Camping on Mt Palomar on the Edge of the Wilderness

by on August 24, 2015 · 6 comments

in Culture, Environment, Life Events

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Campsite No. 15.

This was published one year ago exactly, Aug. 24, 2015.

By Frank Gormlie

Camping to me is a lot of fun, but I only get to do it maybe once a summer. But feeling burnt by the daily challenges and pressures of society, I needed some quiet time doing some car-camping. This time I chose to camp on Mt Palomar – the large mountain with the famous observatory (which was closed) that guards San Diego County on its north-side.

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Lake Henshaw and S7, on the eastern side of Mt Palomar.

Taking off Thursday morning, I arrived at the top around 1 pm. Usually I take S6 up the steep incline, but its twists and turns are too hairy for a relaxed cruise up the mountain. So, for the first time ever, I took the alternate route, S7, which begins on the western edge of Lake Henshaw.

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Near the top on S7,

State Route 7 was such a pleasant drive, I’ll never take S6 again. I mean it. It was actually a straight-away at times taking me through sections of Palomar I never even knew existed, through giant meadows and bucolic wide-valleys.

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No. 15 – next to the Wilderness.

I solidly believe that every human needs to spend time in nature, to find balance with our over-urbanized lifestyles. I have to admit that as I drove up the road, when I gazed upon the very first pine tree that showed itself up close as I rounded a curve, I had to look closely at it to see if it was one of those fake trees that are cell towers. That’s terrible, I thought. That showed I really needed this respite in nature.

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Once at the top, I passed the General Store and restaurant – the only public amenities at the mountain – and drove right to my destination – the Observatory Camp Ground – a campground run by the U.S. Forest Service. I had earlier checked it out online and knew what was available.

The campground itself holds 42 sites – with only a few not reservable.  But as I took stock of the available sites driving slowly around the large circle, I saw only 3 other camping parties already in place.  But every site was reserved for the next two days – Friday and Saturday – except for 3 that you had to trek into – and were on a first-come first-serve basis.

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There’s a trail from the Observatory campground up to the Observatory. Part of the way up, there’s this observation deck – and meadows and ponds in the distance.

I parked, paid the $15 campsite fee, and trekked my gear up a small hill to Camp Site No. 15. It turned out to be the best site in the campground – the furthermost from the campground road – on the edge of the wilderness – on 3 sides. There were no other campers in sight.

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Closer look at the ponds.

The incense cedars and black oaks trees dominated the area, and as I set up my tent and began to spread out all my stuff, the local neighbors took notice. Immediately, stellar jays made their presence known, noisily demanding payment for my intrusion into their homeland.

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Wilderness on 3 sides.

Just as quickly, the woodpeckers announced their reign with the hollow knocking on the upper trucks of the towering trees.

But what was overpowering was the quiet and the serenity – and it didn’t take me long in my efforts to relax, find a tree and lean up on it, surveying my site and the surrounding nature. Gnats and a few mosquitoes also showed up to assure me that this was their domain as well.

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The new black metal fire pits.

There were some warnings pasted on the walls of the restrooms: cougars and rattlesnakes also live in the area, and there was a squirrel found with plague. But I took all this in stride and wouldn’t allow anything to deter my enjoyment of being totally engulfed in a forest.

Camp Site No. 15 was my home for the good parts of 3 days and for 2 nights. And for nearly those first 24 hours, there were only a handful of people in the campground. The crowds started arriving late Friday afternoon and by that night, every site had been taken.

There are other parts of the mountain worth visiting. Paying the $8 day-use fee for the state park, I arrived at the Boucher Lookout and was immediately invited up the tower by the volunteer ranger for a gander at the mountains and valleys that seemed to be at our finger-touch. After discussing the various fires that have hit Palomar over the decades, I cruised over to Doane Pond – which is not what it used to be due to the drought, and then ended up at a picnic area whose shade is provided by  400-year old cedars and oaks.

When I returned to No. 15, I discovered that work crews had abruptly switched out the concrete fire rings at each camp site for brand new black metal ones that were very disappointing once put to use. Besides the metal, the distinguishing feature of the new rings was their height. Perhaps their height is a fire-safety measure but it certainly changed the whole ‘sitting-around-the-fire’ experience. If you were siting near the ring, you couldn’t actually see the fire, the wood burning. That used to be a pleasant experience, being mesmerized by the flames. But you can’t do that with the new rings.

Also their height makes it very difficult to manage the fire, to re-arrange the wood, or even to carefully add new logs. Another camper told me when he tried to place a potato to bake into the fire, he was burned and couldn’t do it.   In sum, I thought, the bureaucrat who ordered and had the Forrest Service buy these new rings ought to be dropped down a pay-grade.

Yet, there is nothing like cooking food around a fire or stove and eating it in front of nature. It tastes better, you’re hungrier and the process puts you in touch with your more basic instincts.

Each night, as the sun threw its last rays through the forest, the mosquitoes would arrive out in force. Not thousands or anything like that, but enough of a dirty dozen to make you wish you had brought an insect repellent. Note to self: don’t do that again.

Every person has their own way in dealing with those pesky mosquitoes. Without repellent – even a natural one – I had to come up with something. Ah ha, I thought. I would take my long hair out of the pony tail and simply let it hang, covering my neck. And it worked.

Many people my age have honestly quit going camping – and the main reason that keeps those aging sixties kids out of tents is the fear of sleeping on the hard ground. It’s a righteous fear, and an appreciated one. But thought needs to go into how to have an enjoyable camping bed. After 2 nights on my sleeping pad, I was ready for a real bed.

Coming to the realization after 48 hours in the wilderness – or on its edge- that no matter where you are or what you’re doing, you have to deal with the problems that come with the territory – so to speak.

Whether it’s fighting the establishment – or fighting mosquitoes – how you deal with you problems defines your character and vice-versa. And you can’t allow yourself to be overwhelmed by either.

Whether you’re a citizen journalist mixing it up with the powers that be, or a camper slapping at bugs, you have to keep your senses about you and not be distracted by the small things that buzz around your ears.

Remain focused on the big picture, your true friends and adversaries, and don’t allow yourself to be burnt out. If you are coming to that edge of human toast, it’s time to check in at the wilderness hotel, and let the stellar jays and woodpeckers command your attention.

If you’re burning, get thee to a tree nursery. Get your ass up into the cedars, pines and oaks, and try to appreciate your surroundings and what it was like for the native peoples who lived in the area, with the acorns as their staple. There’s a tree on the top of Palomar that was there before the Spanish arrived to destroy the native way of life.

Camping at Mt Palomar is a great escape. But do it during the week when it’s just you and nature. And I highly recommend Camp Site No. 15 – but you’ve got to trek in your gear. Once you’re in, however, you find it all was worth it. Being next to the wilderness reminds you that you’re actually part of it. You – we – we’re all part of nature. Not opposed to it.

And I highly recommend Camp Site No. 15.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie August 24, 2015 at 5:32 pm

How could I forget to mention that an eagle flew directly over Camp site #15 during my first day there? I heard its cry – and looked skyward and watched the large bird float above the tree line that surrounded the campsite. Also heard a coyote the first night and then saw one on the road the next day. The campground volunteer told me she saw a cougar about a week and half ago just outside the campground.

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Judy Swink September 15, 2015 at 7:05 pm

Frank – was it a Golden Eagle? Several years ago, I learned there was a Golden Eagle pair nesting at Volcan Mt., slightly to the south and east of Palomar and well within hunting range of Palomar. What a treat that had to have been!

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Patty Jones August 24, 2015 at 8:23 pm

I’m sorry I missed it all, except sleeping on the ground. Glad you made it up there, though.

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mike September 15, 2015 at 2:17 pm

Nice article, I’m going this week. Was there anyone fishing?

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Frank Gormlie Frank Gormlie September 15, 2015 at 3:38 pm

Doane Pond is pretty low and all the creeks are dry.

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Elliott Blackwood August 24, 2016 at 11:12 am

“I solidly believe that every human needs to spend time in nature, to find balance with our over-urbanized lifestyles”

Yes! It may be difficult to find the time with our hectic schedules but finding oneness and solidarity with Mother Earth (however cheesy that may sound) is invaluable.

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