Boucher Hill Trail – Adams Trail – Cedar Trail – Doane Valley Nature Trail – Weir Trail – Upper French Valley Trail – Thunder Spring Trail – Chimney Flat Trail – Silvercrest Trail
Elevation Gained: 1,200
Critters: Ravens, Hawks, Doves, Quail, Wild Turkeys
– Best mountain scenery in San Diego County
– Everything is lush and blooming
– Palomar State Park is too small, and much of the mountain is off limits.
– They’re planning to close the park!
This is the third time I’ve been to Palomar. The first time was on New Year’s Day, 2012, with Kelly. The second time, I came with grand ambitions to hike from the Silvercrest picnic area all the way to High Point, only to be thwarted by unmaintained trails and no trespassing signs. Both times, the deciduous trees were mostly barren, the grass was grey and dead, and the park was beautiful, but still a shell of what I imagined it would be.
I wanted to have at least one more jaunt through here before the state potentially closes the park. I’ve mentioned it before, but it bears reminding: the park is slated to be closed in July unless a non-profit called Friends of Palomar can raise enough money to bridge the deficit gap. That gap is $180,000. Friends of P (!) has raised about $83,000. It’s no sure thing that this park will stay open.
I also wanted to see what this place looked like in the spring time. Schad’s Afoot and Afield in San Diego boasts that it’s the finest bit of mountain scenery in all of San Diego county. By many descriptions, it’s an unexpectedly lush, vibrant mountain environment in a sea of sage. Apparently, they even found banana slugs here, which are typically native to the redwood forests on the northern California coast. If a place in San Diego is moist enough to support banana slugs, not to mention mixed-conifer forest, it must be pretty special.
So, I settled on a route that would take me clockwise through the park, up Boucher Hill, down to Doane Pond, through French Valley, back through Doane Valley, up to Chimney Flats, and along Silvercrest. I rated this exact loop as the second best hike in San Diego, and I wanted to see if I was correct.
Not only was I correct, but I’ve been debating whether or not this is actually better than the Big Laguna Trail. I still think Big Laguna wins by a nose, based on the lakes and the desert views. However, the forest here is, at times, magnificent, specifically along Doane Creek on the Doane Nature Trail, as I discovered on what would be my first trip through French Valley.
Here is one spot where I honestly could not have told the difference between this forest and the forest in the Sierra Nevada at about 6,000 feet. Here were black oaks, white firs, incense cedars, Jeffrey pines, dogwoods, ferns, trickling creeks, along with all the sounds and smells you’d expect from a mixed-conifer forest. Beautiful.
And then, it got even better. The trail emerged from the forest to a long, pine-fringed meadow. Wild Turkeys gobbled across the grass, and massive ponderosa pines towered above the waving grass. I followed the creek for a while, and came across an old stone wier (dam) that was used in an attempt to determine if Doane Creek could supply hydroelectric power. The creek didn’t have enough flow, but the dam and an old stone structure are still there. This is a great place to take your shoes off and let the current caress your feet.
I’m jumping past Boucher Hill and the Cedar Trail, but you can read about that elsewhere. What was striking about Palomar this time around was how lush and green the place was. The black oaks had put forth their leaves and are now beautifully filled out. Having these oaks fully-leafed makes a huge difference in the appearance of the forest. Not only is the shade deeper and the forest more, um, forest-y (?), but the color contrasts between the silver-green white firs, the dark green of the canyon oaks, the olive green of the cedars, and the bright green of the black oaks creates a color palette that is inviting and rejuvenating.
Also, many of the plants here were showing off in a serious way. Ceanothus was in full bloom, lighting up several sections of trail with bright, blue flowers and giving off a honey-sweet scent. A sage-like plant emits a musky scent that smells like pot the first time you catch it. Pacific Dogwood showed off its massive white blooms. Corn lilly leaves stood in thick patches in the meadows. Bracken ferns were beginning the carpet the hillsides, and beneath it all were many varieties of green grass.
This is a hike that should not be missed, especially if the park is going to close. If you love the mountains, but, like most people, don’t have time and money to day trip to the Sierras or even the Transverse Ranges up north, go to Palomar, and you’ll get a nice taste of sub-alpine forest, cool streams, sunny meadows, and wildflowers.
May: 22.1 Miles