Distance (round-trip)

3.6 mi

Time

2.5 hrs

Elevation Gain

800 ft

Season

Spring
Summer
Fall
Winter

Weather

The summit of Boucher Hill (pronounced booker) offers a panoramic view of most of San Diego County and a fair amount of Riverside and Orange County. These stunning views have a practical function in addition to an aesthetic one, as the State Park and National Forest Service conjointly operate the Boucher Hill Lookout Tower, which returned to service in 2012 after refurbishment. And if the spectacular views were not enough, the ascent up the hill passes through a grove of black oaks whose leaves turn gold during Autumn, making this loop hike an excellent option for some SoCal leaf peeping.

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Boucher Hill sunrise

Given Boucher Hill’s advantageous location, there has been a lookout tower in operation at the summit since 1921. The current tower is the third tower to be built on this spot, as the previous two were torn down and rebuilt. The current tower nearly burnt down during the 2007 Poomacha Fire, until a State Park worker managed to save the structure. The tower had gone out of service during the 80’s as various agencies responsible for preventing fire determined that satellites could more accurately spot fires. However, as satellites are not always where you need them when you need them, the Forest Service eventually re-learned that the most effective way to spot a fire is with human eyes, which can actively scan the horizon all day long during fire season (May to December).

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Boucher Hill Lookout Tower

The tower is now open and staffed by volunteers from the San Diego Forest Fire Lookout Association. The Association also staff the nearby High Point Lookout Tower, and between the two locations, volunteers are able to monitor the terrain within a vast  radius. According to one fire lookout volunteer whom I met on an initial trip to the Boucher Hill Lookout, a lookout once spotted a fire burning as far away as Santa Barbara County. Volunteers are happy to give visitors a tour, provided they aren’t actively reporting a fire or working during Santa Ana wind conditions.

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Black oaks on the Boucher Hill Trail

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This loop trail starts at the Silvercrest parking lot, which offers a sliver of the fantastic view you’ll get atop Boucher Hill in addition to picnic tables, restrooms, and the trailhead for the Silvercrest Trail. You’ll begin by walking back to State Park Road and turning left to follow the road for a quarter of a mile to a 4-way junction. At the junction, walk toward the gate, which will likely be open unless you are hiking extremely early or extremely late. Sandwiched between the two spurs of the looping road to the tower, you will notice a trail that begins a steep ascent up Boucher Hill. Follow the trail and begin climbing.

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View north to Mt. San Jacinto

As you climb, you will enter a healthy woodland of black oak trees interspersed with the occasional fir and cedar trees. During early- to mid-November, the leaves on these oaks will turn a vivid shade of gold, providing one of the best fall color shows in San Diego County. These trees also put on a different kind of color show in late April and early May, when the budding leaves emerge from the branches a bright reddish-pink. In addition to the color close at hand, you will also enjoy views north toward Mt. San Jacinto and Mt. San Gorgonio, as well as closer views over the rolling crest of the Palomar Mountains.

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After .75 mile of climbing, the trail will pass through a copse of trees and emerge at a small complex containing some communications towers, a small parking lot, a viewing platform, and the lookout tower. If the tower is not open when you visit, the viewing deck will suffice as a great spot to take in the scene. If the tower is open, it is likely that a volunteer will spot you and offer a tour. The crew that restored the tower made a great effort to maintain the tower’s appearance as it was during the tower’s heyday during the 1940’s. The equipment used to locate fires has changed very little, although methods of communicating are now thoroughly modern.

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Recovering vegetation on the Adams Trail

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Poodle Dog Bush. DO NOT TOUCH

After enjoying your tour of the tower, you will continue the loop by crossing the road to a continuation of the trail directly opposite the viewing platform. The trail will switchback down the north flank of Boucher Hill and then wrap around the east side of the hill to cross Nate Harrison Grade Road and join the Adams Trail. This section of the trail travels through a once dense forest of bigcone Douglas fir, incense cedar, white fir, black oak, and canyon live oak that was severely damaged during the 2007 Poomacha Fire. This section of trail can be a tedious affair if the State Park has not performed recent maintenance  as fire-following ceanothus may tend to knit its way across the path. There is also a smattering of poodle dog bush growing through this section, and it pays to be able to recognize and thus avoid it.

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Meadow near the Baptist Trail Junction

Once past Nate Harrison Road, the going improves as the trail widens and the vegetation shows less damage from the fire. After passing through more recovering forest, the trail will drop into a long, slanting meadow to reach a junction with the Baptist Trail. Ignore the Baptist Trail, which will ultimately deposit you in Doane Valley with a lengthy return climb thrown in. Instead, make your way up the gently sloping meadow toward Cedar Group Camp. Once at the group camp, you can skirt the edges of the campground or walk directly across it to reach Doane Valley Road, where you will find the continuation of the loop via the Cedar Trail and Scotts Cabin Trail.

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Deer on the Scotts Cabin Trail

Find the Scotts Cabin Trail and commence climbing through a sparsely forested hillside. Despite the sparse forest cover, which appears to have also suffered damage from the Poomacha Fire, you are likely to spot a fair amount of deer in this area. I once spotted a herd about 15 strong, including a buck with fairly impressive antlers. You will pass the site of Scotts Cabin, which is not much to look at these days, but was once the home of a homesteader who reportedly planted the nearby apple grove along the trail to Chimney Flats.

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Once past the cabin, a spur trail will branch off to the right before the trail climbs to the top of Thunder Ridge. Turn right here and follow the trail down through a ravine with a seasonal creek and then up the opposite bank to emerge almost directly across from the Silvercrest parking lot. This will conclude your trip.

Scott is an L.A. native and San Diego transplant who pulls every trick in the book to get out on the trail. His first book, a revision of Afoot and Afield San Diego County, is now out.





Camping

Historical Interest

Trail Map

14 Comments

cgripp256 Jul 31, 2019 16:07

Palomar Mountain State Park is a somewhat hidden gem in the northeast reaches of San Diego County. I camp and hike here regularly. As a note, during the fire season you can take a tour of the fire tower when it is manned by volunteers. You can also vary your hiking mileage here easily by adding in the Chimney Flats, Thunder Springs or Doane Valley Nature trail sections for over 8 miles of trekking.

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Zesty Italian Jun 15, 2015 11:06In reply to: Scott Turner

@Scott, I haven't gone yet. I'm kinda trying to time it with your suggestion to, "I highly recommend checking it out, especially within the next month or so." Looking at the 25th to go.

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Scott Turner

Scott Turner Jun 14, 2015 20:06In reply to: Zesty Italian

Did you make the trek up? I've been on vacay for the past two weeks and wanted to find out how your odyssey up the mountain went.

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Zesty Italian May 28, 2015 16:05In reply to: Scott Turner

Yes bike riding up there. Many times it's the time and energy getting to a destination that's the adventure, rather than the destination :-)) The motorcyclists shouldn't be too much of a problem. If they are, putting strategically some loose rocks on the inside of some curves should get them to cool their jets. I plan on hitting the South Grade Road on a weekday in the afternoon. I might be able to make it to Doane Valley Campground in one day since there's a light rail going a good bit up there, http://www.gonctd.com/sprinter Camping should be sweet as they have a Bike n Hike site there. Which means $5 a night! I'll probably pack for an extra day and play it by ear if I want to stay a day longer. For the route back, I'll probably take Nate Harrison Road.

I'm looking at leaving LA on a weekday and arrive back on the weekend.

Thanks for the info and the heads up. Much appreciated!

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Scott Turner

Scott Turner May 26, 2015 15:05In reply to: Zesty Italian

When you say riding, do you mean bike riding? That's a heck of a journey. I do urge some caution on the ride up if you're taking South Grade Road. That road is notorious for daredevil motorcyclists, and the backcountry from Palomar to Julian seems to get a fatality per month. Most of those folks are Marines from Camp Pendleton, who seem to have a competition going about who can get up and down the fastest. I'm sure it's a lot of fun, but when you see South Grade Road, you'll understand why it's a hair-raising ride for just about everybody else.

Also FYI: Cedar Grove is a group camp that may be a bit pricey for a single person. Doane Valley Campground is a good option, but that usually books up in advance. There are other campgrounds up there, but it's 7 road miles (and about 1 linear mile) from the park to the NFS campgrounds.

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Scott Turner

Scott Turner May 26, 2015 15:05In reply to: Flavius

Oh believe me - I am more than willing to do a thorough review of all the lookouts in SoCal. I don't need much persuading. What I do need is more time and fewer projects! Perhaps you could provide a show of interest toward my various employers to provide me with a bit of extra vacation time to document such important and essential natural and historical landmarks such as these? ; )

This really is a great idea though. I expect I'll have some time in October to devote to this. I've hiked three of the ten lookouts (that I know of). Perhaps I can tag the rest in September and October and then write a detailed history/trip report.

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Zesty Italian May 22, 2015 21:05In reply to: Scott Turner

Adding history to your project is always a plus if you ask me.

I'm looking at doing this in about a month if everything works. I'm looking at taking the train to Oceanside then riding to Cedar Grove Campground and do the hike the next day. It would matter on trains back if I was to stay an extra day after the hike. I haven't looked at the schedule yet, but it looks like a nice ride up there!

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Flavius May 22, 2015 14:05In reply to: Scott Turner

I'd be excited to read and hike to those sort of locations! If you needed a show of interest for that, you have it!

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Scott Turner

Scott Turner May 22, 2015 12:05In reply to:

Thanks, Trevor. Palomar Mountain is an absolute miracle. Although it's relatively small for a state park (3 square miles), it is jam-packed with so many different natural and historical habitats, many of which are not common in San Diego County, that you would scarcely believe it exists until you actually go. I highly recommend checking it out, especially within the next month or so. Palomar has received between 7-8" of rain over the last 5 weeks, and it's pretty green at the moment. There should be some good wildflowers around in the next month or two.

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Scott Turner

Scott Turner May 22, 2015 12:05In reply to:

Thanks, Zesty. There are a few SoCal fire lookouts that spring to mind as challenging-to-severely challenging hikes. The High Point Lookout Tower, also on Palomar, is a particularly difficult one. Although you can drive to this lookout as well, a popular route to the summit is a 13.5 mile route from the village of Oak Grove that gains about 3500' of elevation. You can also have a go at the Tahquitz Peak lookout, which is inaccessible by road but accessible via an 8.5 mile route, 2500' of gain. Those are the ones that spring to mind off of the top of my head.

Your suggestion has some merit though. . . perhaps we need a piece on SoCal Lookout Towers. There are a number of towers, open and closed, that present appealing hiking options while adding a considerable amount of local history. Perhaps in the not so distant future when I have time to take a break from a variety of projects, I'll dig into that one. Thanks for the suggestion!

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