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Cycling San Diego’s Extraordinary Palomar Mountain -- A Top 50 US Bike Climb.
Ride 12.4 miles gaining 4,580’ to elevation 5,513’ at 6.9% average grade.
The Palomar Mountain Climb is a tale of two climbs. The first 5.0 miles (from the start to the turnoff from Highway 76 to South Grade Road) are highway riding, bordering on unpleasant, although the shoulder and roadway surface for the majority of this stretch are good. Traffic whizzes by fairly fast, but we have had no real close calls in our five times up the mountain. During the first five miles you gain 1,585 feet of elevation at an average grade of 6.3%.
An uninspiring start, but don’t despair -- it gets better, much better!
Center photo - Palomar Mountain peak in background center.
“Palomar Mountain is one of the most difficult climbs in Southern California and has been used by top professionals in the Tour of California (perhaps a stage finish one day). From tiny Pauma Valley head up the hill on Route 76 over shallow and then variable grade. After ~6 miles turn left on Route S6 (toward Palomar) and you soon begin to switchback up the mountain over an increased grade. This is the steepest sustained grade on the hill and can test you. It is through seemingly endless switchbacks and you may have some motorcycle company on this stretch on the weekends. As you approach a junction the slope eases, a few views appear and at the stop sign turn right on S7 and then in 0.1 miles go left on Crestline Road. More solid climbing arrives and in a half mile turn left up to Palomar Mountain County Park for a short, steeper finish. This climb is longer and as steep as the standard route up the Galibier, a regular beyond category rated Tour de France climb.” (This quote is presented with the approval of John Summerson, from his book, The Complete Guide to Climbing (by Bike), 2nd Edition, pg. 160.)
Before heading out on your Palomar Mountain cycling adventure, be sure to rely on our list of Things to Bring on a Cycling Trip, and use our interactive checklist to ensure you don't forget anything.
At five miles in, the fun begins!
Many unobstructed views through the second half of the South Grade hairpins.
Overhead of a lower hairpin (inset photo is front view of same curve).
Mile markers lead us up the mountain.
Where you get your money's worth on Palomar is from the mile five turn off -- from here on this is a truly magnificent climb. By our count there are 18 continuous radius switchbacks (some report 21) which are of interest ascending, and of challenge and excitement descending.
It’s all about the switchbacks on Palomar.
The vegetation and landscape are generally uninspiring: your typical Southern California high desert with mostly dry grass, rock, and desert shrubs. Thankfully, the views back towards the Pauma Valley as you ascend the second half of the climb are scenic and of interest.
View south towards Mexico as seen from higher section of our climb.
View west towards the Pacific Ocean.
Center photo: Road midway up South Grade Road
Photo upper center - final segment of roadway.
Beware the “Artisan Spring” on the left, near the top.
This is not potable water, but the sign is down hill and not altogether obvious.
The traditional end to this climb is at the intersection of Palomar Mountain Road (South Grade Road) and East Grade Road, at the 11.7 mile mark (gaining 4,185 feet at 6.8% grade to this point).
However, by turning right at the intersection of East and South Grade Road, then turning left in 0.2 miles onto Crestline Road and then riding to its summit, you gain an extra 0.7 miles and 238 feet of climbing (there is a 7.1% grade over this last stretch).
Take a left on Crestline at the firehouse.
Looking west from Crestview
Occasionally it snows during the winter months at and near the top of Palomar Mountain.
Points of Interest:
This San Diego County road bike climb enters Cleveland National Forest at mile 9.4. This 460,000 acre national forest was established as such in 1908 by Teddy Roosevelt and named after Grover Cleveland.
Jilberto's Taco Shop at the start of the climb is a decent spot for lunch at the end of the descent. Nearby is a store for provisions. At the top of the climb (turn left at the intersection of East and South Grade) you’ll find the Palomar Mountain General Store as well as Mother's Kitchen, a nice cafe with great pastries and pie. Additionally, 4.8 miles (800 feet climbing to and 451 feet back) from the General Store along Canfield Road takes us to the Palomar Observatory, a popular tourist destination operated by Caltech.
Continue on to the Observatory.
Be sure to get there early, or you’ll be stopped short of the observatory. But . . .
. . . there are some advantages to being late on the mountain!
Mother’s Kitchen at the top -
We LOVE Mother’s Kitchen!!
After a long ride back down the hill, don’t forget Jilberto’s!
Burritos are giant - one would have been sufficient . . .
TOUR OF CALIFORNIA
Stage 8 2009 Tour of California
Palomar Mountain South Grade Road
2013 Tour of California -- Mount Palomar descent South Grade Road
2013 Stage 1 winner Lieuwe Westra (NED); 4:31’33”
Temperatures rose to 105℉ in the Pauma Valley that day.
Steepest ¼ mile begins at mile 1.4 (8.6%) and steepest mile at 7/10 mile (8.2%)
Because of its incredible switchbacks and continuous radius curves, Palomar is a major attraction to motorcyclists. Many touring motorcyclists make the trek to the top and they are wonderful and not of concern to cyclists. However, there are many racing motorcyclists (full leathers, knee and elbow pads, etc.) that bomb up the seven miles of South Grade Road from Highway 76 to the intersection of South and East Grade Roads very fast, hugging corners as they go -- they can literally be heard for miles ascending the mountain. This is not a complaint, just an observation. For the cyclists, it is very important to stay as close to the far right as you can, particularly on right turns/switchbacks, as this is where the racing motorcyclists are most likely to be in your line and on your butt! Since we can easily hear the motorcyclists for some time before they are upon us, we have plenty of time to get to the far right for safety’s sake.
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA’S TOP BIKE CLIMBS
Top Southern California Road Bike Climbs - clockwise from top left to middle:
That’s a wrap!!