Palomar Mountain P2K HPS / SDC
Boucher Hill HPS / SDC

Wed, Dec 28, 2005

With: Ryan Burd

Story Photos / Slideshow Maps: 1 2 Profile

Ryan and I planned a day to go hiking during Christmas vacation while down in the San Diego area. Knowing that 9 year-old Ryan has limited hiking stamina, I needed to choose something in the not-so-difficult range, and also something that would capture his attention. He'd been bugging me back in San Jose to go visit the telescopes atop Mt. Hamilton, so I hit upon the Palomar Observatory in the Palomar Mountains as a fine choice. The Palomar observatory, championed by the massive 200-inch telescope was a much larger version of the one on Mt. Hamilton. For my angle, there were two HPS peaks in the area I had yet to visit - a drive-up to Boucher Hill in nearby Palomar State Park, and Palomar Mountain (High Point on the USGS topo) a few miles east of the observatory. The problem I knew was that despite a road between the observatory and Palomar Mtn, there was no public access. The only legal way to visit Palomar Mtn was via a circuitous route on the east side of the mountain which would add hours of additional driving that I had no interest in doing. I hoped to find a stealth route from the observatory to make the effort much easier.

We left San Diego around 8a, taking nearly an hour and a half to make the long drive to Palomar. We drove past several Indian Casinos including the Vegas-style Harrah's Rincon complete with a 20-story hotel in a parched little valley along county road S6. For the last part of the drive, I carefully observed all the fences and signs as we wound our way through the observatory grounds. There are no side roads to wander through, and the public road leads to a large parking lot where we found ourselves the first visitors of the day. It was eerily quiet. A walkway led us to the Visitor Center where we found doors wide open, but no one inside. We checked out the photographic displays of nebulae and constellations arraigned upon the walls, then walked back outside and up to the 200-inch telescope. Again, doors open to the visitor area, but no one around. The viewing area is walled off by glass from the main floor of the observatory, so while one gets a fine view of the massive telescope inside, you don't get to walk around and view it from other angles. The most interesting thing Ryan found was a touchscreen video showing the planets, their moons, and interesting facts about the various planetary bodies in our solar system. Could have got that on the Internet and saved the drive, but what the heck - I was here to bag a few peaks anyway.

We went back to the car where I shouldered my daypack, then set off without any firm plan. There is a picnic area adjacent to the parking area, but it is fenced off and topped by barbed wire - definitely not inviting. There are roads with gates near the telescope that are easy to bypass, but these seem to lead to residences and other buildings with scientific equipment, plus lots of signs letting you know you aren't welcome. We walked back out towards the road where I noted an easy-to-breach barbed wire fence. A maintainance truck drove by as we neared the parking lot entrance. After the truck drove by, I instructed Ryan to climb under the lowest wire, then he held the middle wire up so I could climb through. We ducked down into the trees on the north side of the fence and the road. Before we could get out of view, I heard the truck coming back - Yikes! I told Ryan to stand still, which he did. He in his orange jacket and me in a white t-shirt didn't exactly blend into our surroundings. Either they didn't see us or didn't care, but either way was OK by me. As we continued down through the trees I explained to Ryan how it is easier to go undetected if you aren't moving. I weakly debated the wiseness of teaching my son how to trespass - would this qualify me for hell in the afterlife? Ryan pointed out the only important thing he really needed to know - if we got busted, it was me that would be in trouble with the law, not him.

We wandered about a hundred yards north, away from the road and nearby buildings. The ground was soft, bumpy earth with tall grasses under oak trees. Ryan stopped to pull out thorns that found their way to his socks - he wasn't used to such cross-country ventures. We followed a deer trail down a slope where I spotted the dirt road I was looking for, the one that should take us to Palomar Mtn. We paused on the road to remove more thorns, then hiked on. Shortly we came to some buildings. A high fence ran between the road and the residences on the right side, but there were numerous signs warning No Hunting/No Trespassing - Violators will be Prosecuted!. Ryan could not only read them, but knew what they meant. There were no bushes or anything to block the view from the residences to our road, save for the chain link fence. The road passes within 20 yards of the closest home. We felt like sitting ducks. I was about to suggest that we go back when Ryan suggested, "Maybe they won't see us." Good point. "Ok, let's be really quiet and just keep walking."

It worked. No one came out to yell at us, no one glared at us, we couldn't see anyone inside. After a few minutes we were safely out of view behind trees and a knoll, and from there it was an easy stroll. Ryan picked up a stick to drag behind him in the dirt. When I asked what he was doing, he said he was making it look like snake tracks to throw off any potential persuers. I pointed out that it looked more like a drunken snake or rather a boy dragging a stick. "Oh, I better get rid of the stick!" We took a bit more than an hour to cover the 2 1/2 miles to Palomar Mtn. We met up with a young couple in a big red 4x4 truck that had taken the long way to the summit. It was decidedly windier and chillier as we neared the summit so we donned our jackets I carried in the pack. We went over to the lookout tower and climbed the stairs of the lookout tower suspended some 67ft above the ground. It got even windier higher up and Ryan was finding the exposure a bit more than he bargained for. He made it up all but the last 10-15 stairs before deciding he'd gone high enough.

The day had started out pretty fine, but a weather system was blowing in and views were muted some. Still, we could see hills well into Mexico to the south the Laguna Mtns to the southeast, the Santa Rosa Mtns to the east, as well as San Jacinto and San Antonio to the north around the Los Angeles area.

Going back down, we looked around the summit area for a register in the various rock outcroppings, but came up empty. Ryan found an abandoned outhouse hidden among some trees which he promptly checked out (and found it not entirely abandoned after looking down the hole). Heading back, we started to grow cautious again as we neared the residences. When they first came into view, I noticed smoke coming from the chimney and a third car parked nearby where before there had been only two. To make matters worse, there was now a black dog in a pen in the backyard next to the fence and the road. This was bad.

I took evasive action, quickly getting us off the road and down the embankment on the north side of the road away from the homes. A series of animal trails through the brush and grass was just the thing to allow us to skirt all the homes and regain the road without being visible from the residence area. This would have been the thing to do earlier in the morning as well, in hindsight. We scrambled back up the to the same location in the fence near the parking lot and quickly got ourselves back on the legal side. We gave each other a little high-five and then headed back to the car. There were now a couple dozen cars in the lot, so we didn't stick out like we had earlier. Success!

Driving back down to the S6/S7 county road junction, we stopped at the Palomar store for some ice cream and a soda. Then we drove up S7 to Palomar State Park. The short 3 miles was soon covered, we passed through the entrance station (neglecting the $6 self-registration fee, further ensuring my demise in hell) and on up to Boucher Hill, the high point of the state park. I felt embarassed to be driving to the top of a peak, but what the hell. It was windy and cold at the top as the weather was growing progressively worse, so I wasn't about to try and make a hike out of it. We got out for all of about three minutes to snap a few pictures and check out the drab buildings at the summit, then left.

Driving back down to the base of the mountains, we stopped at small taco shop for lunch along SR78. Yummy tacos, by the way. Ryan napped soundly on the drive back, probably dreaming about what might be for dinner. I was glad I wasn't going to have to come back to do the long drive up the legal route to High Point.

Submit online comments or corrections about the story.

More of Bob's Trip Reports

For more information see these SummitPost pages: Palomar Mountain - Boucher Hill

This page last updated: Wed Sep 17 11:58:31 2014
For corrections or comments, please send feedback to: