Palomar Mountain, Summer Edition

A panoramic view of Jeffrey pines and Lower Doane Valley
Distance: 5.6 Miles
Elevation Gained: 800’
Difficulty: Moderate
Time: 2:04
Critters: A garter snake, hawks, squirrels, two deer

– A unique mountain environment
– Perfect weather for hiking
– Kelly was there
– Arguably the best hike in the San Diego area

– Don’t be silly


Shadows lengthen across the south end of Upper Doane Valley

In a nice coincidence, Kelly joined me for my 150th hike of the year at what happens to be the same spot where we took our first hike of the year. It was a great way to kick off the year, and it also triggered a fascination with the place that keeps getting stronger and stronger.

A hawk soaring among the Douglas firs
For those who haven’t read previous posts about Palomar Mountain (herehere, and here), it is one of the best, if not the best, spots to hike in San Diego. Palomar State Park occupies a small chunk of land on Palomar Mountain, which is part of a 25-mile long range stretching from Temecula to Warner Springs. The park itself is very small, but it contains the best part of Palomar’s mixed-oak-and-conifer forest.

Sun shining through the forest on the Thunder Spring Trail

Those who love Palomar breathed a sigh of relief last June when philanthropists and ordinary folks raised enough money to keep the park from being cut out of the state’s budget. Why anybody would want to shut the place down is absolutely beyond me, since it’s pretty clear to anybody who spends an afternoon, morning, and, thanks to the donations, the night here that this is a special, and perhaps unique place.

Sun shining between two cedars on the Doane Valley Nature Trail
Because Palomar sits at a lower elevation, it has a lot of the features of the foothills typical to Southern California mountains. You’ll find oaks, grasses, ferns, wildflowers, and some chaparral. However, since it receives an unusually high amount of rainfall for a semi-arid region, this “island in the sky” also features beautiful stretches of conifer-rich forests featuring incense-cedar, white fir, Coulter pine, Jeffrey pine, ponderosa pine, and Douglas fir.

Ponderosa Pine casting a long shadow in the setting sun

This kind of forest is more typical of the rockier, higher elevation mountains like the San Gabriels and San Bernadinos, but Palomar is also characterized by lush, rolling meadows full of wildflowers, butterflies, and a host of other creatures. Additionally, you can find species of plants, and even animals, here that you normally find in the Sierras or even in the coast redwood forests.

My back-lit baby
Pacific dogwood sends out massive white flowers during the spring. Corn lillies occupy huge patches of meadow as they send up flowers that look a lot like corn tassles. Sword and bracken ferns cover hillsides, while towering ponderosa pines stand guard over beautiful rolling meadows. You can even find banana slugs in Palomar, which most people believed only existed in the damp coast of Northern California.

Pines at Upper Doane Valley
Kelly and I came up to Palomar for a late afternoon sunset hike. We decided to forego anything that had too much of a hill so that we could focus on a leisurely stroll through beautiful forests and meadows. We started at Doane Pond and took a very narrow loop around Upper Doane Valley. Along the way, we watched numerous hawks circling lazily above, hunting for prey.

Cedar trees in the dusky gloom
On the west side of the valley, the forest takes over with black and canyon oaks predominating with a mix of white and Douglas firs. Alders line a perennial creek fed by Thunder Spring, which was a big hit with a handful of families that had stopped to play in the water. The light on this section was fantastic as the setting sun splashed through the branches of the trees.

Pine needles catching the light

Kelly and I completed this section of the loop and found ourselves back at Doane Pond where we started. Ultimately, our trip would look something like a figure-8 as we set off on the Doane Valley Nature Trail from the west end of the parking lot.

Kelly enjoying the Doane Valley Nature Trail
The Doane Valley Nature Trail and the adjoining Lower Doane Valley Trails and French Valley Trails travel through the most beautiful parts of this park. Immediately, you plunge into a dense forest of fir and cedar while following a gently trickling stream. Gradually, the trees open up, and you’re faced with Lower Doane Valley, which is separated from Upper Doane Valley by this stream-fed forest.

Catalina Island in the distance
In Lower Doane Valley, scattered Jeffrey and Ponderosa pines dominate over swaying grasses and ferns. A fire swept through here in 2007, and yet most of the valley escaped the damage without too much damage. The main damage occurred in adjoining French Valley, which is now closed off to let the vegetation regenerate.

Trees caught in the setting sun on Boucher Hill
After hustling our way back to the car for the 7:13 sunset, we drove back to the park entrance with the intention of going up to the Boucher Hill fire lookout to catch the sunset. From here, you can see San Diego, Orange, and Los Angeles counties, as well as Catalina and San Clemente islands. However, some dillhole locked a gate that barred us from entering. After a few false starts, we went back to the Silvercrest Picnic Area and hoofed up about a quarter mile on the Silvercrest Trail, just in time to watch the sun setting over Boucher Hill.

Sunset framed by the branch of a black oak
This was an enormously satisfying hike made all the more satisfying by a late dinner of vegan pho and tofu curry. Along the way, we debated whether Palomar or Laguna Mountains were the better hiking destination. Early points went to Laguna, primarily for the stunning desert views of Anza Borrego from the PCT. However, due to beauty of the forest and meadows, the view of San Diego, and the general uniqueness, we’ve concluded that nothing in San Diego is better than Palomar.

Sun about to disappear behind Boucher Hill
Hands down, this is the best place to hike south of the San Gabriels (and it may even beat a lot of places there, as well). There’s no denying this area is special, and if the government ever tries to cut it out of the budget again, I will super glue myself to a fir tree.

Parting shot from the Silvercrest trail of the sun setting through the ferns
I have no idea what that will solve, but the spicy buttholes in the government who are running amok with the budget pruners better check themselves.
September: 5.6
Year-to-Date: 950.7

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