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A Morning on Palomar Mountain

Last Friday, I realized that with little on my schedule for Sunday, a holiday on Monday, and the weather finally getting to something of a reasonable temperature, it might just be time for me to visit one of my favorite places on Earth: Palomar Mountain State Park. The park was slated for closure due to budgetary cuts, but a great group called Friends of Palomar State Park stepped in, did a fund raising drive, and worked a deal with the State Park system to keep the gates open to the public. Of course, continued operation depends on people actually paying the fees to use the park, so the least I could do was spend a night there. There were several campsites available and I booked one.

The drive up was relatively uneventful, with one slight exception. In several places on the park website, it is mentioned that there’s no gas station on Palomar Mountain. I was around a quarter of a tank as I reached Escondido, and used the GPS in my phone to locate a gas station. The closest one was the Qwik Korner on East Valley Parkway. Now we all know that gas prices have jumped like crazy over the last week or so, but this was just nuts:

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Across the street at the Mobil station, the price was a relative bargain at $5.29 a gallon for regular. Yes, there were people fueling their cars at both stations. Not knowing what was ahead, I put three gallons in at the Mobil station. Turns out that another 15 miles along the road at Harrah’s Rincon Casino, there was a 7-11 with regular priced at $4.63 which, while still obscene, was at least along the lines of prices elsewhere in the county.

Reaching South Grade Road, I took the twists and turns the way I can only do when driving alone. I can’t imagine any passenger enjoying that drive. I loved it. I had to turn off the traction control as I slammed my automatic transmission from D to 2 to L and up again, hitting the turns hard and fast. Even so, I had to pull to the side three times for motorcycles to pass me.

I got to the campsite and, first things first, set up the tent while there was still a lot of daylight. Then, after a snack of some grapes and sliced turkey breast, went over to the camp host to buy some firewood. Things all set, it was time for my first hike. I took the Doane Valley Nature Trail. It’s an easy, 1-mile trail that starts in the Doane Pond parking lot, with beautiful views and lots of variety.

Back to camp. Time to split up some of the wood for kindling and build a fire. Once it had been ablaze for an hour or so, I realized I needed more wood. Back to the camp host.

The night itself was something of a loss. While I had a fabulous opportunity to view the stars (and it’s so amazing how many stars you can see up there, a mile above sea level and away from city lights), other campers were loud: radios, overly-raised voices, oh yeah, and barking dogs. Nice.

Weather.com had said that the temperature was going to drop to around 50 degrees overnight. Not too cold. I brought a suede jacket just in case and it was already getting rather chilly by 8pm. I had planned on just using my sleeping bag as a mat. I normally like it cool and use no covers save a sheet. Since I was planning on actually wearing something to bed, I figured I’d be warm enough. I was wrong. Had to get in the sleeping bag.

Woke up at 6:30, cold, just around sunrise, fingers numb. A quick bowl of cereal and brushing of teeth, and I was off on the hike I really wanted to take: early morning down the French Valley Trail. This trail begins where the Doane Valley Nature Trail ends: pretty much right in the middle of the campground area. Almost everyone was still asleep in the campground. And it was downright chilly.

Up to the left, the campsite across the narrow road from the trail head was ringed with large black crows, silent and still. They were all facing the tent on the site, waiting or watching for something, some event. One hopped a few feet forward and was again still. I’ll never know what they were waiting for, but it was an eerie early-morning sight.

On to the trail and into the first small meadow, the temperature dropped several more degrees in the open air. But it was crisp, clean air. The shriek of bluejays had begun to pepper the morning that was coming alive with chirps, whistles, tweets, and calls from other unseen birds all around.

Perhaps 50 feet into the first area of cover on the trail, a sudden bounding started in front of me then off toward the left! A large deer had been spooked by my not-so-subtle gait. I stopped, and it paused, some 40 feet away, directly left, watching me through a thin bush. When it decided I posed no threat it began to graze on some of the grasses. I watch for a while longer until it wandered off, out of sight.

Farther along, the trail split. To the left, it went down into the valley meadow, still in shadow, while the ridge beyond blazed in sunlight.

From where I stood, with the rising sun still hidden behind me, the grasses in the meadow, yellow, green, and brown the afternoon before, looked oddly white in patches. I took the right fork, up, through more trees. A slightly more ambitious trail, this one. In several places, trees had fallen, and one was presented with the choice of climbing over or going under.

Several times along the way I stopped to soak it all in. The beautiful views, the bird-filled quiet. The serenity.

When I finally reached the point where the trail left the trees and skirted the meadow, I could see the white somewhat more clearly. Bizarre, yes, but it looked like frost. Trekking on, I eventually made it to a stretch of trail that went directly through . . . frost. The crunch under my boots was confirmed when I reached down and scraped a layer of frost from a blade of grass. And then another, just to be sure.

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I’m going to say that Weather.com might have been a few degrees off in their forecast of the overnight low.

By that time, though, I was anything but cold. The altitude and the hike had raised my heart rate, for sure. Reaching the end of the meadow, the French Valley Trail met up with the Lower Doane Valley Trail at the base of the ridge that was now hit with full morning sun. I knew this trail would meet back up with the Nature Trail back toward the Doane Pond parking lot, so up I went, along the lower part of the ridge. I turned just in time to see a large hawk fly from a nearby tree to one further along my path. Smaller birds scattered as it landed.

Along this trail, from ferns and other flora either side the dirt path, gossamer strands intersected my way. Spiders had spun their webs overnight. There was no choice but to cross them, breaking the webs that would surely be rebuilt again the coming night.

Up, up, down. up. Down, along, and down to where the two trails meet. Then up, up again to the road, and back to the campsite, sweaty, breathless, and fully refreshed.

I need to do this again, and soon.

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