Those willing to make the long drive to the Barker Valley trail head high in the Palomars are rewarded with one of the most fascinating hikes in San Diego County. Though the observatory and lookout tower at High Point are both visible from this trail, on the eastern slope of the Palomars, the terrain is desert all the way, at least until one drops into the secluded recesses of Barker Valley on the banks of the San Luis Rey River. Adding to the hike’s appeal is its virtual isolation from any kind of signs of civilization.
After the twisting, narrow mountain road to reach the trail head, the actual hike is straightforward. As with most “reverse” hikes (down then up) the descent can be deceptively easy and the ascent, much of which is exposed, should not be underestimated. Fortunately the grade is easy, averaging about 350 feet of elevation gain per mile and if you are hiking in the late afternoon, the sun will be setting behind the taller Palomar peaks, making your last mile or so enjoyably shaded. On my visit, going back up took only 15 minutes longer than going down.
Pass through the gate and begin your descent, taking in views of Lake Henshaw and the distant Cuyamaca Mountains to the southeast. If visibility is particularly good, you may glimpse the Lagunas farther east. You’ll also soon get a view of your destination, Barker Valley, with a line of dark green oaks outlining the course of the San Luis Rey River. The vegetation is typical of the high desert, including mountain mahogany, scrub oaks and a few yuccas.
At 1.8 miles, the trail makes a hairpin left turn and descends a few switchbacks, dropping into a grove of oaks and then a meadow. Soon after you cross a shallow canyon (a tributary of the San Luis Rey River) and enter Barker Valley. The oak-lined pasture contrasts the desert terrain above. A large tree, 3.2 miles from the start, makes a good turnaround spot to rest and enjoy the solitude before making the long ascent back. Adventurous hikers experienced with canyoning in potentially treacherous conditions can follow the San Luis Rey a mile downstream to a waterfall, but as of this writing, the river has very little water.
Text and photography copyright 2016 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.