Most visitors motor right up to the cool forests of Palomar Mountain’s parks or observatory on the curling South Grade or East Grade roads. Exercise-minded hikers might try an alternative east-side approach that actually reaches the highest point of the range — 6140-foot High Point. This 13-mile-round-trip effort involves 3600 feet of elevation gain and loss, and should require about seven hours of time (excluding snack breaks) for the typical physically fit hiker.
It’s worth mentioning that an early start is advised, particularly in the lingering summer heat of September. More important than anything else is the requirement of packing along a large amount of drinking water. Another thing to keep in mind is the possibility of fall-season closure of this or other backcountry spaces due to extreme fire danger. This hike lies on Cleveland National Forest territory, Palomar Ranger District (760-788-0250).
You start at Oak Grove, a small community on Highway 79, 25 miles southeast from Interstate 15 at Temecula and 27 miles northwest from Santa Ysabel. Park at the Oak Grove fire station, at mile 49.1 on Highway 79. Don’t forget to post a National Forest Adventure Pass on your parked car.
From the back of the fire station, find and follow the Oak Grove Trail across a currently dry streambed and up to a ridgeline. On the ridgeline the trail begins cutting back and forth across an old firebreak. You’re in the usual chaparral plant community of the mid-elevation mountains, where chamise, ribbonwood, scrub oak, and manzanita thrive. A view opens to the north toward the lofty summits of San Gorgonio Mountain and San Jacinto Peak.
At about 1.8 miles you reach Oak Grove Road, which is closed to public travel below this point. Go uphill (west) on the road and continue toward the next road intersection at 3.4 miles. High Point Road goes north from here, bound for Aguanga. You stay left (west) and continue uphill to the next road intersection, 5.2 miles, where Palomar Divide Road heads south along the spine of Aguanga Mountain. Stay right and head west around the oak- and pine-dotted north flank of High Point. At 6.2 miles you veer left on the steep road to the High Point summit, which happens to be the loftiest point of elevation within a radius of 14 miles.
The 67-foot-high fire tower on High Point is one of the remaining few in San Diego County. It may be possible to climb up the first few flights of steps for a better view of the surroundings. The list of peaks visible — including the one you’re on — reads like a roster of the highest points in Southern California. Combs Peak, whose summit is right about eye level if you stand on the tower, is the nearest rival, 14 miles to the east. Parts of the Santa Rosa, San Ysidro, and Vallecito mountains in the Anza-Borrego Desert are visible, along with the Laguna and Cuyamaca mountains farther to the southeast. In the north are the real Southern California giants: Old Baldy, San Gorgonio, and San Jacinto. On very clear days, more typical of November through February, several of the Channel Islands are visible far out in the Pacific.
This article contains information about a publicly owned recreation or wilderness area. Trails and pathways are not necessarily marked. Conditions can change rapidly. Hikers should be properly equipped and have safety and navigational skills. The Reader and Jerry Schad assume no responsibility for any adverse experience.
Oak Grove to High Point
Scale Palomar Mountain the hard way — up the east slope.
Distance from downtown San Diego: 85 miles
Hiking length: 13 miles round trip