Palomar Mountain Road: Beautiful and dangerous
July 16, 2014Anyone who has traveled along the road winding around Palomar Mountain will agree the views are exhilarating and the scenery is spectacular. A traveler on Palomar Mountain might see an owl, eagle, or hawk perched high atop twisted wiry branches of a gnarly ancient oak as the raptor scans the wilderness for prey. Unexpectedly, a deer could bound across the way or a coyote, fox, or even a bob-tailed cat might be discovered at the roadside. Cedars, fir, and pine trees shade the curves of the mountain road.
"The open slopes were covered with fern and dotted with wild flowers. The evergreen forest swept down and away and farther on we could see the vivid blue of the Pacific. Catalina and the Coronado Islands stood out sharply," said a woman known only as Elise describing her first wagon trip to Palomar Mountain in 1904.
Covered wagons have long been replaced by campers, RVs, and trailers hauling off-road vehicles. Especially on sunny weekends, motorists enjoy the mountainside sharing the road with bicyclists and motorcyclists. Now the 11.8 miles spanning the mountain stretch has transformed into a dangerous racing course with the mystery of what unknown lies beyond the continual series of S curves and sharp hairpin turns.
According to California Highway Patrol, earlier this year a motorcyclist was seriously injured in a crash on Palomar Mountain and had to be life-flighted to a hospital for treatment on Jan. 18.
A fatality occurred on Sept. 21, 2013 when a 34-year-old Marine riding a Ducati motorcycle on South Grade Road north of State Route 76 was driving between 45 and 50 miles per hour and lost control of his bike, laid it down, and was thrown into the path of an oncoming vehicle. The victim died at the scene, a CHP spokesperson said.
"Once in a blue moon we'll go on a bicycle call," said Bill Harville with the Palomar Mountain Fire Department. "Generally, bicyclists get hot, tired, and feeling weak. But on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, every weekend, it is almost guaranteed we'll respond to a motorcycle accident."
The thrill and excitement of speeding along a 4,285 foot climb entices sport riders and professional motorcycle racers to Palomar Mountain.
"People come as far away as San Francisco, even out of state just to ride this road," said Harville. "Motorcycle racers will show videos on websites posting their speed times, encouraging others who want to do that as a challenge to break previous records."
Harville cited speed as the primary factor for emergency calls.
"Ninety percent of the motorcycle calls we respond to is because they were going too fast," Harville said. "Every time I see these motorcyclists they're flat-out racing. There are four, five, six in a group."
Another type of traveler on the mountain, Mark Stephenson from Australia was cruising on his touring motorcycle en route to Ramona to visit friends. Stephenson envisions the U.S. as the ideal place to champion a grass roots movement called "We the People," a cause that would give the government back to the people. He believes this could be accomplished by every citizen simply taking five minutes each week to communicate with politicians.
"Stand up for what you believe in," is Stephenson's motto as he seeks to change democracy for the 21st century.
A group of motorcycle enthusiasts are regulars to the mountain and meet three or four times each month.
"It's recreational. We hang out because we're into sport bikes," said Gregory Spencer of Escondido. "It's a community thing and how we spend the day."
Problems arise due to varying skill levels among the cycle riders.
"Everyone should drive at a skill level that's comfortable for them," said Spencer. "Some of the younger riders don't have much skill. People race. That's what you do on racetracks. This is the wrong place to race."
His advice to motorists is to pull over at turnouts to let others pass as a courtesy measure.
"What's dangerous for motorcycles is when drivers cut you off because they don't see you," said Spencer in describing a common hazard that all cyclists encounter driving the road shared with other vehicles. Motorcyclists are in agreement that speed associated with skill level contributes significantly to motorcycle accidents on Palomar Mountain.