The Forest Service charges a day-use fee. The campground closes in mid December. Follow the campground road until you spot the signed trail head between campsites 19 and 20. The Forest Service booklet, "Guide to the Observatory Trail," which highlights flora and fauna found along the trail, is available at the trail head.
In fact, you could just as well hike the Observatory Trail from top to bottom and have a friend or family member pick you up at the bottom. To reach the upper trail head, simply continue up the road to the Observatory parking area. The top of the trail is just outside the gates of the Observatory grounds (open daily 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m.).
The hike: The signed trail begins at the edge of the campground. You begin climbing wooded slopes and soon get a grand view of Medenhall Valley. You continue ascending over slopes watered by the headwaters of the San Luis Rey River. As the legend goes, young Indian girls visited one of the trickling mountain springs whose waters rushed over beautiful slender stones. A maiden would reach into the water to gather these stones, the number found indicating the number of children she would bear. The last part of the trail climbs more abruptly up manzanita-covered slopes. Soon you see the silvery dome of the 200-inch Hale telescope. This obelisk of symmetry and precision dwarfs nearby trees. Ever-changing patterns of sunlight and shade play upon the top of the dome. The observatory doesn't look like it was built; it looks like it landed.
Visit the observatory gallery to see the great telescope. And take a look at the nearby museum whose exhibits explain some of the mysteries unraveled by the 200-inch lens.
Return the same way.
Observatory Campground to Palomar Observatory: 4 miles round trip; 800-foot elevation gain.