Hiking the Palomar Observatory Trail

The Observatory Trail on Palomar Mountain is a wonderful quick hike to do at any time when you want to get away from the crowds and enjoy a little bit on nature – and science – without having to make big plans. Black Friday was just such a day, and Jack, Devin and I packed some peanut butter sandwiches, trail mix, water and went off to Palomar Mountain.

The trail starts at the Observatory Campground on Palomar. This may be hard to find, since it’s not on the same road as the Palomar Mountain state park. If you find yourself having to pay an entry fee of $8 at the main ranger station, you are at the wrong place. From the main road, pass Mother’s Cafe on your left and continue about two miles until you get to the campground on your right. It’s easy to miss, since the sign is on the left side of the road and the entry is right behind a bend on the right. Once in the campground, drive around the loop. Don’t park in somebody else’s camp parking space. There are hiker parking spaces in the back. Now comes the matter of the Adventure Pass, which you are likely not to have. There is a place at the entrance to the park where you can self-purchase a ticket and stuff your $5 into a slot. That’s the best way to handle this. If you don’t pay, you will have a ticket by the time you come back, but the ticket is just the $5 you owed in the first place, so it’s not too obnoxious.

The trail starts right at the parking lot and moves steadily up through oak forests and woods. Occasionally it runs right by the road, but that will not bother you, since it’s higher up and you can’t see it. It’s just strange to hear a car all of a sudden, when you are seemingly deep in the woods. The vistas to the right into the valley are wonderful.

Wait until you get to the platform built just for this few and spend a few minutes taking your pictures.

The  trail climbs steadily upward, as you can see from the profile above. The trail is 2.3 miles one way, and it’s easily done in about 1 hour of hiking. Devin gave some lectures on trail maintenance, so overall we took about 1.5 hours to get to our destination, the famous Hale Observatory.

Of course, we went inside, checked out the displays, and then stopped at the museum afterwards. The observatory was built starting in 1936, and first light hit the telescope in 1948. For decades, this was  the largest and most famous observatory in the world. Many of the groundbreaking discoveries in astronomy during the 1950ies through the 1970ies took place here.

Devin, ever the trails man with a geography degree, got a kick out of this high-tech display at the end of the trail:

A nice little lunch at the top is just what we needed (myself and Jack):

The way down is the same as the way up, just a little faster, since there is no huffing and puffing. I had a vibrant flashback on the way down. I remembered that there were times some twenty-odd years ago when I carried Devin up and down this trail in a back-carrier when he was an infant. And here he is now, teaching me how to maintain trails:

On the way down you might stop at Mother’s Cafe. They have good coffee, pastries, smoothies and sandwiches. If you don’t see something you want on the sparse menu, just ask them, and they will likely make it for you.

…and that is the preferred way to spend the Day after Thanksgiving.

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