Why Palomar Mountain is One of Best Hikes in San Diego


The winding South Grade Road that leads up to Palomar Mountain led me into deep, socked-in fog that began to conceal the thick woodlands along the roadside. Then, like an airplane rising up over a thick marine layer, I emerged into high blue skies and along a vista that overlooked a sea of clouds below. I had yet to set foot on the hiking trail, but I could already sense and see the vast wilderness that surrounded, and I knew then that I was in for a great day, and ready to experience one of the best hikes in San Diego.

I paid the $8 fee to enter Palomar Mountain State Park and parked my vehicle in the Silvercrest Picnic Area. From there, I set out on a nine-mile hike that led me along multiple trails, including Cabin Trail, Chimney Flats, Upper Doane Valley, Weir, and then back down on Scott’s Cabin Trail Spur.

Large Oak Tree on Palomar Mountain

One of the first things that impressed me and that really blew me away was the enormity of the woodlands and the giant trees that made up such a large portion of the park. Along each trail, I was confronted by massive live oak trees, including Black Oak, Canyon Live Oak, Coast Live Oak, in addition to White Firs, Bigcone, Douglas Firs, Incense Cedars, and Ponderosa Pines. The woodlands are made up mostly of coniferous forest that sits at over 5,000 feet elevation, spans more than 1,800 acres, and feels something more like an area of the Sierra Nevada, as opposed to an ecosystem that would exist in Southern California.

Video: Monster Oaks and Stunning Wilderness: Palomar Mountain

The Three W’s: Wilderness, Wildlife, and Weather

The sun was shining high up on the mountain, temperatures were hovering right around 60 degrees, and I had no problem leaning back, soaking up the rays and listening to the seemingly never-ending sounds of birds chirping and squirrels rustling through the dead leaves and thick undergrowth.

Hiking Palomar Mountain

During the more than four and a half hour hike, I only encountered a few other hikers, which made it feel like I had the park all to myself. At a couple of spots along the trail, I passed through a couple of campsites, including Doane Valley Campground and Cedar Grove Group Campground. These areas were full of campers, but besides a small stretch along Cedar Trail that had some young kids following behind for a few minutes, the hike was quiet, peaceful, and filled with the pleasant sounds of wind whispering through the towering pines and birds singing across the valleys.

Gobble. Gobble. Gobble.

As I was heading northwest along Upper Doane Valley Trail, I was skirting alongside an expansive meadow that sat down into the saddle between two ridges. While I had seen a bevy of squirrels, I had not seen any larger wildlife of any kind…but my luck was about to change. Just less than a few hundred yards before I reached Doane Valley Campground, I saw four or five little birds moving expeditiously across the dirt trail. I stopped, knowing that there had to be someone looking out for these little guys. Just then, a large, turkey hen quickly came in behind her offspring and hurried them up into the grasslands. It was my first turkey sighting of the day, but it wasn’t my last. I would later see another flock along the Lower Doane Trail, just around the area where it intersects with the French Valley Trail.

Bird Feather Along One of Best Hikes in San Diego

Towering Pines on Palomar Mountain

The Baptist Trail heads northeast before meeting up with the Weir Trail that leads past a small stream, some open meadows, and then to the Weir Historic Site. The site features a weir (a barrier that is built over a river in which volumetric flow rate is measured when water flows over a low area. The goal of the project was to create a hydroelectric dam that could be constructed to provide electricity, but unfortunately, they were never able to source enough water to make the project come to fruition.

Baptist Trail Part of Palomar Mountain Hike

Dead Oak Tree

Weir Historic Site

Weir Historic Site

Beautiful, Naturally-carved Pine Tree

To say that I was completely blown away by the natural beauty that surrounded me on this nine-mile journey is a huge understatement. On my previous hike to Mt. Laguna, I was incredibly impressed with the changing ecosystems, the large pines, and big open meadows. However, after visiting Palomar Mountain, I think the bar has been raised. I find it hard to believe that there is a more beautiful area to hike in San Diego County. Yes, I have plenty of exploring to do and I look forward to my future journeys, but this hike and this place have definitely impressed and set the standard very high.

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