Thunder Spring/Chimney Flats Loop (Palomar Mountain State Park)
- Location: Palomar Mountains in northeastern San Diego County. From I-15 at Fallbrook, take highway 76 east for 21 miles, and take a left on county road S6. Follow it for 6 1/2 miles and take a left on S7 (signed for the park). Drive 3 miles and enter the park, where a $8 per day fee is charged. At the first intersection, turn right and drive 1.8 miles to the Doane Pond day use area, making a right turn at the only intersection along the way. The road is narrow and drops off sharply, so be careful.
- Agency: Palomar Mountain State Park
- Distance: 4 miles
- Elevation gain: 900 feet
- Difficulty Rating: PG
- Suggested time: 2 hours
- Best season: All year (hot in the summer, snowy in the winter – call the park to check the conditions)
- USGS topo map: “Boucher Hill”
- Recommended gear: insect repellent; sun hat; Poison oak cream
- Recommended guidebook: Afoot and Afield San Diego County
- More information: Trip descriptions here and here
- Rating: 8
This great hike has a lot of scenic variety, including panoramic mountain views, trickling streams, green meadows, tall trees and even the ruins of a cabin. The only downside is the large amounts of poison oak that grow on the wooded slopes.
From the parking area, take the signed Cedar Trail. You pass a spur leading to restrooms and come to a picnic area where the trail splits. Head left (right is the return route) and walk around peaceful Doane Pond. Turn left at the T-junction and begin hiking on the Thunder Spring Trail. You enter a thick forest of oaks, reaching Thunder Spring in 0.6 miles and a junction with the Upper Doane Trail at one mile.
Staying straight at the intersection, you cross the stream and begin climbing. Watch out for the poison oak as you ascend the switchbacks. The trail levels out and follows alongside a fence for a short distance before reaching Chimney Flats (1.5 miles), a pleasant green meadow that resembles Tahquitz Valley in the San Jacinto range.
After Chimney Flats, the trail, now a fire road, enters another attractive grove of trees. A few stumps make good resting spots. You reach a paved service road, the approximate midpoint of the hike. You have two options: you can continue straight through an open field and more woodlands to Scott’s Cabin, or you can turn left on the service road which soon brings you to the the main park road. Across the way, pick up the Silvercrest Trail, passing by a grave marker for a certain William Pearson, killed when a tree fell on him in 1898. Past the grave site, the Silvercrest Trail enters an open area where you get excellent views of Pauma Valley on the left and Boucher Hill ahead.
The trail ends at a picnic area where you cross the street and pick up a spur leading back to the Scott’s Cabin Trail. Turn left at a T-junction and soon after, you reach the remains of Scott’s Cabin, little more than a bunch of neatly stacked logs. The trail leaves the woods and begins a descent with nice views to the north, before reaching a junction with the Cedar Trail.
Turn right and begin the last leg of the hike, during which the poison oak is at its worst. Fallen trees that require climbing over make avoiding the poison oak particularly difficult. If you want to bypass this section, you can take the Scott’s Cabin Trail to the paved road, turn right and follow it back to the starting area.
The Cedar Trail, steep and loose in some spots, is scenic, despite the poison oak. It descends through a forest, finally reaching Doane Pond. Turn left and follow the trail back to the picnic area and the parking lot.
Text and photography copyright 2013 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. By reading this, you agree not to hold the author or publisher of the content on this web site responsible for any injuries or inconveniences that may result from hiking on this trail. Check the informational links provided for up to date trail condition information.