There's no doubt the rolling high country of Palomar Mountain embodies North County's most picture-perfect mountain scenery. It's just a shame we can't have a little more of it.
Surrounded by a sea of chaparral and sage scrub, Palomar's magnificent groves of oak, pine, fir and cedar are a testament to its ability to snag from passing storm clouds a fairly respectable 40 inches or so of precipitation annually. (This figure, of course, is a long-term average--lately it has been closer to half that.)
Palomar has been under attack on a number of fronts during the past few years. A 13,100-acre wildfire burned off much of the south face in 1987, and another fire on the north slope just last year charged through 15,600 acres of century-old chaparral and timber. Some of the meager rainfall has come in the form of gully-washing cloudbursts.
The effects of the current drought, four years and counting, has singled out some of the weaker trees, leaving them susceptible to fatal parasitism by bark beetles and mistletoe.
Through it all, the gem of Palomar--Palomar Mountain State Park--has managed to remain attractive, if a bit singed here and there by fire and drought. Your kids can still fish for trout in Doane Pond, rivulets of water can be seen in some of the ravines, and the wooded areas--probably the most varied and interesting in the county--are inspiring to behold.
The state park's mile-high altitude offers some relief from dog-day temperatures. If you go hiking here in August or September, you'll want to stick to the shady trails, and probably short ones at that.
Here are a couple of the better routes:
For both hikes, park at Doane Pond, 2 miles past the park's entrance station (day-use fee is charged).
For the Upper Doane Valley loop, walk to the far side of the lake and continue on Thunder Spring Trail. The trail stays on the west side of alder-fringed Doane Creek, luminescent in the morning or midday sunshine, deeply shaded by late afternoon. You'll thread your way past dark-trunked black oaks, canyon live oaks and lofty conifers such as incense cedars and big cone Douglas firs. A side path on the right leads to seeping Thunder Spring, framed by the drooping fronds of giant chain fern.
After about a mile you'll come upon a wider trail at the head of the valley--Upper Doane Trail. If it's a hot day you'll probably want to return to Doane Pond the same way. If not, then turn left and return back down the valley by way of the sunny meadow. Near the end you'll pass San Diego city and county's Palomar school camp, where students have a chance to experience a week of adventure and learning as part of their education.
Lower Doane Valley, in my opinion, shows off the very best of the Palomar forest. From the corner of the Doane Pond parking lot, take the Doane Valley Nature Trail (self-guiding brochures for this trail are available at the trailhead or the park's entrance station.) You descend along lower Doane Creek, where box elder, dogwoods, wild strawberry vines, currant bushes, and a host of other water-loving plants make a rather uncommon appearance in our arid county. The grizzled, redwood look-alike ahead is an incense cedar, a survivor of past fires.
When you come to a trail fork after 1/3 miles, you can go right, completing the Doane Valley Nature Trail loop, or left toward the point where Doane and French creeks join to form the headwaters of Pauma Creek. At the trail's end you find an old weir and gauging station, built in the late 1920s to test the hydroelectric potential of the stream. The tests proved negative, but it is hoped that there will be enough water there for you to soak your feet in.
Other facilities at Palomar Mountain State Park include campsites, picnic areas and plenty more hiking trails. Campsites should be reserved well in advance. For more information, you can call the state park office at 742-3462.