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San Diego – Palomar Mountain South Grade Climb


Palomar has been on my list of must-do climbs for a long time, but one thing or another kept it from happening. The distance to get to the climb from Long Beach also didn’t help. Nor did the reports of reckless motorcyclists and other enthusiast drivers on weekends. Nor the reports of the high temperatures to expect during the summer. But, finding myself with a free Friday (being unemployed at the moment does have a few advantages), I decided to tackle this climb at the last minute. While this meant only a couple of hours of sleep, it also meant some pleasant temperatures.

The Harrah’s casino seems to be the popular spot to park, so that was my official starting point. After rubbing my eyes a few times and strapping on my shoes, I headed north along Valley Center Road. My first thought was basically questioning my sanity in waking up so early to simply torture myself with cycling up thousands of feet. Must be a disease. I’ll have to ask my doctor about that.

Anyway, Valley Center Road is mostly forgettable. One cow crossing, a few buildings, a couple of side roads, decent traffic and a touch of climbing. Pretty boring but it quickly led to the turn for 76 (aka Pala Rd). This intersection is home to the Taco Shop, the (un)official start of the climb. Start your timer here!

The climbing also kicks up immediately here – nothing all that steep, but some good, consistent climbing. This section was actually a little creepy – heavy fog silhouetting the occasional palm tree with some wickedly thick wisps of fog..

From 2009-08-14 – Palomar Mountain Cycling

Another mile or so and I’ve ascended above the fog level. Continuing along 76, the scenery is actually pretty nice:

From 2009-08-14 – Palomar Mountain Cycling

Some fog back in the distance, left behind:

From 2009-08-14 – Palomar Mountain Cycling

Continuing on:

From 2009-08-14 – Palomar Mountain Cycling

76 passes quickly enough. While decently scenic, I was still glad to hit the the turn for South Grade and shed a bit of the traffic. That said, 76 was actually pretty calm – don’t know if this is always the case or if it was just because it was early enough. On to South Grade! This road is a solid climb. Nothing crazy-steep, but it consistently climbs. Soon enough I hit 3,000 feet:

From 2009-08-14 – Palomar Mountain Cycling

Heading up around one of the many switchbacks:

From 2009-08-14 – Palomar Mountain Cycling

A little farther and a very beautiful switchback:

From 2009-08-14 – Palomar Mountain Cycling

Above 3000 feet the views really start to open up:

From 2009-08-14 – Palomar Mountain Cycling
From 2009-08-14 – Palomar Mountain Cycling

That, right there, is one reason why I torture myself in attempting such climbs.

Another half hour of climbing and I hit the ridge line. Despite being rather tired, I was happy to have maintained a 2600 feet of climbing per hour pace. To finish the climb, I throw in a few hundred more feet along Crestline Rd up to Palomar Mountain County Park. This last bit leaves me with a finishing elevation of 5600 feet. Nice little park:

From 2009-08-14 – Palomar Mountain Cycling
From 2009-08-14 – Palomar Mountain Cycling

Sadly, this park affords no expansive views of what you have just conquered. It does, however, offer a bathroom. This more than makes up for the lack of expansive views.

Finally, heading back down:

From 2009-08-14 – Palomar Mountain Cycling

A fair warning! This is a very fun descent (minus the 3 or so cattle crossings)! My average speed from Palomar Mountain Park all the way back to my car at Harrah’s was 29mph. 40.0 mph top speed as well. This descent is both fun and challenging – tons of 180+ degree switchbacks to keep you alert! Can’t wait to try it again and see if I can up that number.

The full route map:

Just the South Grade climb portion:

Also, socalvelo has an excellent page on Palomar.

In conclusion, this is an excellent climb. Solidly steep for many miles, nice views and not too much traffic (at least on a Friday morning). Next time, I have two things to add to this ride – a visit to the observatory and a cruise down E Grade to Lake Henshaw. These two attractions alone will keep Palomar high in my to-do-again list. And, next time, a stop at Mother’s is definitely in line as well!

Prost!

The Discussion

see what everyone is saying

  • Carmen August 15th, 2009 at 9:46 pm #1

    Hey, that looks like a great ride, and some very challenging climbing. Sounds like traffic wasn’t bad, and good views. Cool! Thanks for sharing it.

  • yangga November 24th, 2009 at 6:15 pm #2

    Hey dude! How have you been? You still look great! It’s a great hiking! I’m missing the hiking with your family on some Thanks Giving Day. TT TT

  • Smorg February 22nd, 2013 at 1:32 pm #3

    Hiya,
    Really am enjoying your blog and all the fantastic climbs. Thanks for sharing! :D

    Palomar does have a really cool scenic look out spot on top of it, though. Next time you go up, take a right at S7/State Park Rd (it’s the road between the top of South Grade Rd and Mother’s Kitchen). It goes a few miles over a saddle, passes a park check point and then ends at intersection with Boucher lookout loop and Nate Harrison Grade Rd (that’s a really good climb, tho more for mountain bikes than roadies since it’s mostly unpaved).

    The Boucher lookout loop is closed to cars, but you can ride up it (one-way loop, the uphill leg is on the right side) to Boucher fire lookout with awesome panoramic view of the surrounding area.

    You might be tempted, but I would not descend down Nate Harrison Grade on a road bike (if you go down it, it comes out on Hwy 76 about 2 miles west of Valley Center Rd turn off). It’s really narrow and rough, with lots of really tight switchbacks, and the average grade is constant 8% for 10 miles or so, shallowing out the last 2 miles thru the orange groves. :)

  • Smorg February 22nd, 2013 at 1:33 pm #4

    Oooops. Typo, I meant take a LEFT at S7/State Park Rd (to go west). Sorry!

  • Terry "UniGeezer" Peterson April 1st, 2013 at 3:16 pm #5

    I’ve got to do this climb on my 36er road unicycle!

  • Greg February 18th, 2014 at 10:31 pm #6

    This is a GREAT climb, took it on this weekend for the first time. We opted for the extra 5 miles up to the observatory, which I highly recommend. As for the decent down E Grade Road; the scenery is really beautiful, but the road is a little sketchy at high speed. Lots of big cracks and plenty of huge “humps” lurking in the shadows waiting to pitch you over the handle bars if you’re not paying attention… white knuckle territory, for sure. Once you’ve made it down to the bottom of E Grade Road, and your hands and feet are numb from the vibration of a road surface in need of some TLC, the fun really starts. Make a right back on to 76 for the trek back to Harrah’s where you’ll find NO BIKE LANE and NO SHOULDER WHATSOEVER for about 10 miles and a fairly constant stream of 40′ RV’s passing within 18 inches of your left shoulder. Please do yourself a favor and DO NOT take this route, it completely sucks, and I promise you will regret it. Instead, stick to S Grade road to the Observatory and back, which is a nice 37mi. round trip from Harrah’s.

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