Palomar Mountain Observatory Trail
|In This Guide|
|Total Distance||5 miles (8.1 km)|
|Hike Time||2-3 Hours (Total)|
|Total Ascent (?)||1,000 feet (305m)|
|Highest Elevation||5,617 feet (1712m)|
|Fees & Permits||Parking Permit|
|Alerts & Closures (?)||Cleveland National Forest|
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.
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
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.
My Goto Hiking Footwear: La Sportiva Wildcat
If you hike a lot or just want the best (but not the most durable) hiking footwear, the Wildcat trail runner is your best move. It’s fast and light on trails, the sole gives me good grip off-trail or scrambling, and they dry quickly.
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Best All-Around Day Pack: Osprey Talon
I try so many backpacks and I can usually find something I love about all of them. But no matter how many I try, I always find that I come back to the Osprey Talon 33 (or for women, the Osprey Sirrus 36). It’s just the right balance between everything. You save weight because there is no frame, but the vented and padded back holds its shape, giving it a pseudo-frame. It’s big enough for long day hikes or overnighters, but when I don’t fill it on a shorter hike, it’s still nice and light. It’s got a sleeve for a hydration bladder and side pockets for Smartwater bottles. I’ve been using (and beating) the same one since 2017 and it’s still going strong.
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Stay Safe Out of Cell Phone Range
If you’re not familiar with the Garmin InReach technology, it allows you to send and receive text messages where you don’t have cell phone signals. You can also get weather reports and trigger an SOS to emergency responders. Even if you don’t have an emergency, sending a quick message telling a loved one that you’re okay or are running late is well worth the cost. The Garmin InReach Mini (REI | Amazon | My Review) fits in your palm and weighs next to nothing.
Here’s my complete gear list that I personally use, have tested, and recommend, updated December 2020.
No company pays me to promote or push a product, all the gear you see here is gear I use and recommend. If you click an a link and buy gear, I get a small commission that helps offset website expenses. There is no cost to you.
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.
Download the Hike GPX FileView a Printable PDF Hike Map
How are you going to navigate this hike?
To start, you should always have a paper map and compass. And it helps to print this guide out or save it on your phone. I highly recommend a GPS as well. I use the Garmin Fenix 6 smart GPS watch ( REI | Amazon | My Review) with maps (or the more affordable Garmin Instinct). You can also use most smartphones. Check out my navigation recommendations and resources on my top gear picks page for options at all budget levels.
- The observatory is owned and operated by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). You can visit the telescope and small museum if they’re open. Check the website for hours and information.
- George Ellery Hale, who oversaw construction of the observatory at Mt Wilson, got funding to build this observatory in 1928. By that time light pollution from a growing LA was making the Mt Wilson Observatory less effective.
- The 200 inch Hale Telescope is made out of Pyrex glass, the same you can find in almost everyone’s kitchen.
- Edwin Hubble (of which the Hubble Space Telescope was named after) was the first astronomer to use the Hale Telescope. The observatory was responsible for many discoveries, including quasars.
- Why is it called Palomar Mountain?
- The native Luiseños people called it Wavamai.
- When the Spanish arrived in 1798 they named the valley “cañada de palomar” which means “valley of the pigeon roost” after the numerous band-tailed pigeons living here. Although the band-tailed pigeon population is on the decline, you can still spot them here at Palomar, which is one of the only places in the American west where they live.
- At one time it was named Smith Mountain, after a sea captain who settled here and was later murdered here. There’s a whole story involving Smith, his fellow settler on the mountain, a freed slave named Harrison, and a British ship deserter turned murder It’s an interesting read in this San Diego Reader article which also covers some history of the area.
- Locals didn’t like the name Smith Mountain and changed it back to Palomar in 1901. It all became official when the Palomar Mountain Post Office opened in 1920 (next to the General Store that you pass on the way to the hike).
- The Observatory Trail is one of the only hiking trails on Palomar Mountain. Much of the land in the area is owned by cattle ranchers or the observatory. Palomar Mountain State Park, to the west of here, doesn’t actually encompass the peak of Palomar Mountain.
- This is a great hike for fall colors, which usually hit around November.
Palomar Mountain Observatory Trail Hike Directions
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Turn by Turn Directions
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
Did something change on this hike? If so, please contact me and let me know. I'll update the guide.