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Palomar Observatory Hike Featured
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Hiking San Diego

Palomar Mountain Observatory Trail

  • 5 miles - Moderate Effort
  • 2-3 Hours (Total)
  • 1,000 Total Feet of Climbing
  • Max Elevation of 5,617 feet
  • Leashed Dogs Allowed

The Palomar Mountain Observatory Trail is a gentle hike that offers a lot of scenery packed into a short distance. One of the only National Recreational Trails in San Diego, the hike takes you through mountain pines and cedars, offers panoramic viewpoints, and ends at the iconic Palomar Observatory, the largest in the world from 1948 to 1976. The Observatory Trail is easy to follow, not too steep, and great for families.

In this Guide:
  • Video and Turn by Turn Observatory Trail Directions
  • How to Get to the Palomar Mountain Observatory Trail
  • Tips and Recommendations for the Hike

Where Is the Palomar Mountain Observatory Trail?

The Observatory Trail starts, appropriately enough, at the Observatory Campground, about 2 miles down the road from Palomar Observatory. The campground is popular with stargazers; several tent sites have open areas for viewing the night sky. And several times each year amateur astronomers come here for star parties. Within the campground is a day-use parking area for the Observatory Trail.

Use this address:
Observatory Campground, Co Hwy S6, State Park Rd #21485, Palomar Mountain, CA 92060

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The turnoff is easy to miss; the campground is not visible from the road.
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There's a sign across the road from the entrance.
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Head down the hill to the campground.
Observatory Trail Parking
Once you're on the campground road, bear right to drive around the loop to the day use parking.
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The parking lot is a decent size. Get here early to secure a spot.
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You need a parks pass or Adventure pass to park at the trailhead.
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There are primitive toilets at the trailhead.
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And there's a handy water spigot to fill your bottles.

Gear For the Hike

This isn't a particularly challenging hike from a technical standpoint, so nothing special is really needed. If you have light hiking gear and hiking footwear, that's your best move. Otherwise fitness clothes will work well. Take at least 1L of water for the trip. In the summer, bugs can be a pain; bring insect repellant. And as you'll see in my pictures, it does occasionally snow here. Prepare for it to be about 10F cooler up on the mountain than down in the valley (as a rule of thumb). There are older trail reports of overgrown poison oak and poodle dog bush along the trail, but in recent years the Forest Service (specifically the volunteer who lives at the Observatory Campground) has done a great job of keeping the trail clear.

Gear That I Love Right Now

Nothing is sponsored or promoted, just the actual gear that I use.

Gear Inreach Mini 2
Garmin InReach Mini 2If you are out of cellphone range the Mini 2 will reliably allow you to hit SOS via satellite. You can also send non-emergency texts to just say that you're late, let friends and family follow along, and check the weather. You can see my review here.
Gear Topo Pursuit
Topo Pursuit 2The wide toe box means no blisters, an aggressive tread is great on the trail, it dries very quickly, and it has lots of cushion for long days. It combines everything I love about every other shoe into one.
Gear Epix Pro Up Ahead
Garmin Epix ProThese watches are pricey, but I use them 24/7 for sleep tracking, workouts, heart rate, and tracking my hike. It has preloaded hiking maps that help me navigate the trails and is a backup to my smartphone navigation. The Epix Pro has a great battery life, a screen similar to an Apple Watch Ultra, and works in harsh conditions when just using the buttons. See my review here.
Hikelite 26 Gear
Osprey Hikelite 26This updated version of the Hikelite 26 offers incredible value for the money. It's got a wide trampoline back, so your back doesn't get sweaty. It's under 2lbs, has deep side pockets, and is a great balance of what you need without what you don't.

Check out the complete list here. ( Updated June 2024)

Observatory Trail Maps

Even though the hike is in a not-so-busy hiking area, the trail is generally in good condition and well maintained. If you look at a map, you'll see that the Observatory Trail roughly follows the road that goes to the observatory. For the majority of the hike, you never see the road. But during summer weekends when the road is busy, you can hear traffic noise.

Click Here To View

Use This Map:
View in CalTopo | PDF Map | GPX File

Elevation Profile

Observatory Trail Elevation Profile
The hike to the observatory is a climb, but it's not too hard. Any steep sections are pretty short.

3D Map

Observatory Trail Elevation 3d Map
The trail roughly follows along the S6 / South Grade Road as it makes its way uphill.

Hike Brief

Palomoar Observatory Stamp
When the Observatory opened in 1948, it was "kind of a big deal" in the parlance of San Diego's Anchorman. The observatory's Hale Telescope was the largest in the world until 1976 when the Russians finally caught up and built a bigger one.
Laguna Mountain Skipper
The Observatory Trail goes through the habitat of the very rare and endangered Laguna Mountains Skipper butterfly. They're the size of a quarter and look like a moth. Your best chances to spot them are in May and July. Photo iNaturalist

Palomar Mountain Observatory Trail Hike Directions

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Look for the fenced start of the hike.
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Once the fence ends, go left and then up the hill. To the right are picnic tables.
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There are no trail markings, but the path is well worn and generally easy to follow.
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The trail crosses a few ravines as it winds up through the forest.
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Go straight through at the utility poles.
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There are several benches along the trail.
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You'll start to get some glimpses through the trees.
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And about 0.5 miles in, you'll arrive at this viewing platform.
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From here you get a perfect view down the Mendenhall Valley, named after Enos Mendenhall, a cattle rancher who settled here in the 1860s. In the distance is Whale Peak, located in Anza-Borrego State Park.
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Right after the platform you'll get a glimpse of the Observatory, the only place you'll see it before you get to the top.
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The trail makes its way through some more heavily vegetated sections.
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You'll cross a small bridge over an unnamed drainage.
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When you come to the bench, hike to the right and down the hill.
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And after that, you'll see a fence. The trail continues to the right of the fence.
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You'll see a private property sign. From here you are leaving Cleveland National Forest. As long as you stay on the trail, it's all legal.
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And at a clearing you'll see the road over to your left, across the field.
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Now there's a bit more climbing. Head up the mini-switchbacks.
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And then downhill for a short stretch.
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At the bench, keep to the right.
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Hike past another private property sign.
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And soon you'll come to the end of the Observatory Trail.
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There's this funky old sign at the trailhead here.
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Hop onto the road and take the left entrance to visit the Palomar Observatory if it's open.
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Walk down the paved road.
Palomar Observatory Map
Here's a layout of the Palomar Observatory. Just go straight through to see the Hale Telescope. Photo Palomar Observatory
Palomar Visitor Center
You can stop at the Greenway Visitor Center if it's open. Photo Wikimedia
Palomar Hale
And finally you'll reach the Hale Telescope dome. If it's open you can go inside and check it out. Photo Bill Dickinson

Once you've had your fill at the observatory, just turn around and go back the way you came. You can also hike back down on the road if you'd like, just watch out for cars, there is no sidewalk.

Cover photo by Sebastian Wallroth

Need More Info?

  • Have a question about the guide or want to see what other people are saying/asking? View the Youtube comments for this video. Leave a comment and I will do my best to respond.
  • When planning, always check the park website and social media to make sure the trails are open. Similarly, check the weather and road conditions.

This Guide Was Written by Cris Hazzard

Cris Hazzard 4 Mile Trail Yosemite
Hi, I'm Cris Hazzard, aka Hiking Guy, a professional outdoors guide, hiking expert, and author based in Southern California. I created this website to share all the great hikes I do with everyone else out there. This site is different because it gives detailed directions that even the beginning hiker can follow. I also share what hiking gear works and doesn't so you don't waste money. I don't do sponsored or promoted content; I share only the gear recommendations, hikes, and tips that I would with my family and friends. If you like the website and YouTube channel, please support these free guides (I couldn't do it without folks like you!). You can stay up to date with my new guides by following me on YouTube, Instagram, or by subscribing to my monthly newsletter.