If you are not into astronomy or winding mountain roads, you can probably skip the Palomar Observatory. My wife and I enjoyed the somewhat harrowing drive up Palomar Mountain and, while neither of us are big astronomy buffs, we found the telescope interesting –- we spent most of our time there trying to figure how it worked. Our 13-year-old son, however, was decidedly under-whelmed. It wasn’t as bad as the Griswolds driving 2 hours out of their way to see the world’s second largest ball of twine, but it may have been close in his mind. It probably had more to do with this being our last day of vacation, having to wake him up early so we could check out of the resort, and school starting in a few days.
It takes about an hour to drive there from Escondido. From I-15, drive east on Highway 76 about 25 miles and then continue on County Road S-6 for a winding and twisting 8 mile climb to the observatory. The drive on Highway 76 is fairly pleasant and scenic, passing farms and ranches (and some abandoned buildings). At one point, you enter the Pala Indian Reservation where you pass the HUGE Pala Casino. What’s interesting is that you see the "Entering Pala Indian Reservation" highway sign at one boundary of the casino property and the "Leaving Pala Indian Reservation" highway sign at the other boundary of the casino! Looks like they made good use of the land – the place looked packed. Once you get on S-6 the drive gets real interesting. It’s curves and hairpin turns rival anything we’ve ever driven in the mountains of the Northwest. The views are terrific but what made it fairly harrowing is that apparently everyone in Southern California who owns a racing motorcycle chose this day to ride up and down the mountain. The brightly colored Suzukis and Hondas were everywhere, like a swarm of bees, zooming by us, and making those racing bike turns where the driver’s kneecap is one inch from the road. There wasn’t a hog, touring, or dirt bike anywhere in sight.
Most of the motorcyclists were headed to the nearby Cleveland State Forest Park, so the final few miles to the observatory was a bit calmer. Even though the observatory is at 5500 feet elevation, it was still pretty hot (this was August – they advise in the wintertime that you need to watch for ice on the road). There is a spacious parking lot and small shaded picnic area. You proceed up a short walkway to the observatory which is open daily from 9 to 4. There is no admission charge. The "tour" is self guided, meaning you walk up the stairs and look through the glass windows at this, uh, technical thing. There are a few posters describing what you’re looking at. One poster described how Cal Tech (which runs the place), Cornell, and Jet Propulsion Labs vie for time on the telescope – I loved the comment that said if it’s cloudy on the night of your assigned time, that’s tough! When we arrived, there were perhaps a dozen people looking through the window and their reaction varied from fascination to "This is it?" One obvious problem is that since they only use the telescope at night, there isn’t anything happening there during the day. It seemed to me it would benefit things if there was a Bill Nye the Science Guy type person there to at least answer questions. But the impression is that the Palomar Observatory is a reluctant tourist attraction – they’d probably prefer no visitors but it’s kind of hard to ignore this big white dome on top of a mountain.
Back down the walkway, there is another building with a small sign saying "Gift Shop". Don’t pass this by. The gift shop is just one small room and surprisingly well stocked with astronomy books, photos, and posters as well as souvenirs (you NEED a Palomar Observatory Frisbee, don’t you?). But next to the gift shop is the unadvertised museum, a big room with lots of terrific photos of various heavenly bodies (no, not Marilyn Monroe) and phenomena. There is also a video playing continuously about the construction of the telescope and observatory. Creating the 200-inch mirror back in the 1930’s was an engineering marvel. I later found out that the company my grandfather worked for built the cradle that the mirror rested in as it was transported across the country by train.
Even if you aren’t enamored of technical things, the Palomar Observatory is an interesting diversion just for the drive alone. You could always go to the State Park instead. At the junction of the S-6 and S-7 (the road to the park), there is an eclectic general store and restaurant/bakery. It’s not often that you see Twinkies, star charts, and wind chimes sold in the same store. The restaurant offers homemade soups and sandwiches and while we didn’t have lunch there, we did enjoy an excellent giant oatmeal raisin cookie from the bakery.