Outer space comes close to home atop Palomar Mountain in northern San Diego County. That's where the famed 200-inch Hale telescope has been peeking into the heavens since 1948 from Palomar Observatory.
The telescope's shiny domed building is more than a mile high in the sky in quiet Cleveland National Forest, a remote location that was chosen because of excellent climatic conditions. A bonus for visitors this time of year is the snow that sometimes covers the mountain top.
Besides learning about scientific star-gazing and perhaps playing in the snow, you can hike marked nature trails, fish for trout and camp overnight in Palomar Mountain State Park. The scenic mountain also is home to a natural foods restaurant.
Get to Palomar Mountain from Los Angeles by driving south on Interstate 5 to Oceanside and exiting east on Mission Avenue/California 76. That back-country state highway winds about 38 miles before the turnoff to County S6.
Also called Highway to the Stars, the steep switchback route goes up Palomar Mountain to the observatory. Along the way try to identify the oak, cedar, fir, spruce and pine trees that populate this densely wooded section of Cleveland forest.
When snow turns the mountain into a winter wonderland, tire chains may be required. Signs will be posted at the bottom of the road, or check before your journey with the highway patrol or the county road department at (619) 742-3487.
En route to the observatory you'll cross County S7; turn right to the mountain's only restaurant, Mother's Kitchen, or go left to reach the state park.
Before making any diversions, continue straight ahead on S6 to the road's end at the observatory parking lot. You can follow a paved path to the 12-story dome that houses the Hale telescope, but stop first at the astronomical museum.
Inside you'll learn about the construction and uses of Palomar's four telescopes and see photos made with them. Also on display is a life-size replica of the Hale telescope's 200-inch mirror, a 14.5-ton Pyrex disk cast at New York's Corning Glass Works.
Now using new electronic detectors, the Hale telescope studies asteroids and comets in our solar system, the stars in the Milky Way and galaxies beyond our own, and quasars so distant that their light takes billions of years to reach our planet.
Over the years the instrument has set an enviable record in astronomical research as the largest productive telescope in the world. You can see the enormous telescope (but not look through it) during daytime self-guiding tours of the observatory.
Visitors can go into the big dome to a special gallery to view the Hale telescope between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. every day of the week, including New Year's Day. The nearby museum is open until 4:30 p.m. daily; a gift shop in the same building operates weekends from 10 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.
No admission is charged to visit Palomar Observatory, which is owned and operated by Caltech. For more tour information, call (619) 742-3476.
If you're hungry, return on S6 to the summit road junction with S7 for a visit to Mother's Kitchen, run by members of the Costa Mesa-based Yoga Center of California. Hours are 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. weekends, 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays except Tuesday and Wednesday. The restaurant will be open New Year's Day.
Mother's Kitchen features homemade soups and breads, vegetarian Mexican dishes, salads, sandwiches, ice cream and home-baked pies. Beer and wine are available, too.
Driving west on S7 leads to Palomar Mountain State Park, a very peaceful spot for hiking or picnicking this season of the year. Entry for day use is $2 per vehicle.
On Fridays and weekends a kiosk is manned by a ranger who has park trail maps (25 cents), or get your bearings from the map posted at the entrance.
Closed for Storms
Head to the parking area for Doane Pond, stocked with trout and open for fishing year-round (license required). A nature trail loops around to Doane Valley Campground, also open all year. Campers pay $6 first come, first served, for any of the 32 sites.
Stormy winter weather may occasionally close the park because of snow. For park information: (619) 765-0755 or 742-3462.
Take warm clothing to be prepared for the changeable climate atop Palomar Mountain. Temperatures on sunny days may reach 60 degrees but 40 degrees often is the average; nights usually dip below freezing.
For an alternative route home, head east on S7 (East Grade Road) that slopes down the mountain to Lake Henshaw. Pick up California 76 east to California 79, then circle northwest on that route to Interstate 15. Go north to join Interstate 215 and California 60, the Pomona Freeway, back to Los Angeles.
Round trip from Los Angeles to star-struck Palomar Mountain is 280 miles.