Winter 2006 Forward to a Friend

Palomar Mountain
Photo by Scott Kardel © Caltech/Palomar Observatory

By Ric Hawthorne, Editor

Oceanside, California, lies between San Diego and Los Angeles, and traveling east from there on California Highway 76 takes you to Cleveland National Forest. A number of pleasant surprises await travelers to this part of the country.

Pull QuoteThe first surprise is how quickly you leave highly populated areas behind. Driving the route on a weekday late last July, I was struck by the lack of heavy traffic only a few miles inland from the Pacific Ocean. Then, as the miles passed, the carved and chiseled hills gave way to a number of mountains, including Palomar Mountain.

Another surprise was the Palomar Observatory near the top of Palomar Mountain. It was impressive for its history and its physical size, as well as for its significance to astronomy. The Observatory’s unassuming grounds belie its stature in the scientific community.
Delightful, too, were the food discoveries along the way – surprising due to their origins (relying on area produce), preparations and tastes.

Facts about Palomar Observatory

•  Owned by the California Institute of Technology
•  Operated by a consortium of Caltech, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Cornell University
•  Four main instruments make up the Observatory
– The 200-inch Hale Telescope
– The 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope
– The 18-inch Schmidt telescope
– A 60-inch reflecting telescope
•  The Hale Telescope is named for its creator – George E. Hale
•  The Hale was the world’s largest reflecting telescope until 1976
•  Observatory elevation – 5,618 feet
•  Observatory land – 160 acres
Find out more about the Palomar Observatory and its work at

An Enthusiast's Thrill

Traffic and population density thinned quickly while traveling east, with four-lane roads surrendering to two. The landscape changed with every turn. Cactus and shrubs, boulders and crevices as well as houses tucked in among the slopes were visible from the road. Every once in a while, a patch of irrigated green demonstrated what could grow in this dry part of the country.

The curves of Highway 76 turned out to be just practice for what would lie ahead. The traffic sign designating Highway S6 to Palomar Mountain pointed toward a driving enthusiast’s dream. With the exception of one lone motorcyclist, the Impreza that I drove was alone going up that mountain road, and I was able to enjoy the curves and turns without interruption – one after another in seemingly unending succession.

Very few straight stretches of more than a few hundred yards interspersed the curves on the climb. Speed signs were consistently in the 25- to 35-miles-per-hour range. The views to one side of the road were of trees, boulders and walls of dirt, while sometimes nothing but sky could be seen on the other side.

If you like to drive and enjoy climbing ever-turning mountain roads, this Highway to the Stars is a must! Highway S6 leads to the Palomar Observatory from the southwest. Near the Observatory, S6 meets S7, which climbs the mountain from the eastern side. While not as wild, S7 has even greater views, particularly overlooking Lake Henshaw in the San Luis Rey River valley.

A Stargazer's Delight

The Highway to the Stars ends in a park situated at the Palomar Observatory’s gates. A short walk up the pathway from the park takes you to the domed building that houses the Hale Telescope. The dome looks otherworldly, and I couldn’t help but think of 1950s science-fiction movies.

However, fiction plays no role in the contributions to astronomy made by the Hale Telescope and the other three instruments that make up the Palomar Observatory. They’ve helped to “map” the universe and discover some of its secrets.

Due to its large size, the Hale Telescope is the most impressive part of the Observatory. Its dome-topped enclosure is open to the public, with a viewing area overlooking the astronomers preparing for the night’s exploration of the universe. Exhibits help to explain the telescope’s operation and show some of the images it has captured.


Facts about Palomar Observatory

•  The 200-inch reflecting mirror was made of Pyrex® by the Corning Glass Works of upstate New York (1934-1936)
•  The mirror is designed to maintain its shape to a few millionths of an inch
•  Grinding and polishing to a perfect paraboloid shape took place at the Caltech optics lab (1936-1947, with work suspended during World War II)
•  Polishing removed 10,000 pounds of glass
•  The housing dome is 135 feet tall and 137 feet in diameter
•  The dome weighs approximately 1,000 tons, consisting of a plate steel exterior and aluminum panel interior
•  Exterior and interior panels are separated by four feet, which allows ventilation
•  The shutters that cover the dome’s opening weigh 125 tons each
•  The dome swivels on two circular rails
•  Astronomer Edwin Hubble took the first photographic exposure using the Hale Telescope in January 1949


The telescope was created by George Ellery Hale, who had supervised the building of the 60-inch telescope at Mount Wilson in 1908 and then the 100-inch telescope there in 1917. Two decades later, Hale secured a six-million-dollar grant for constructing an observatory with a 200-inch telescope. He selected the Palomar Mountain site after researching locations in Arizona, Texas, Hawaii and South America.

The Art of Food

 Julian Pie Company
Photo: Joseph F. Barstys
The area road map used for this journey touted Julian, California, for its spring wildflowers, autumn apple harvest and apple pies. That was intriguing enough to prompt a search for food. Julian is only a few miles away from Palomar Mountain.

As you pass through Wynola Springs on the way to Julian, you’ll find the Wynola Pizza Express. I recommend its vegan pizza, which is made with pizza sauce, sautéed tofu, fresh garlic and veggies. Even more interesting is the oven in which the pizza is baked. It features a mosaic exterior created by artist James Hubbell. The mosaic incorporates broken tiles, plates, cups and saucers. Look for the cup handles and teapot spout.

Palomar Observatory
The Hale Telescope has been used by astronomers to help unlock the secrets of the universe since 1949.

The soil and climate of the area surrounding Julian are perfect for growing apple trees. Many of their apples go to the Julian Pie Company, which served as another food stop. Apple pie a la mode at the pie company’s location on Main Street in Julian topped off lunch. Pies made locally can be shipped anywhere, for anyone who enjoys the flavor and crust of homemade apple pies. The company offers other pies and desserts as well.

For more about the pizza and pies, visit and

Down to the Sea Again

Returning from the Highway to the Stars and the Observatory, I couldn’t help but reflect upon how explorers have used the stars as navigational tools for centuries.

This road trip exceeded expectations. Driving the mountain roads was a delight, plus it was scenic, educational and I had satisfied my appetite!

Facts about Palomar Observatory

Learn about Palomar Mountain’s fascinating history by visiting

Of particular interest are the links to the printed works Palomar from Teepee to Telescope by Catherine M. Wood (Frye & Smith, 1937) and Palomar Mountain: Past and Present by Marion F. Beckler (Desert Magazine, 1958).

Facts about Palomar Observatory
Palomar Mountain rests on a granite block, making it less threatened by earthquakes than other parts of the region
The mountain is 25 miles long and six miles wide
Elevation of its peak – 6,126 feet