We have written before about East San Diego County which offers a most unusual country of mountain, valley, deep washes and riverbeds interspersed with wide meadows that are often referred to by their Spanish name, potreros. Rural, it often gives one the impression of a land time forgot, yet is only a few hours from San Diego, the sixth largest city in the U.S.
Quite naturally most stories and publicity on the County dwell on the coastal regions with their beaches, colorful oceanside communities and in San Diego itself with its world famous Zoo and Wild Animal Park, the Gaslight District, Balboa Park and exciting dining.
The foliage varies from chaparral at the lower elevations, but as one climbs, to stately California oaks and then higher still a conifer forest. This is a very special scenic drive as the road climbes to 2,000 feet, then 3,000 and finally to 5,000 feet and offering view of a vast amount of country from the coast to far inland.
However this impression of a 'land time forgot' changes on a trip to Mount Palomar and the Observatory that houses the impressive 200 inch Hale Telescope.
Visitors are welcome at the Mount Palomar Observatory which has been operated by the California Institute of Technology since its inception in 1934. Getting to the Observatory, situated atop 5,500 foot Mount Palomar is a pleasure in itself as one travels through the countryside described above. The route is on Highway 76, then to County Road S6 which climbs a winding way to the huge dome of the Observatory.
The Hale telescope has been a wonder since it was first dedicated and put into service in 1948. The finished mirror alone weighs fourteen and one half tons. Then there is the 1,000 ton rotating dome and other moving parts weigh another 530 tons.
Visitors view the telescope from a special galley inside the Dome. But first stop should be the small museum which offers color photographs of the outer reaches of space. The exhibits also list some of the discoveries, many the first of their kind, that have been made at the Observatory. It was here that Andromeda was first discovered as a sister galaxy to our Milky Way. A 1956 discovery doubled the age of the universe and in the 1960s Quasars were revealed for the first time. In 1994 the first dwarf star was revealed by Cal Tech astronomers.
After viewing the museum exhibits (one is now reduced to proper size in relation to the universe revealed inside), it is a pleasant short walk past meadows covered with mountain ferns to the Dome and 200 inch telescope.
Our visit was on a mid summer day yet we had the view from the gallery inside the Dome all to ourselves. In fact we were surprised to find so few people visiting the facility.
There is also the Gus Weber delightful picnic area equipped with tables placed under huge California oaks. We spent some time here munching cheese and crackers.
From here also are stunning views of Southern California's highest peaks, Mount San Gorgonio and Mt. San Jacinto. The observatory shares the mountain with Palomar State Park. Before reaching the Observatory there is a road junction where County highways S6 and S7 meet. Here also is Palomar Mountain General Store and Mothers Kitchen restaurant. Taking S7 here takes one to the State Park which has the Doane Valley campground with 31 sites for camping and RVs.
This State Park is an island in the sky with scenic views in all directions especially from the Boucher Lookout picnic area. The Palomar Mountain State Park is a fee area with a Ranger at the entrance with visitor information on where to go and what to see. There are a variety of hiking trails.
Both the Observatory and the State Park are open all year but the mountain does get a covering of white during some winter storms.
With two attractions and only a two hour drive from San Diego Mount Palomar offers an ideal way for a family outing. For Park information check the web at www.parks.ca.gov.
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