Laura and Lee's Palomar Observation
May 9, 1997

Trip Report

Though Lee is a Southern California native, he had never visited the Palomar Mountain Observatory, and though my parents assured me that they had taken me several times as a kid, I don't remember ever being there. So we decided to drive up from San Diego and make a day trip of it.

The Palomar Observatory is operated by Caltech (The California Institute of Technology). Though there are several different telescopes and observatories on the premises, the 200" Hale telescope is the main attraction. Originally put into operation in 1949, for years it was the largest telescope in the world - it was not surpassed until the 1970s, when the Soviet Union built a 6 meter telescope - one full meter larger. Today the two Keck telescopes (both 10 meters) on Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii are the largest in the world.

Before the trip I visited the Observatory's web site to get directions and find out what was available for visitors.

There are a couple different routes from San Diego to Mt. Palomar - we decided to make this a loop trip. We drove up via Escondido and Valley Center, and came home via Santa Ysabel, Ramona, and Poway.

Along the road near Valley Center we saw some of the world's largest oleander "bushes" - though they were more like trees, and probably 15-20 feet high. We saw lots of "witch's hair", too, which looks like a bright orange cobweb, but is a parasite that grows on shrubs. It's quite common in San Diego County, but Lee had never seen it before. "Witch's Hair" is what we always called it as kids - I'm not sure what the real name is.

As we started climbing into the mountains we started to see many wildflowers in bloom, just as we did on the trip to Sequoia in April. There was a lot of beautiful purple lupine (pictured left), some wild lilacs, bright red penstemon, and even wild honeysuckle bushes.

When we arrived at the observatory, our first stop was the museum. We almost had the place to ourselves - there were very few other people around. There were lots of photos of galaxies and various astronomical phenomenon, and a video telling something about the various telescopes and the type of research they do there.

They really need to update things, though - one of the displays shows some photos of Halleys comet taken in 1910, and comments that it will return to our skies in 1986 - and that was 11 years ago! At least the video is somewhat more current - it talks about the Shoemaker-Levy comet's collision with Jupiter in 1994.

Some facts about the Hale telescope:

(Most of the preceding was found in the book The Perfect Machine, by Ronald Florence.)

After we went to the museum we walked over to the building the telescope is in - there's a visitor's gallery where you can see it. But during the day the dome is closed, so it's fairly dark inside, and the visitor's area has a glass wall so you can't actually get close to the telescope - can't even see it that well through the glass. And, since the astronomers work at night, there's *no one* around...

There was hardly anyone around, actually - we only saw about 10 other visitors. But it was a Friday and not a weekend, too. Unfortunately the other visitors included a family with a toddler who screamed and ran around the museum through most of the video presentation, and did more of the same inside the observatory. His mother took him outside for part of the time, but then brought him back. Sigh.

Just outside the parking lot we had seen a sign for "The Observatory Trail", so we decide to walk that - we thought it might be a different path to the dome, or perhaps to some of the other buildings. The sign was totally useless - it didn't way how long it was or where it went or anything. After walking for a while, I finally figured out that the destination was where we had started it, and the trail probably went to one of the National Forest's campgrounds.

We saw some more pretty wildflowers, though, and ran across a Native American grinding stone, called a metate - used for grinding acorns into flour. This one was probably made by the Luiseno.

From the observatory we drove to Palomar Mtn State Park, just to see what was there. There are a couple of campgrounds and some picnic areas, and lots of hiking trails.

Both at the observatory and at the park, we saw all of these signs that said "No picking of ferns". There were LOTS of ferns, so they certainly didn't seem to be endangered...

There are many cattle ranches in the area around Palomar, and we saw a lot of cattle guards on the road. So we played the "Cattle Guard" game. I don't know how this game got started in my family, but the custom is that anytime the car passes over a cattle guard, you have to lift your feet off the floor, or else your feet get cut off. The driver too! :-) Lee's gotten very good at it over the years, though he still rarely catches me (unless I'm asleep, and in this case *I* was driving so there was not much chance of that!)

We decided to drive home via a different route and got a little lost - the map we had wasn't very detailed, and there weren't very many signs. We got turned around and headed in the right direction, though, and ended up in Santa Ysabel - home of Dudley's Bakery, a local landmark. On weekends the place is packed, and they sell loaves and loaves of bread. We stopped in Santa Ysabel at the Julian Pie Company and had fresh apple-berry pie - yum!

On the way home we saw a lot of traffic heading towards us - there's a lot of people that have one heck of a commute, but I guess they want to live in the country.

Some general comments...

We had a nice day exploring our own backyard - you don't have to travel all that far from home to see interesting sights and learn some new things!

The Hale telescope is really quite an engineering feat - given the enormity of the project and all of the new processes and technologies that had to be developed along the way, it's amazing that it all came together. Things that we take for granted now just didn't exist 50-60 years ago, so in some respects this telescope was constructed with "stone knives and bear skins", to quote Mr. Spock.

Other Links...

Text and photographs copyright © 1997, by Laura Gilbreath. Feel free to link to this document, but you may not redistribute it in any form without the express written consent of the copyright holder.

Laura Gilbreath, email: lgil at lgil dot net
Last updated 5/15/97