Palomar Mountain Observatory Trail (Cleveland National Forest)

The Palomar Mountain Observatory Trail is a great way to explore the Palomar Observatory in the Cleveland National Forest. On June 29th, 2008 Ashley and I hiked the Palomar Mountain Observatory hiking trail up to the Palomar Observatory. The Palomar Mountain Observatory Trail goes through a beautiful section of Cleveland National Forest and finishes at the world renown Palomar Observatory. The Palomar Mountain Observatory Hiking Trail, coupled with a visit to the Palomar Observatory, is a must do hike for any Southern California Hiker.

Directions to Trailhead: The trailhead to hike the Palomar Mountain Observatory Hiking trail to the Palomar Observatory starts at the Observatory Campground in the Palomar District of the Cleveland National Forest. To reach the trailhead from the LA or San Diego areas, exit Interstate 15 at state highway 76 and go eastbound. Follow the signs to Palomar Mountain. Twenty five miles after exiting the I-15, 76 interchange, County Road S-6 (also known as South Grade Road) meets the 76. Take the S-6 road (5 miles past Valley Center Road and past all the Indian casinos) to the left. The road climbs to the Palomar summit. S-6 ends at the Palomar Observatory gates, but the observatory campground is about 2 miles before the observatory and that is where the hike begins. We have provided the Google map below. If you are looking to camp at the Observatory Campground, reservations can be made Here.

Description of Hike: The Palomar Mountain Observatory Hiking Trail was in great shape when Ashley and I hiked it. There is plenty of shade along the trail due to the abundance of pine trees in this area of Palomar Mountain. The Palomar Mountain Observatory Hiking Trail is a  gradual uphill hike all the way to the Palomar Observatory. The total hike is 4.4 miles roundtrip from the trailhead to the Palomar Observatory and back. This mileage does not include walking around the Palomar Observatory grounds. The Palomar Observatory is at 5,500ft and the trailhead at the Observatory Campground is at 4,800 feet, which means there is an elevation gain of 700 feet on this hike. A Forest Adventure Pass is needed to park at the Observatory Campground. Parking at the Palomar Observatory though is free.

Further Thoughts: This was a great day for a hike because of the pleasant weather in Southern California we had. On the way there Ashley and I had lunch at Harrah's Rincon, which is not to far from where S-6 intersects with highway 76. The drive up Palomar Mountain is beautiful as you are in a true mountain setting when the road levels out.  It was really cool to see the change in scenery on the way up Palomar Mountain. Make sure you stop along the way to take pictures as there are some very scenic turnouts that have amazing views of the valleys below and Southern California in general.

Ashley and I first visited the Palomar Observatory. The observatory was built by Mr. Hale in the 1940's and was the premier location for research done by astronomists for many years. It was very neat to see the 200 inch telescope where a lot of the research is still done today and a walk around the Palomar Observatory grounds is extremely educational. When you visit the Palomar Observatory make sure to pick up a calendar with the dates of all the regular meteor showers that occur in the northern hemisphere, that way you can plan a great time to come back and visit the Palomar Observatory again. The main thing is to take your time and enjoy the peaceful tranquility that the Palomar Observatory and the fresh mountain air provide you. The Palomar Observatory gift shop also has some pretty cool things as well.  

After visiting the Palomar Observatory we drove down to the Palomar Campgrounds. Once again since you are in the Cleveland National Forest and you will need your Forest Adventure Pass. From the Observatory Campground there is a trail to hike to the Palomar Observatory. The trail is 4.4 miles long roundtrip. It is well maintain and has some moderate elevation gain. There are great views along the way as well as some very big boulders that you will encounter while hiking on the Palomar Mountain Observatory Trail.

The Palomar Mountain Observatory Hiking Trail is a great day hike to do in Southern California. The hike goes through beautiful pine forest that have excellent views of the valley below. When we did this hike, there was still water in the creeks.  If you go on this hike during the winter time make sure to check the weather forecast as the Palomar Mountains usually sees a fair amount of snow during the winter time in Southern California. Additionally, if you go during the summer time, make sure to check the weather forecast as during the monsoon season this area gets summer thunderstorms.  If thunderstorms are in the forecast make sure to begin your hike early to avoid afternoon thunderstorms. The Palomar Mountain Observatory Trail ends at the entrance gate to the Palomar Observatory. When we were leaving Palomar Mountain Ashley and I saw a wild turkey run in front of our car. We stopped and took pictures, which can be found in our Wildlife Pictures Section.

Both Ashley and I would recommend this hike to anyone that takes a trip to see the Palomar Observatory. You will be glad you did this fun day hike on the Palomar Mountain Observatory Trail. We also saw a wild turkey on Palomar Mountain as well, so remember to bring your camera with you and be ready to snap pictures as you never know what you will get the chance to see!

Rating: Elevation Gain: 700 ft. (Easy), Distance: 4.4 Miles Roundtrip (Easy).

Time to Complete Hike: 2 - 3 hours.

View Palomar Mountain Hike in a larger map


  1. Have done this twice. I like. Anti-climatic though, especially as you heard the cars from the streets towards the end. But there is a great place to lay/lie down say about .5 miles from the top or so, where there's a boulder off of the trail. Very nice. Would do again.

  2. I recommend checking out Doane Valley as well. Several miles of trails and all easy.

  3. Can you park at the Observatory parking lot and do reverse hike down then up if you want to save $6? :)


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