If you had mentally removed Palomar Mountain State Park from your list of hiking places to visit after the threat of park closures last year, you can confidently put it back on the list of must-do hikes this year. Thanks to the efforts of volunteer organizations such as Friends of Palomar Mountain and the Palomar Mountain Trail Maintenance Unit (TMU), plus the dedicated state-park rangers, the park remains open with well-maintained trails, restrooms, and camping facilities. Simply put, Palomar is beautiful. The old-growth cedars and oak trees might make you feel as if you were magically transported into the middle of a Northwest forest. Whether you visit the park on a warm, sunny day or on a misty, overcast one, stunning vistas abound.
A recommended route with great views is the steep Cedar-Doane Trail up to the Silvercrest picnic area and then along the Chimney Flats Trail until it loops back to Doane Pond via the Thunder Spring Trail.
The parking area near Doane Pond offers access to Cedar-Doane Trail once past the facilities and over the small bridge next to the pond’s edge. The trail is steep, so come prepared with good footwear and trekking poles if you use them. Watch out for poison oak, which in October is surprisingly beautiful with brilliant red color that glows with light shining through the leaves. The contrast of red against yellow ferns, the green of the cedar, black oak and maul oak leaves, and the gray-greens of lichen and moss on the tree trunks create a perfect fall palette. New healthy growth or, in the winter, leafless twigs ring the base of old, fire-scarred tree trunks and line portions of the Cedar Trail. Early morning provides the best opportunity for viewing deer and wild turkeys making their way through the forest.
Turn left on Scott’s Cabin Trail, walking past the site and crossing a road to Silvercrest for a short break at the picnic tables. Return on Scott’s Cabin Trail only up to the Chimney Flats intersection, where a right turn is taken to Chimney Flats, then curve back on Thunder Spring Trail to close the loop at Doane Pond. In the cold winter days, ladybug beetles (beetles have a centerline down their back with true bugs’ backs looking like an X) sometimes can be found in great numbers in the “bunchgrass” or other low foliage. Many native plant species can be found, with a partial list including thimbleberry, honeysuckle, Keckiella ternata, Ceanothus palmeri, coffee berry, Stephanomeria, elderberry, and wand buckwheat.
Check the park website (palomarsp.org/tmu) for campsite reservations, maps, and other useful information. Day-use parking fees are $8 per car, cash or check only. Dogs must be kept on a leash of six-foot maximum length and are not permitted on trails; however, leashed dogs are permitted on rustic Myer’s Fire Road, east of the Doane Valley Campground. Keep your driving speed low in the park, checking for deer and hikers who sometimes favor the roads on misty days.
Distance from downtown San Diego: About 65 miles (Palomar Mountain State Park). Allow 1 hour and 45 minutes driving time. North on SR-163, merge onto I-15, turn right on exit 27 for Via Rancho Parkway. Continue on Bear Valley Pkwy S. After 6 miles, turn right on E. Valley Parkway/Valley Center Rd/SR6 for about 15 miles, until it ends, then turn right on SR-76 E. After 5 miles, take a slight left turn onto SR6/South Grade Road/Palomar Mtn. Rd for 6.8 miles to a stop sign on a winding road (take motion-sickness precautions as appropriate). Turn left and continue for a few yards. Ahead on the left is a general store and a restaurant; turn left onto the road just before the general store — that is State Park Road/SR7. Stop at the entrance to pay the day-fee, then make a sharp right turn onto Doane Valley Road, just past the ranger’s house. Follow signs to Doane Pond. The park is open from dawn until dusk. There are no gas stations on the mountain.
Hiking length: 4-mile loop
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous because of the steep trail. Elevation gain/loss 900 feet. Trekking poles recommended. Carry water. Facilities at Doane Pond and Silvercrest parking lot.