Observatory Trail, Palomar Mountain

Distance: 4.5 Miles (There-and-Back)
Elevation Gained: 750′
Difficulty: Moderate
Critters: A deer; a flock of quail

Directions: Drive to this spot

Note: You may need to pay a fee or have an adventure pass to hike here. Furthermore, this campground shuts down in the winter, so you may be forced to start the hike at the Observatory instead of the campground.


Details:

There’s a misconception among people that Southern California doesn’t experience seasons. It’s true that our seasons are out of step with the rest of the country – the grass greens up in December, while everything dies off in July. However, there are pockets of Southern California that exist as botanical “Islands in the Sky.” These places, of which Palomar Mountain is one, experience climates that create the classic seasonal conditions that most people are longing for when they bitch about SoCal’s lack of traditional seasons.

Palomar Mountain is an “Island in the Sky” because it contains a fairly lush forest in the midst of a semi-arid region. That Palomar experiences three times as much precipitation (much of which falls as snow) as coastal San Diego is due to a meteorological condition known as adiabatic cooling. Generally speaking, the temperature will drop about 3-5 degrees for every 1,000 feet of elevation. Palomar’s summit stands at 6,140′, while the rest of the mountain stands at 5,000-6,000 feet. Although maritime influence makes this less simple, the temperature can often be 10-20 degrees cooler on Palomar than at the coast.

As air cools, its capacity to hold water vapor diminishes. A moist winter air mass will flow in from the north and cross over the coast of San Diego. As it moves east, it hits the 5,000′ barrier of Palomar. As the air cools, its capacity to hold water decreases, creating more water vapor than the air can hold. This excess moisture falls as precipitation, and from precipitation comes forests, streams, lakes, and meadows.

Although Palomar’s forest does not contain the maples famous for creating fall color in New England, it does contain one particular tree, the black oak, known for putting on its own modest show – at least in comparison to New England. What results is classic fall color, with countless patches of golden leaves rustling in the cool, autumnal breezes.

This is my first hike in over a month and a half. I shut my hiking down due to the emergence of plantar fasciitis in both feet. My feet are much improved, and I determined that it was time to start hiking again, albeit far less than I was before.

For my first hike back, I chose the Palomar Observatory trail. I had chosen to camp out for the weekend at the Palomar Observatory Campground. I was spending the first night there alone before I would be joined by Kelly and friends Alexis and Chad. I had the morning to myself, and so I emerged from my warm tent into a chilly autumn dawn.

The Observatory Trail links the campground with the Palomar Observatory, which is still an active astronomical research facility. At 2.2 miles one way, or 4.5 miles out-and-back, this is a fairly modest trail that travels through a mixture of oak woodland, coniferous woodland, chaparral, and mixed-conifer forest. Along the way, there are a few good views of Mendenhal Valley, along with the Observatory itself and surrounding hills, all of which were swathed in gold.

Morning is a brilliant time to take this hike, as light stabs through gaps in the trees and birds sing in a riotous cacophony. Autumn is also a brilliant time to hike this trail since black oaks, which prefer elevations between 4,000′-7,000′, abound from start to finish.

As beautiful as the trail was, it was great to be hiking again. I took my time going up and down slopes, which allowed me to soak in the atmosphere and surroundings a lot more thoroughly in the past. It occurred to me time and again how much I must have missed in my mad dash to 1,000 miles. Mad dashes always have the consequence of causing everything outside of the tunnel vision to pass completely unnoticed. I may have been on this trail for three hours for all I know, and yet it felt entirely timeless.

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