Palomar Observatory Trail
During our stay in San Diego we realized that it was time for us to start eating healthier and exercising more often. After many years of living and working in the city, our trips out to the mountains and forests for hiking have grown few and far between. We decided to change this so we headed out to Palomar Mountain to hike the famous Palomar Observatory Trail.
The Palomar Mountain Observatory Trail is a great easily accessible hiking trail that leads up to the Hale Telescope and the world-class Palomar Observatory. The trail is one of only four National Recreation Trails (NRT) in San Diego County. A trail is only designated as a NRT if it is recognized as an exemplary trail of local and regional significance by the Secretary of Interior or the Secretary of Agriculture.
The trail starts in the Observatory Campground and parallels the road leading up to the Palomar Mountain Observatory. The road is only briefly visible from the trail so you will spend the majority of your hike in a dense varied forest consisting of Oak, Pines, Cedar, and Ponderosa. You will have wonderful views of the valley below from many vantage points along the way. There is even a viewing deck about halfway along the trail where you can capture photos of Mendenhall Valley and the sweeping views down the slope of Palomar mountain.
The trails are well maintained and the dense forest provides excellent shade when hiking on especially hot days. We did encounter quite a few small gnats in the more shaded sections of the trail. They disappeared completely when there was a slight breeze but when the wind died down they were buzzing incessantly around our faces.
The Palomar Observatory is a great mid-hike reward if you start at the Observatory Campground trailhead. It is a well maintained facility that is owned and operated by the California Institute of Technology. There is a nice little visitor center, museum, and gift shop a few hundred feet away from the trail, through the observatory parking lot. As you walk up the paved path towards the observatory, there are several great photo opportunities of the Observatory dome and the fields of ferns surrounding the property. You can even venture into the observatory and enter an observation deck to view the gigantic hale telescope. We were lucky enough to run into a few of the observatory employees who let us into the restricted area of the dome for a few photo opportunities.
With certain exceptions, Palomar Observatory is open daily. These exceptions are for December 24 and 25 and for possible weather emergencies. While standard time is in effect, the Observatory is open from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm. During the months when daylight savings time is in effect, the Observatory is open from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm.
The trail is 4.4 miles there and back with a good amount of elevation change. Bring plenty of water for the trek, we went through about two liters of water per person over the period of two hours.
Be sure you have a full tank of gas before you drive up Palomar mountain. There are no gas stations on the road up to the trail.
Distance from downtown San Diego: Approx 80 miles. Allow 1 hour and 40 minutes’ driving time. Take I-15 north past Escondido, exiting on Hwy 76 east toward Pala. After 20 miles, take either South Grade Road or East Grade Road to Crestline. Canfield Road extends east from Crestline 2.5 miles to the Cleveland National Forest’s Observatory Campground. Follow signs for the Observatory trailhead parking. An Adventure Pass or $5 fee is required for parking.
For more info on the Observatory, visit their website.