Lake Henshaw in the San Jose Valley east of Mount Palomar


Palomar Mountain and Lake Henshaw

-- click on thumbnails for larger image --

San Luis Rey Campground The San Luis Rey River reaches the Pacific Ocean 45 miles away in Oceanside

I remember as a child reading about the 200" telescope on Mount Palomar. My bedroom at the time was 130" long ... so a telescope mirror 200" across seemed to be incredible.

Highway 76 along the San Luis Rey River Valley

Now ... assuming I could climb up the mountain .. I would get to see it.

La Jolla Indian Reservation

I started my ride from the campsite alongside the San Luis Rey River which now flows from Lake Henshaw ... which I hoped to visit later in the day.

Highway 76 climbing along the San Luis Rey River Valley
An Indian Memorial?

Highway 76 follows the river gently downhill for several kilometres before starting to climb through the La Jolla Indian reservation.

Only 9 miles to Mount Palomar ... not long now

The Reservation supports a campsite alongside the river as well as a store.

Looks like bikes are OK

At one point I passed an elaborate rock sculpture with a large forked branch in the centre ... there were no signs ... but it looked like a memorial.

South Grade Road

After climbing for a while I reached the turn off for South Grade Road ... known poetically as the Highway to the Stars ... and more prosaically as Highway S6.

Highway S6 - The Highway to the Stars They shut at 4 pm! Sharp curves for next 7 miles - must remember to steer
'Cyclists in excellent shape, with bikes in top-flight working order, and a willingness to share a steep, switch-backed roadway with auto traffic can try a very strenuous 27-mile, 3000-foot elevation gain loop.' ~ Don and Sharron Brundige.
Mile marker on South Grade Road 3,000 foot marker on South Grade Road

Was I wise to be attempting this ...?

South Grade Road is where the climbing begins in earnest. In 11 kilometres the road climbs some 800 metres ... at an almost constant grade of 7%.


I settled back into a slow steady rhythm to climb.

The road is tree-lined ... so as I wound my way around the bends I passed through welcome patches of shade.

More mile markers and bends

Soon after passing the 3,000 foot marker I came across two lady cyclists having a drink and admiring the view.

Gero and Linda admiring the view

Gero and Linda were from San Diego and were enjoying a morning training ride.

Gero McGuffin and Linda Milner

They were both very knowledgeable about the climb ... having on one day ridden up it three times!

The 4,000 foot marker on South Grade Road

They were also a fund of knowledge about the local flora and fauna ...

... and provided reassurance that I was unlikely to be targeted by a mountain lion.

View south across the San Luis Rey Valley to Pine and Rodriques Mountains
View back down to the San Luis Rey Valley
More climbing More bends ahead

As I climbed higher ... and the trees thinned ... the views to my right steadily became more extensive over the San Luis River Valley.

View southward from South Grade Road
View southward from South Grade Road
Lone cyclist powering his way up South Grade Road 5,000 foot marker on South Grade Road

Fortunately as this was a weekday the traffic was very light ... indeed there seemed to be more cyclists on the road than cars.

Curiously they all seemed to be going up ... and none were coming down.

Palomar Artesian Springs on South Grade Road Final few bends on South Grade Road

Gero and Linda had told me about a spring close to the top of the mountain.

It seemed strange to find a water source within a few hundred metres of the summit ... but here it was ... an artesian spring.

Palomar Artesian Springs No 1
Junction of Highways 6 and 7 Junction of Highways 6 and 7

I replenished my water bottles and cycled the short distance to the summit and the junction with S7 or East Grade Road.

At the junction I met a shiny tanker and trailer transporting spring water down to the valley to be bottled.

Water truck and trailer descending the mountain Map of the top of Palomar Mountain

Across the road is the Palomar Mountain General Store ... plus Mother's Kitchen Restaurant, a Soap Store and the Post Office.

Unfortunately the restaurant was closed but the General Store offers hot drinks and snacks.

Palomar Mountain General Store Palomar Mountain's Post Office

I grabbed a coffee and Gero and Linda kindly invited me to join them on the veranda.

Gero turned out to be the wife of Arnie Baker ... a doctor who now specialises in providing advice to both amateur and professional cyclists.

Palomar Mountain Soap Company

Arnie operates a web site ... ... which contains a wealth of information and advice about performance cycling.

5,000 marker on Canfield Road

Recently he has been in the news ... providing scientific advice and support to Floyd Landis in his appeal against his suspension from the 2006 Tour de France.

Small lake alongside Cranfield Road Highway S6 or Cranfield Road Watch out for log trucks

Gero and Linda put on their arm warmers and jackets ready for their descent. I still had some 8 kilometres to ride along Cranfield Road to reach the Observatory. This involves a small descent and another climb.

Fry Creek Campground Road ends soon 5,500 foot marker ... and road end

The road winds through trees with an occasional glimpse of the white domes on the skyline ahead.

Eventually the road ends at a parking lot ... and a footpath leads to a visitor centre and the 42 metre diameter dome housing the 200" Hale telescope.

Palomar's Dome Palomar's Dome Palomar's Dome
Palomar's Dome Palomar's Dome Palomar's Dome
View of the telescope through the glass of the observing area

There is public access to a gallery overlooking the telescope.

Bust of George Ellery Hale

The interior of the dome is dimly lit so that the heat from the bulbs does not significantly raise the temperature of the telescope during daytime.

The moon alongside Palomar's Dome

I had ridden up the mountain wearing sunglasses and the low level of illumination meant that it took a long time for my eyes to adjust.

The walls of the viewing gallery are lined with interesting posters describing the construction of the telescope.

Map of the Observatory Area atop Palomar Mountain
Remains of the weekend's snow

When I emerged blinking into the sunshine I noticed the moon alongside the dome.

Ironically the Hale telescope can't be pointed at the moon as it is too bright for its sensitive instruments.

5,000 foot marker

After a quick tour round the visitor centre I turned to begin my return journey.

I passed another 5,000 foot marker ... I seemed to have passed a lot of these today.

Alongside the road some pockets of snow remained from the weekend's storm.

Only 14 miles to Lake Henshaw ... and all downhill East Grade Road meets South Grade Road Palomar Mountain General Store
Only 14 miles to Lake Henshaw ... and all downhill East Grade Road

I retraced my route back along Cranfield Road to the Palomar Mountain General Store.

The store was still open ... so I took the opportunity to have another warming drink.

Payback Time

Junction with Crestline Road

From the store it was to be all downhill for 21 kilometres back to the San Luis Rey Campground.

Crestline Road Junction

I put on my jacket and turned eastward to head along East Grade Road.

The descent begins gradually at first ... the road carving gentle curves through the pine trees.

Bends on East Grade Road Bends on East Grade Road Bends on East Grade Road
Bends on East Grade Road Bends on East Grade Road Bends on East Grade Road
Another bend on East Grade Road Make sure you turn left ... or there's a big drop.

The road skirts the southern side of the mountain and you can see down into the San Luis Rey Valley and over the lands of the La Jolla Indian Reservation.

Turn off to the memorial to Gregory Pacheco Memorial to Gregory Pacheco

In a small turn off there is a touching memorial to an Indian firefighter who lost his life fighting the La Jolla Fire in 1999.

Descending further you emerge into an elevated valley which is surprising flat ... this is the Dyche Valley.

Dyche Valley

The floor of the valley is covered with pasture grazed by cattle ... and the edges are lined by oaks.

Fire damaged slope at the edge of Dyche Valley

At the eastern end of the valley the slopes of the Pine Hills have been razed by fire ... and are slowly recovering.

Dipping into the shade

The road then skirts round the northern side of the Pines Hills and then dips into Will Valley before beginning to descend more rapidly.

I had barely pedalled at all since leading the Mountain Store ... and in the cool breeze I was really glad that I had packed my jacket.

Exposed rocks by the roadside Exposed rocks by the roadside Exposed rocks by the roadside
Exposed rocks by the roadside Exposed rocks by the roadside Exposed rocks by the roadside
View south into San Luis Rey Valley
The tree covered slopes of the Pine Hills

At home the climbs and descents are sufficiently short that overheating when climbing and cooling when descending are not really a problem.

On these long ... almost alpine-like climbs ... it is very easy to get chilled when descending.

View south into San Luis Rey Valley from one of the looping bends
More exposed rock More exposed rock More exposed rock
First glimpse of Lake Henshaw

As I continued my descent I began to catch glimpses of the sandy colours of the San Jose Valley ahead ... which contrasted dramatically with the greens of Palomar Mountain.

In the southern corner of the valley I could just see the waters of Lake Henshaw glistening in the sunshine.

Views opening up into San Jose Valley ... Lake Henshaw being tucked into the southern corner
San Jose Valley with Aguanga Mountain beyond
Lake Henshaw with the Volcan Mountains beyond
Scenic Vista 1/4 Mile San Jose Valley bottom

The Highways Department have kindly provided a viewing point so that you can study the valley and lake at your leisure.

Lake Henshaw was much smaller than my map indicated ... perhaps a symptom of the drought that San Diego County has been experiencing.

Henshaw Scenic Vista Lake Henshaw
Raptor identification panel This sign seems to be pointing in the right direction
Lake Henshaw
Junction with Highway S7

From the Vista point it was only a short distance down through sweeping bends to the level of the lake.

Tree lined San Luis Rey Valley

This returned me to Highway S7 ... and a short descent through the wooded valley took me back to the San Luis Rey Campground.

Shame there wasn't a café there ...

... although I could count myself lucky to have found two café stops near the mountain top.


Kirby James