Palomar Mountain Observatory Trail

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As seen in the Nobody Hikes in L.A. Guidebook!

View of Mendenhall Valley-Palomar Mountain Observatory Trail
View of Mendenhall Valley, Palomar Mountain Observatory Trail

Text and photography copyright 2010 by David W. Lockeretz, all rights reserved. Information and opinions provided are kept current to the best of the author’s ability. All readers hike at their own risk, and should be aware of the possible dangers of hiking, walking and other outdoor activities. The author does not take any responsibility for injuries sustained during hikes or walks on the trails described here. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.

Palomar Mountain Observatory Trail

  • Location: Cleveland National Forest near Pala.  From Interstate 15 south of Temecula, take highway 76 west for 21 miles.  Turn left on county road S-6 (South Grade Road), and head north for 7 miles.  Stay on S-6 at the junction with S-7 and go three more miles to the observatory campground.  Park near the ampitheater (signed for the Observatory Trail).  A National Forest Service Adventure Pass ($5 for a day or $30 for the year) is required. Click hereto purchase.
  • Agency: Cleveland National Forest/Palomar Mountain Ranger Distridct
  • Distance: 4.4 miles
  • Elevation gain: 900 feet
  • Difficulty Rating: PG
  • Suggested time: 2.5 hours
  • Best season: Year round
  • USGS topo map: Palomar Observatory
  • Recommended gear: hiking poles; insect repellent
  • More information: here (NFS page); trip reports here.
  • Rating: 8

This trail visits the famous Palomar Mountain Observatory, home of the Hale telescope, with its 200-inch lens.   Although it can be hot during the summer, and some stretches of the trail are steep, almost the entire thing is shaded by huge oaks and pines.  The trail’s altitude, starting at about 4,800 feet, means that it is high enough to be cool, but still below the point where most people are likely to feel the effects of the elevation.

From the trailhead, head east along the trail, through the oaks.  At about half a mile in, views of the green Mendenhall Valley open up, and can be enjoyed from a viewing platform.  Continuing along, the trail contours to the north.  To the right is a creek (dry in the summer months), with a fence separating it from the trail.  At about a mile in, cross the creek and continue the ascent.  There are a few short, steep stretches, but enough flat sections to give you time to catch your breath.  You also get nice views to the west of the Palomar Mountains, and you may also glimpse the white sphere of the observatory through the trees, on the right.

Near the top of the trail, there is another creek crossing, and then at just over two miles, you arrive at the observatory parking lot.  Here, you can visit the telescope before making the return trip back to the campground.

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