Palomar Mountain State Park

Boucher Hill – Cedar Trail – Doane Pond and Lower Doane Valley – Chimney Flat.

Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 5 Miles (approximate)
Critters Spotted: 15 mule deer

To kick off 2012, Kelly and I headed up to Palomar Mountain State Park for the fledgling tradition of a New Year’s Day hike. We arrived at Silvercrest Picnic area  around 11:something in the morning after a leisurely drive through east North County. The weather was fair – sunny and warm, and there was little evidence, aside from the litter of fallen leaves and dried grasses, that this was the middle of winter. 

After paying the toll and loading the backpack, we set off for the Boucher Hill trail, a dusty trail through black oaks, Douglas firs, and a smattering of incense cedars. With the intention of getting the only serious hill out of the way, we chugged our way to the top just in time for the unusual treat of a tour of one of the smattering of fire lookout towers in operation around Southern California.

The Boucher Hill lookout tower is a 30-foot structure with a panoramic view of San Diego County, Orange County, and significant portions of Los Angeles, San Bernadino, and Riverside Counties – including Mt. Baldy, Mt. San Jacinto, and Mt. San Gorgonio. The lookout is in the process of being refurbished, and two volunteers were happy to explain a bit of the structure’s history. The tower locates and determines positions on fires by using an archane measuring system that’s something of a cross between a ruler, a telescope, a map, and a compass. The lookout then cross-checks the position with neighboring lookouts. Once the the coordinates are determined, the fire brigade is phoned in. This particular structure nearly burned down during the 2007 Poomacha Fire, but was spared due to the unauthorized efforts of park employees.

We left the lookout as they were closing it down and continued on our way through the downhill stretch of the Boucher Hill trail. This section of the trail was badly affected by the Poomacha Fire, and long stretches of ghost forest dominated the landscape. A dense under-story of Ceanothus, which had not been trimmed in a long time, made the going slow, and it wasn’t until we left the burned area that the ground covered opened up and returned to a shady mixed-conifer forest of black and canyon live oak, Douglas fir, and incense cedar. 

We crossed through a small meadow and made our way to the Cedar Group campsite. Earlier, a volunteer had told us that Palomar was scheduled for closure on July 1st, 2012 in an attempt to close an $11 million dollar gap in the state park budget. The decision to close Palomar is curious given that it is highly visited in a county that supports a massive population. Surely, this particular park can manage to cover its own expenses, but apparently some committee somewhere doesn’t share my appraisal. The Friends of Palomar are leading a donation-based effort to remove the park from the states list of expendable line items. You can read about (and support, if you wish) their efforts here:

Kelly and I then entered the most enchanting stretch of the hike as we entered the Cedar Creek trail. Before leaving the group camp, we spotted a herd of deer that started at three, but quickly became thirteen. They watched us with wary curiosity before they slowly began to move away from us down the slope. Kelly – and bless her eyesight – soon spotted another pair of mule deer atop the ridge that leads to Scott’s cabin, bringing our mule deer total to 15. We continued up and around the ridge to the eastern side of the hill which had gone untouched by the fire. For long stretches, it was possible to imagine that we were wandering in higher, less accessible mountains to the north as opposed to being an hour’s drive from Escondido. Sunlight filtered through cedars and firs, and the rich smell of decaying leaves and dry earth washed the memories of the last year away, leaving our spirits refreshed and eager to move forward.

We enjoyed a lunch of lentils, roasted Brussels sprouts, and coconut water (things that white people like, apparently) at a picnic bench on the south shore of Doane Pond. We then followed the Thunder Springs trail, which was intermittently covered in ice, across the meadow in Lower Doane Valley. We followed the trail along Doane creek, lined with alders and bubbling along quietly. Eventually, we crossed thunder spring and switch-backed our way through a dense forest of cedar, fir, oak, and the eventual Jeffrey pine until we found ourselves on the home stretch leading out from the sunny, open Chimney Flats. 

Kelly gamely huffed and puffed along with me up the final slope until we reached our starting point and concluded our hike around 3:00. To silence our muscular critics, Kelly led a brief yoga session on a hillside overlooking the greater part of San Diego county as seen from a 5,000 foot mountain. The day was clear enough, and the Pacific Ocean, downtown San Diego, Point Loma, Woodson Mountain, San Clemente and Santa Catalina Islands, North County, Escondido, Santa Ysabel Creek, and just about every other notable landmark in San Diego was easily discernible. 

Finally, we picked the burrs off our yoga mats, loaded up the car, and cruised down the mountain, stopping for roadside avocados and tangerines, and eventually making it home in time for the 7:10 Mission Impossible showing.

Some people may watch football. Some people may nurse hangovers. I personally can’t imagine a better way to spend the first day of a new year than with Kelly, mountains, forests, clean air, and a good workout. 

Total miles for the year: 5

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