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Palomar Mountain State Park

Located on the west side of the beautiful Palomar Mountain are the 1,862 acres of protected wilderness designated as Palomar Mountain State Park. These lush forests come from the yearly 40 inches of rainfall that water the area. The woodlands are full of Incense Cedar trees, massive Live Oaks, Black Oaks, Evergreen Coulter Pine, and Yellow Pine trees. 

The wooded hills are a stark contrast to the surrounding desert lowlands of Southern California. Besides beautiful plant life the Palomar Mountain State Park is home to many wildlife animal residents as well. Visitors are likely to see animals such as the southern mule deer and striped skunks. Mountain lions and bobcats also call Palomar Mountain State Park home but luckily they rarely have any human encounters.

With only a two hour drive south from the heart of Orange County, this State Park is a wonderful option for either a long day trip or a close-by weekend getaway. Here is everything you need to know to visit Palomar Mountain State Park. 

Hiking 

Hiking is a fantastic activity for the whole family to enjoy at Palomar Mountain State Park. There are over 11 miles of designated trails through prominent oak forests, wandering the lush grassy meadows and trekking in the majestic fir and cedar woodlands. Here are some must do stops ranging in difficulty that everyone can enjoy. 

  • Doane Valley Nature Trail: This short, easy, family friendly trail is just shy of a mile in length. The trek loops through a mostly shaded forest complete with signs to give information on the local plant, history of the area and wildlife. This nice walk has two lovely stream crossings. 
  • Palomar Observatory Trail: Moderate-rated and about five miles in length, this trail brings you up to the popular Palomar Observatory. The almost 800 feet in elevation gain is a gradual incline uphill with nice shaded cover throughout the entire hike. 
  • Scott’s Cabin Trail: The three mile trail promises great views and vistas. Along the trek up about 700 feet in elevation you will get to see all the wildlife residents among the large shaded trees. If you are hoping for a longer hike, you can easily extend this trail by connecting to the Thunder Springs Trail, Chimney Flats Trail, and more. 

Camping

Do you want to enjoy the cool summer nights under the stars? With an average elevation of 5,000 feet, Palomar Mountain State Park has cool summer nights simply perfect for pitching a tent. Within the boundaries of Palomar Mountain State Park are two campgrounds, the Doane Valley Campground and the Cedar Grove Group Campground. The Doane Valley Campground is a more traditional camp group with 31 designated campsites in total. Each one of the sites offer a picnic table, a fire ring, barbecue to grill up some food, and a food locker to protect both you and the wildlife. There is piped water available as well as flush toilets and hot showers. 

The Cedar Grove Campground is ideal for larger groups, and events such as family reunions. There are three separate areas to choose from, with one accessible site. Group Camp I is the largest of the three and can hold up to 25 campers. Group Camps II and III are smaller, holding 15 campers each. The smaller two campsites are ideal for tent camping but those with trailers and camper vans will appreciate Group Camp I’s 21 feet in length accessibility. There is also a restroom at Cedar Grove Campground. 

What To See At Palomar Mountain

Maybe the most well-known thing about Palomar Mountain is the Palomar Observatory and the Hale Telescope. The telescope was the largest in the world from 1949 through 1992. Operated by CalTech, the observatory now houses several telescopes. The observatory is temporarily closed to the public, but the recognizable dome-topped structure stands high on the mountain overlooking San Diego County, observing the stars above. It is visible from many trails within the park.

Another must-see stop in Palomar Mountain is the Boucher Hill Fire Tower. Starting at the Silvercrest trailhead it’s an easy, less than a mile hike up to the lookout. Located on Boucher Hill is this historical fire lookout dating back to 1921. The still in use today tower is staffed virtually every day of the Southern California fire season from May 1 until late November, as staff resources permit. Occasionally, the Tower is open to the public for tours, but although you may not always be able to visit the inside, you can always enjoy the spectacular views of this 1964 Sierra Club’s “Hundred Peak Section” destination. 

Also worth a visit is High Point Lookout Tower. The tower is located on the highest point in the area, hence the name. The original tower was built here in 1935, but was replaced with the current structure in 1964. The tower continues to be staffed during fire season. Hikers can make their way to the peak, however there is no public access to the tower.

Bird watchers will find many species to view throughout Palomar Mountain State Park. From the Dark-eyed Junco, the Northern Rough-winged Swallow, to the Yellow-rumped Warbler and the Western Screech-Owl, there are a wide range of fine feathered friends. Those who prefer creatures of the sea will appreciate the fishing options available within the park. Doane Pond is stocked with plenty of trout. Other fish inhabitants are bluegill, bullhead and channel catfish. No fee is required, simply a valid California fishing license. 

Palomar Mountain State Park is a must go location in the winter to play in the snow. Head up to the top of the mountain to the day use area. Here you can sled, build a snowman and go tubing. More adventurous folks will enjoy snowshoeing or cross country skiing. Four wheel drive vehicles are highly recommended to access the State Park in the winter. Also be aware that chains are required.

Before You Go 

  • For day use activities such as hiking, picnicking, and fishing, the park is open dawn ’til dusk. The campgrounds are accessible 24 hours a day. 
  • Dogs and other pets are allowed only on paved roads and in the campgrounds. Unfortunately they can not explore any of the park’s trails. 
  • Poison Oak can be found throughout the park. Be aware of your surroundings and stay on the trail to avoid contact! 
  • There is a day use fee of $10.00 per vehicle per day. Payment must be in cash or check. There is a senior discount of $9.00 per vehicle per
  • Make sure you stay hydrated and use sunscreen while exploring. Temperatures in the summer can get up to the 90s. 
  • There is only one restaurant in Palomar State Park as well as a general store located on top of the mountain. Come prepared since there is no gas available. 

Palomar Mountain State Park is a special place with so many things to experience and explore. Always remember to practice Leave no Trace principles when adventuring. So, there you have it. Your guide to all the wonderful things to be had at Palomar Mountain State Park. 

Happy adventures! 

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Kaitlin is a former ballerina who now travels around the country in an 18-foot converted school bus. Her and her husband have welcomed 34 sweet children into their home the past eleven years. Although they would not be a forever home for all of them, they adopted their daughter buckets and are legal guardians to their son monkey. Follow their crazy adventures on Instagram @runawaymusbus