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Tempting as it may be to play one more poker hand at the wildly popular Indian Casinos in Northern San Diego County, the time usually comes for cutting our losses and closing that gi-normous blackhole in our wallet.
So we found the best way to turn our frowns upside down is to shake off the stale loser-funk by sucking up some clean mountain fresh air and starting out with a scenic drive through the Pauma Valley on a crazy curvy road that draws adventure hungry motorcyclists from across the region.
In this episode, we bring you 5 cool things to do on Palomar Mountain after losing all your coin at the Indian Casinos.
Palomar is also home to a nifty world class Observatory and one of SoCal’s best State Parks flush with ample camping and hiking opportunities, off road travel and possibly the best Independence Day views in all of California.
1. Oh no! You just blew the kids college fund in a Poker Tourney at Pechanga? Tour the Palomar Observatory and distract yourself with stories about the nefarious astronomer who killed Pluto.
Check out the Observatory website for tour times and plan on showing up early to buy tickets from the gift shop since the genius minds at CalTech haven’t managed to make them available online yet.
Cameras are totally cool but don’t forget a light jacket because the interior of the dome is always kept at chilly chilly night time temps to protect all of this friggin’ expensive scientific equipment. Guided Tours are only offered on weekends spring through fall and max out at about 30 people so aim for the first time slot and if it’s sold out, guess what, buy tickets for the next one.
We are also geniuses.
Don’t fancy nerding out for an hour long tour, you’re welcomed to DIY and walk through the Visitor’s Gallery inside the dome and get a fairly close up view of the giant 200″ Hale telescope from behind the safety glass. If a tour is already in progress you might get lucky and a docent will slip into the gallery to answer a few questions. We’ve done both and it’s way more exciting to see this monster telescope up close and personal so plan accordingly.
You can always spend your waitin’ time admiring the outer space displays at the visitor’s center and kicking back at the observatory’s picnic area, or heading a few minutes back down the road to Mother’s Kitchen for a veggie sandwich and an ice cold beer.
2. Snag front row seats to a fireworks extravaganza that puts the “free” back in “freedom” at Boucher Hill Summit in Palomar Mountain State Park.
Shhhhhh. Top Secret Tip:
We wrangled a truly amazing tip from the awesome volunteers at the Boucher Hill Fire Lookout. The viewing deck right next to the lookout has the same incredible access to views that span the range from Mexico all the way to Palos Verdes and out to Catalina Island which makes this the perfect spot to spend the 4th of July with an outdoorsy front row seat to at least 25 different fireworks displays across Southern California.
This is the only night of the year that Park Rangers will leave open the access gate for the road up to the Fire Lookout. If heights don’t scare the bejesus out of you, try visiting the lookout earlier in the day for a crash course in local landmarks so you can impress the family later on that evening with your vast knowledge of SoCal geography. Don’t forget to bring a chair, a cold beverage and stake out a cozy spot on the deck.
There’s plenty of shaded camping throughout the park to sweeten the deal so make reservations up to six months ahead through ReserveAmerica.com and spend a long weekend exploring Palomar. If you’re not camping a day use fee of $8 applies, cash or check only.
3. Chow down on a beefy monstrosity from Nessy Burger.
Keep your eyes peeled for that illusive old sea serpent Nessy and her tasty burger stand squatting in a parking lot between a busy plant nursery and a country store along Old Highway 395 in Fallbrook.
Bring your own hand sanitizer though. The meager bathroom facilities consist of a classic blue porta-potty at the far end of the lot.
Pickings are pretty slim in this area so Nessy Burger makes a solid choice for carnivores before heading out.
4. Down a cold beer with a gang of vegetarian bikers at Mother’s Kitchen.
Halfway up the Mountain you’ll come across Mother’s Kitchen in an ironic twist on the vegetarian biker hang out. Palomar Mountain just happens to be a favorite day ride for motorcycle enthusiasts of all sorts and one can often spot a bevy of paparazzi lurking along these curvacious mountain roads snapping pics as the bikes race by.
If you’re jonesing for a bathroom break or a healthy snack after your Nessy sighting you can share a hummus plate and a bucket of cold beers here so it’s totally worth a stop. There’s also a General Store and a tiny United States Post Office in the same parking lot just in case you need some band aids or a few more Forever Stamps.
5. The original – Nate Harrison Grade
We always prefer to take a different road home when possible so after pouring over our road atlas we chose the Nate Harrison Grade Road.
Google this badass hermit Nate Harrison’s backstory then check out the original road up the mountain which exits or in our case begins right inside Palomar Mountain State Park.
After a late afternoon visit to the Boucher Hill Fire Lookout it was time to head home so the mighty helpful volunteers pointed out our exit strategy from way atop the lookout and we slowly wound our way down 10 miles of dusty bumpy mountain happiness. This unmaintained dirt road is fairly easy but a high clearance vehicle is definitely recommended while it takes you through local orchards and spits you out onto the familiar Pala Road, aka Highway 76.
As usual we took our sweet time sightseeing so we decided to make a quick unplanned stop for takeout at Jilberto’s Taco Shop along Highway 76. Soon after I was regretting our spontaneity when my greasy meat filled missile launched a heart burn counter attack for the entire trip home.
Take note of our foodie misfortune and hold out for more delicious dining choices and old school ambiance just 20 minutes away in Temecula’s thriving downtown.
Can’t get enough of the Observatory? Check out its’ backside on Palomar Divide Road 9S07 for a different view of dome but don’t expect to see it from atop the High Point Fire Lookout.
This scary high tower is off-limits.
This 2 hour -27 mile- side trip was certainly high up on my list of things to do here but we got a late start (surprise) and had to move it to the next-time pile since we didn’t fancy being caught out in the back country when night fell.
You can find this forest dirt road near Warner Springs off Highway 79 and it will take you to the High Point Tower Lookout and beautiful views of the backside of Palomar Observatory.
Unfortunately the public can not enter this lookout tower even though it is staffed with volunteers. There are over 90 steep metal stair steps that can be too scary for our delicate sensibilities.
Once you take in the vistas, you can either turn around and return the same way you came or if you’re equipped with a 4×4, follow the Cleveland National Forest map and make a loop back to Highway 79 by way of Highpoint Road 8S05.
Don’t get discouraged by the “No Trespassing” signs, they are for the property not the roads- these roads are public.
Tell us about your Palomar Mountain adventures or fav No. San Diego spots!
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