The Telescopes of Palomar

Palomar 200 inch telescope

Palomar 200 inch telescope

Last week we were at the Acorn. This week we are going to visit Palomar Mountain. From the Acorn you head west on interstate 8 then head north on Sunrise Highway. You go through Laguna and then turn right on 79. At Julian you turn left go through town and then you head west from Julian and turn right at Santa Isabel onto highway 79. At Lake Henshaw you turn left on 76. Passing the store, restaurant, and campgrounds at Lake Henshaw you pass the lake Henshaw dam and turn right on East grade road. I slowly wound my way up the mountain stopping at various overlooks to enjoy the view and take a few pictures. Palomar is a well known Mountain. it is really three mountains in one with a bowl between them. Last year it was threatened by the San Diego wildfires. Due to the valiant effort of many firefighters and hundreds of fire trucks, the fire was stopped right at the edge of the mountain. This saved the store, restaurant, gift shop, lodge and observatory from fire damage and preserved their historic heritage.


Palomar is the home of the world famous 200 inch Hale telescope. It began as a dream of George Ellery Hale in the 1920’s and was completed with a grant by the Rockefeller Institute in 1948. The giant mirror was brought up the narrow twisting and winding South Grade Road and just made it inside its domed building before a heavy thunderstorm started. Owned by California Institute of Technology, today the observatory is operated by a consortium of Caltech, The Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and Cornell University.

The 200 inch is one of five large telescopes on the mountain. There is also a 60 inch completed in 1970, a 24 inch completed in 2006, a 48 inch , and an 18 inch. In 2007 the 200 inch was fitted with an adaptive optics system and now it can see twice as far as the Hubble Space Telescope. Also just completed is the Test Bed Interferometer. This uses three small telescopes spaced up to 110 meters apart to become the largest telescope on the mountain. The light is directed through tubes to a central collecting station where it is analyzed by computers. Future projects include a Thirty Meter Telescope.

The smallest telescope nicknamed The Sleuth, is a robotic telescope that searches 10,000 stars for evidence of planets orbiting them. It is one of three performing this task. The other 2 are in Northern Arizona, and Tenerife.

The 200 inch Telescope is the only telescope that is open to the public. Hours are from 9
A M to 4 PM. If you would like to see the other telescopes at work, become a member of Friends of Palomar and then you will be invited to special tours and events. All the telescopes work every night that is not overcast. The telescopes are at the top of the mountain so even when there are clouds they are usually below the level of the telescopes.

Arriving at Palomar you are at the 5550 foot level of the mountain. A short walk up the mountain past the gift shop brings you to the 200 inch domed building. You can take a self guided tour of the dome and after 11:30 AM there are guided tours. In the early days an astronomer used to have to wear a heated suit and sit in a cage at the top of the telescope to aim it. Today it is all done by computers from a heated control room.


If you are staying more than one day on the mountain, you can camp at one of the many campgrounds from $15 a night. If you want more comfort you can stay at The Palomar Mountain Lodge. The Lodge built in the 1920’s is an historic place. It has 10 cozy staterooms from $75 to $150 a night. Many celebrities have stayed there including governors, presidents, movie stars and even Albert Einstein. It has a large ballroom with 2 fireplaces. Surrounded by pine forests, the lodge is a great place to stay and unwind from the pace of the hectic world around us.

Mothers Kitchen and The General Store and Gift Shop.


If you are hungry when you are on the mountain a great place to eat is Mother’s Kitchen. It is open 11AM to 4 PM Monday, Thursday, and Friday and 8:30 AM to 5 PM on the weekends. There are many choices on the menu including garden salads, Mexican dishes, Mountain specialties, and grilled sandwiches. They even serve a Lunar Grilled Cheese sandwich. They have three cheese Lasagna and for dessert there are fresh baked pies and cookies. There is a fireplace for those cold winter days. There is outdoor dining which is really outdoors under the trees and a nice indoor dining area. The service is great, less than 5 minutes. I tried the mountain chili. It was mild and just right and went well with a sandwich. My whole meal was only $7. The restaurant has been there a long time. The present owners have been there since 1977.

Next door to Mother’s is the General Store and Gift Shop. You can stock up on all your camping needs here. The gift shop has amazing one of a kind gifts that are sure to be a favorite. Across the parking lot is a small ivy covered Post office and next to the post office is a little building that sells soap.

Palomar Mountain is a great place to get away from the hectic life of the city. It is a great place to camp and enjoy the country. It is a place to learn about astronomy and a place to enjoy the snow of the winter.

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