Palomar Mountain South Grade Bike Climb - PJAMM Cycling

12.4 mi
4,484 ft
6.9 %



The Palomar Mountain Bike Climb is the longest and second most difficult (after Nate Harrison Grade a mile away) bike climb in San Diego County. This is also the most popular climb by bike in California's cycling popular San Diego County.  Some of the points and details of interest on Palomar are: (1) 18 continuous radius hairpins - this is our favorite set of hairpins in the US, (2) Mothers Kitchen restaurant at the top - get the apple pie!, and (3) the Palomar Observatory five miles past the climb finish.
Mount Palomar is a remarkably steady climb, rarely leaving the 5-8% gradient range.  Testament to the continuous smooth grade is a steepest quarter mile of only 8.6%, and a steepest mile of 8.1%.  Corroborating that data point is our gradient bar graph (found under "Profile Tool") that shows 82% (10.1 miles) of the climb is in the 5-10% gradient range.  Only 4% of the climb is at 10% or greater (almost all of that never exceeding 10%). 

See more details and tools regarding this climb's grade via the “Profile Tool” button.
Roadway:  This is an impeccable roadway from top to bottom.  The continuous radius hairpins are a delight to descend.  

Traffic:  The first 5 miles are on busy Highway 76.  After turning onto South Grade Road, vehicular traffic is mild and no cause for concern.  However, beware of motorcyclists on this popular windy roadway - it attracts adrenalin junkies riding race bikes wearing body armor - be particularly careful on the right hairpins as this is where you are most vulnerable to a racer hugging the inside of the curve. 

Parking:  Try the market or Jilberto's Taco Shop or the market, both at the start of the climb - ask permission (Map; Street View).  Otherwise, on weekends park at the Municipal Water District parking lot j100 yards southeast of start (Map; Street View)
Gear:  As with any climb to significantly higher altitude, be sure to check the PJAMM weather tool on this site for the weather forecast at the climb finish. 

Provisions:  This climb is more like Alpe d'Huez than you would think - well . . . kinda . . .  There is Jilbertos Taco Shop (C grade, but an A when you are starving after you descend) at the start, and a market (map).  However, you should not be hungry when you finish because you MUST eat at Mother's Kitchen at the junction just down from the finish (7/10's of a mile)- we recommend the apple pie with vanilla ice cream!  See more details in the full climb summary.  MapStreet View.  The Palomar General Store is next to Mother's Kitchen and has some food and drinks. 
Before heading out on any cycling adventure check out our Things to Bring on a Cycling Trip and use our interactive check list to ensure you don't forget anything.
My daughter went to college in and lives in San Diego, so I normally drive the hour from San Diego for a day road trip to ride Palomar Mountain. However, I have twice stayed at Harrah's Resort just a few miles from the start which is not a bad place to stay (Map).  Also consider riding Nate Harrison Grade, an epic bike climb just a few miles from the start of Palomar Mountain. Of course, the San Diego area is a tourist destination and as such has no shortage of great private vacation rental options as well.

Also consider visiting the Palomar Observatory five miles north of the General Store and Mother's Kitchen (Map; Street ViewGoogle Map + Reviews).  There is also a gift shop at the Observatory (Google Map + Reviews). 

Also see our San Diego County and Southern California climb pages for great bike climbs in the region. 



Difficulty: Strenuous



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Jun 9, 2021
difficulty: Strenuous
scenery: 4
traffic: 3
road: 3
Jun 9, 2021
scenery: 4
traffic: 3
road: 3
Great climb. I parked at Jilberto's across the street which seemed to be fine, and the burrito I had from Jilberto's was delicious. The first 5 miles has an off and on shoulder which makes it better than I thought it was going to be. The last 7 miles are lovely, although I did encounter some racing motorcycles which are loud and annoying. Make sure to figure out where to go once you hit the top of South Grade because there is no service up there. The descent is fantastic, although there was some gravel on the road and the road can be pretty cracked. Make sure to bring plenty of water on a Summer day, as it was sweltering on the bike up.

Climb Profile Not Found

Climbing Palomar Mountain by bike - intersection E Grade and Crestline Road San Diego County

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%.

Signs at the start of Palomar Mountain bike climb.

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.

                                                                                                                                 Palomar Mtn and Lake Henshaw Road sign

At five miles in, the fun begins!

Cycling Palomar Mountain - cyclist on bike south grade road

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).

Drone photo of Mt Palomar hairpins

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.

Drone view from the top of Mt Palomar

View south towards Mexico as seen from higher section of our climb.

Drone view from the top of Mt Palomar

View west towards the Pacific Ocean. 

aerial view of roadway to top of Palomar Mountain.

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).

Intersection of South and East Grade Roads on Palomar Mountain bike climb

Traditional finish.

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).

Mt Palomar Fire Station         

Take a left on Crestline at the firehouse.

Looking west from Crestview

Crestline Road - finish of Mt Palomar bicycle climb

Tippy Top. 

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.     

Cyclists at Palomar Observatory San Diego County 

Be sure to get there early, or you’ll be stopped short of the observatory.  But . . .

Menu board at Mother's kitchen at finish of Palomar cycle climb.

. . . there are some advantages to being late on the mountain!

Menu board at Mother's kitchen at finish of Palomar cycle climb.

Mother’s Kitchen at the top -

We LOVE Mother’s Kitchen!!

Front of Jilberto's Taco shop at the beginning of the Palomar Mountain hill climb.

After a long ride back down the hill, don’t forget Jilberto’s!

Burritos are giant - one would have been sufficient . . .


Front of Jilberto's Taco shop at the beginning of the Palomar Mountain hill climb.

Stage 8 2009 Tour of California

Palomar Mountain South Grade Road

Stage won by Frank Schleck (LUX); Levi Leipheimer (USA) wins ToC.

  • 2009 -- Stage 8 (final stage):
  • Rancho Bernardo > Escondido; South Grade Road (hairpins) approach;
  • 100.4 miles, 9,493’;
  •  Stage winner:  Frank Schleck (LUX).  
  • 2013 -- Stage 1:
  • Escondido > Escondido; East Grade Road approach;
  • 102.4 miles, 7,915’;
  •  Stage winner:  Lieuwe Westra (NED).

2013 Tour of California -- Mount Palomar descent South Grade Road

Photo:  Palomar Mountain News, Francisco Valdovinos article.

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%)

Safety Tip: 

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.

​ ​


Top Southern California Road Bike Climbs - clockwise from top left to middle:

Nate Harrison Grade, San Diego; Gibraltar Road, Santa Barbara; Palomar Mountain, San Diego

Glendora Mountain Road, Los Angeles; Mt. Baldy, Los Angeles (center)

That’s a wrap!!