Mist & Iron — Visiting Paauw, or, Palomar Mountain


After Desert Daze, my friend Mike Morgan found himself in a dilemma. Namely, he had more firewood than he knew what to do with and so proposed camping somewhere. I suggested Palomar Mountain because it’s struck me as a magical place the few times I’ve passed over it on the way to and from Anza-Borrego. Palomar Mountain is a mountain in the Peninsular Ranges. It’s not particularly tall but it is immensely charming. Its forests are often shrouded in wonderful, thick fog. The views it affords are breathtaking. From atop it one can take in the long Temecula Valley, spy towering Mount San Antonio to the north, make out the two southernmost Channel Islands (San Clemente and Santa Catalina) to the west, and even see Mexico to the south. It’s also well known for being the home of and Palomar Mountain State Park and the Palomar Observatory, which for many years boasted the biggest telescope on earth.

Payómkawichum territory with the southernmost Channel Islands visible on the horizon

I’m not the first person to love Palomar. It was significant to all of the native people who lived around it, forming a dramatic nexus near the heart of the Payómkawichum realm. The demonym, “Payómkawichum” literally means “people of the west.” The Taaqtam, Maarrênga’yam, and Yuhaaviatam were known to the Payómkawichum as Tumamkawichum (“people of the north”). The ʔívil̃uqaletem and Kuupangaxwichem were known as the Kwiimkawichum (“people of the east”). The mountain was called Paauw and its peak was known as Wikyo.

After roughly three thousand years, the Spanish arrived. They established the Misión San Luis Rey de Francia on 13 June 1798 and re-named the natives “Luiseños.” The mountain was renamed Monte Palmor, after the band-tailed pigeons that live on it. On 13 June 1816, the Spanish established San Antonio de Pala Asistencia, an asistencia being essentially a sub-mission, in service of Mission San Luis Rey de Francia.

Mexico’s independence from Spain was recognized by the latter in 1821 and in 1822, Mexico confiscated all Payómkawichum lands. The US invaded Mexico and conquered a third of the country, including nearly all of Arizona, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and California. In 1875, US President Ulysses S. Grant allowed for the establishment of reservations, evicted the remaining Payómkawichum from their traditional lands, and redistributed it to American ranchers. Today the Payómkawichum are organized into several bands: the La Jolla, PaumaPala, Pechanga, Rincon, San Luis Rey, and Soboba. The reservations almost encircle Palomar — or Paauw — and visiting it usually involves passing through one or more of them.


Nathan Harrison

One of the first Americans on the mountain was “Uncle” Nate Harrison, who often described himself as “the first white man on the mountain.” In fact, he was a former slave who was brought west from a Virginia plantation by slaver Lysander Utt, who headed for California in 1849 in search of gold. Utt found none and when California became a free state in 1850, Harrison became a free man. Racial hostility didn’t end with the Civil War, however, and Harrison left Los Angeles to live in San Diego. Finding it just as racist and hostile, he went to live with the Payómkawichum. He was baptized by Chief Juan Sotelo Calac and made a member of the Rincon band. Harrison built a cabin on the west side of the mountain and lived off of it. In 1912, he was struck by a car and the Oceanside Blade reported “Nate looks with contempt on autos and thinks them the work of the evil one.” In failing health, he was admitted to San Diego County General Hospital in 1919 and died there on 10 October 1920.


Another early American on the mountain was a former sea captain named Joseph Smith. He settled on the mountain’s north in 1852 and built an adobe there where he raised horses and hogs. In 1858, the Butterfield Stage Line began traversing the mountain’s northern edge. A year later, Smith began growing and harvesting hay on the mountain to feed to the stagecoach’s horses. In 1868, a British sailor and deserter shot and killed him, possibly because Smith was rumored to have been sitting on a secret fortune. Vigilantes captured the sailor, Harrison served as the jury, and the purported killer was lynched. The mountain was renamed Smith Mountain in the victim’s honor. In 1901, the name given to the mountain by the Spanish was restored.


By then, Smith Mountain, then Palomar Mountain, had emerged as a popular summer resort. In the 1890s, there were three resort hotels and a camp in Doane Valley. The Palomar Observatory opened in 1928. The observatory’s Hale Telescope was installed in 1949. With its five-meter lens, it was until 1992 the biggest in existence. Another observatory was built at the base of the mountain by George Adamski. Adamski was preoccupied not with astronomy but flying saucers. He told people willing to listen that he’d had adventures with a Venusian named Orthon, whom he described as his “space brother.” In 1953, he published Flying Saucers Have Landed  about their adventures. In 1977, William R. Stromberg directed scenes of his monster movie, The Crater Lake Monster, on and around the mountain.

Edge of a grassland in the Doane Valley

Many native people in Southern California — and probably many other places — took advantage of the climate and topography to enjoy warm weather in the dry valleys during the winters and cool weather in the moist mountains during summers. The average temperature on the mountain is 18.3C and the average low is 8.4 The record high is 40 and the record low is -13. It receives an average annual precipitation of 77 centimeters of rain and 90 centimeters of snow. It was a warm winter day in the valley when we headed over but quite comfortable at our Doane Valley campsite. The temperature, whatever it was, was perfect for hiking and sitting around a fire — both of which we did a fair bit of. Even with my layers of sweaters, however, I got pretty chilly in the middle of the long night, and struggled to cover my sleeping bag with two sarapes.

Image: Michael Morgan

Hiking on Paauw offers the opportunity to experience several plant communities. The lower elevations are dominated by chaparral shrublands. Higher up there are oak woodlands and grassy meadows. The oaks are mostly Canyon Live Oak, Coast Live Oak, and an oak I’m less familiar with, Black Oak. Many oaks had massive fruitings of mushrooms near their bases. Higher up, the oak stands begin to fade into coniferous forests.

Various types of trees including conifers on the left and mostly non-coniferous on the right
Incense cedars

I’m sadly less able to recognize Southern California’s fir trees but a little research suggested that most of the fir trees were Bigcone Fir, Douglas Fir, and White Fir. There were Ponderosa Pines, too. I also saw, smelled, and identified Incense Cedar. There are also azaleas, lilies, lupines, and western dogwoods but, as it was winter, not many flowers were in bloom. When I came to a pond ringed by cattails, I couldn’t help but break one open, like I used to do in the wetlands behind my childhood home.

Image: Michael Morgan

I saw tons of California ground squirrels and maybe even more Western gray squirrels — especially around our campsite. Other land animals like bobcats, coyotes, mountain lions, and mule deer. The only sign I saw of any of them, though, was in tracks and poop.

A tree used by an Acorn woodpecker to store acorns

The mountain’s non-human mammals may’ve proven elusive but birds were not. There were crows, hawks, Mountain Chickadees, and others. I probably should’ve written them down as I identified them. Iridescent Steller’s Jays were common — although I don’t recall having seen them before. Most memorable, perhaps, were the alert-eyed Acorn Woodpeckers, who jam acorns into holes in patterns that are nightmare fuel for trypophobes like myself. Lastly, there were birders, too, identifiable by their floppy hats, wire-rimmed glasses, and giant cameras.

Although not native, there are black bears in many Southern California mountains and there are occasional reports of black bear sightings on Paauw. When I woke in the middle of the night, I climbed out of the tent and saw, I thought, two black bears. One was carrying a laptop or tablet. I went back to sleep and when I woke up, as the caffeine from my coffee began to course through my veins, slowly firing up my foggy brain — the realization slowly dawned upon me that my memory have have, in fact, been a strange, rye-soaked dream.

Although acorns were plentiful, Mike and I left them for the wildlife. Instead we ate smoked gouda, pears, blueberries, (veggie) sausage and pita bread at night. We drank beer and whiskey. In the morning, Mike and I made pancakes with mixed results. Mine were always a bit dark on one side, his looked like bits of soggy peanut brittle. Mike also made omelets, which were good. Food tastes better when camping. Nevertheless, I’ve always wanted to eat at Mother’s Kitchen, a vegetarian diner on the mountain next to the general store.

The fire tower on Boucher Hill

Instead, Mike and I went to the historic fire tower on Boucher Hill (pronounced “booker,” apparently). We were content to take in the view from the observation deck. From there were could see the entirety of Payómkawichum lands and beyond. We were summoned from above, however, to come up the tower. The first tower was built in 1921. The current one is from 1948. We chatted for a while with two Parks Department volunteers. They showed us how to locate fires and told us stories. Afterward, we descended down the mountain and I realized that you can see the fire tower all the way down in the Pauma Valley. I look forward to visiting the mountain again.


“Palomar Pioneers. Jeff Smith” by Peter Brueggeman

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson Collegeand the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubithe StoryGraphand Twitter.

4 thoughts on “Mist & Iron — Visiting Paauw, or, Palomar Mountain

  1. I love this. Well researched and beautifully written. Palomar Mountain has played a huge role in my life ever since I can remember. As a child I camped, hiked, and fished there with my dad and my brothers. Before my sons got too cool to hang out with their mom, we shared many adventures hiking and camping at the state park. Now I give back by serving as one of the volunteer fire lookouts you mentioned (at both Boucher and High Point). It is truly an enchanted place, so thank you for this terrific post!

    Liked by 1 person

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