Weekend Escape: Mt. Palomar : Going With the Force : Family bonding and the great outdoors on a gravity-powered bicycle descent from a mountaintop

Boorstin is a Los Angeles-based free-lance writer

Summer vacation was ending, and my 16-year-old daughter, Julia, who would be leaving for college in a year, requested a "bonding" getaway with my husband, Paul, and me--without her little brother, Adam. Julia wanted to do something outdoorsy and physically challenging. We said fine, as long as it wasn't too outdoorsy (no tents) or too challenging (no potential broken bones). We decided on the "Palomar Plunge," a 16-mile, 5,000-foot descent on bikes down Mt. Palomar--no pedaling required--led by Gravity Activated Sports (GAS) in remote Pauma Valley. The ad I'd seen promised that for $75 each, we'd get a unique thrill with little effort in scenic surroundings, along with a tour of the Palomar Observatory, lunch and a souvenir T-shirt.

Early on a Saturday morning, we drove south on Interstate 5 to Oceanside, then headed east on California 76. Two-and-a-half hours out of Los Angeles, the housing developments and shopping malls gave way to the rugged, hilly terrain of North San Diego County. Soon we reached Pauma Valley, population 876. Filled with citrus groves and tropical plant farms, and backed by the rocky Palomar Mountains, it is a stunning spot.

At the Gravity Activated Sports office we signed in with our tour leader, Dan Moniz, one of the company's five owners. Raised in Oceanside, Moniz once led bike tours down Mt. Haleakala in Maui. When he and his partners decided to start a downhill bike tour compancy of their own, Moniz suggested Mt. Palomar because he knew it offered not only striking scenery but a perfectly cambered road: In the late '40s, the "Highway to the Stars" was specially built so that trucks could haul the fragile 200-inch, 14 1/2-ton mirror for the Hale telescope up to the observatory without cracking it.

Paul, Julia and I climbed into the GAS van, along with two families from Mill Valley and a middle-aged couple from La Costa, for the ride to the 6,140-foot summit. On the way up, Moniz gave a lively commentary on the area's two ecosystems (chaparral and alpine) and its history. We learned how the Spanish missionaries forced the local Native Americans to drag timber down the mountain to build the nearby Mission of San Luis Rey, and how today young Marines on leave from Camp Pendleton tear down the mountain on motorcycles at 100 m.p.h. Because they often wipe out, the locals call them "organ donors."

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The Palomar Observatory was the first stop on our tour. With its gleaming white dome rising above a field, it looks like the setting for a 1950s sci-fi film. We had lunch on the patio of the summit's only restaurant, Mother's Kitchen, a pleasant, rustic spot owned and operated by a yoga retreat. We enjoyed veggie burgers, lasagna and scrumptious home-baked bread while watching crested blue jays frolic in the Palomar pine trees.

Eager to start the descent, we proceeded to a black-oak shaded parking lot where Moniz fitted us each with a bike helmet, bike gloves and a high-tech mountain trail bike. In her white plastic-molded helmet, neoprene gloves and cat's-eye sunglasses, Julia looked like a female super-villain from one of her little brother's comic books.

The two 12-year-old boys in our group rode like pros the minute they mounted their bikes; it had been years since Julia and I had been on a bike. My heart was pounding as I took a spin around the parking lot. This 21-speed mountain bike was a lot more sensitive to the touch than the clunky Schwinn I owned in sixth grade! After a near spill, I considered joining Paul in the support van. (Paul had thrown out his back the day before and could barely walk, let alone ride a bike.) But a few more laps, and I was into it. So was Julia.

Moniz explained the safety rules (we would ride single file in the right lane, keeping 15 feet between our bikes and the leader in sight), then took the lead. We started down the mountain. On the steep 7% grade, I quickly realized that I had to keep a tight grip on the hand brakes or I'd be flying.

When we reached our first stopping place, an artesian well where bottled-water companies such as Arrowhead and Palomar come to fill up, everyone was exuberant. Moniz said because he had observed we were all competent bike riders, we could now increase our speed. We took off again down the winding road, whooshing through evergreen forests, sweeping past panoramic vistas that reached all the way to Catalina Island. Paul, who was following in the van, said later that he clocked our speed at 28 m.p.h. It felt like 50.

After several more miles, our hands were numb from gripping the hand brakes. But Julia and I didn't care. We didn't want this to end. Halfway down, the "Highway to the Stars" met California 76, and the traffic thickened. We kept a close eye on Moniz, who was in constant radio contact with the support van. When the driver radioed Moniz that there were cars stacked up behind us, Moniz would signal us to move over toward the shoulder so that they could pass. As we neared the valley floor, the smell of sage and pine gave way to that of citrus blossoms. Four hundred yards before we reached the GAS office, we hit a flat stretch. For the first time, we had to pedal. I quickly figured out how to make the bike's 21 speeds work for me. The 1 1/4-hour descent was over all too quickly.

Moniz had suggested a place to stay nearby. In fact, the Lazy H Ranch is the only place to stay in Pauma Valley. Built over 50 years ago as a private retreat, the Lazy H has 11 guest rooms (no TVs or phones) and a restaurant. The white-trimmed, barn-red wooden main lodge, and outlying buildings, are surrounded by an oasis of citrus, pepper and eucalyptus trees kept lush by an abundance of well water. A tangerine grove hides a dovecote ( palomar in Spanish), where ring-necked doves coo dreamily. An expansive lawn as thick as a shag carpet flanks a tile-trimmed pool. Diving into the clear, ice-cold water, was heaven.

Our apartment-for-three was in a converted barn framed by vibrant oleander bushes. Though it looked quaint from the outside, the interior was decorated in '50s-motel: imitation baroque paintings, gold-trimmed lamps and a vinyl-covered sofa-bed in addition to a king-size bed. Still, for $70 a night, it was spacious, spotless--air-conditioned--and comfortable.

We had supper in the restaurant, where an oak tree grows up through the roof in the bar and the walls are lined with colorful antique liquor decanters. It seemed that everyone who is anyone in Pauma Valley was dining there. Tony and Mickey Alvaraz, the Lazy-H owners for the past 25 years, oversee the friendly service; their son, Ron, is the chef. Dinner included such homey fare as succulent roast chicken, juicy carne asada with enchiladas, fresh ono that was a bit overcooked, and luscious homemade banana-cream pie for dessert.

After dinner, Julia, Paul and I strolled down a country road to see what the fuss that led to the construction of the Palomar Observatory was all about. As the sky faded from pink to purple to black, millions of stars appeared. Magnificent.

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Budget for Three

Two bike tours, tips: $180.00

One tour without bike descent: 45.00

Lazy H Ranch, one night: 70.00

Dinner, Lazy H Ranch: 77.81

Gas: 16.25

FINAL TAB: $389.06

* Gravity Activated Sports, P.O. Box 683; Pauma Valley, CA 92061; (800) 985-4GAS. Lazy H Ranch and Motel, P.O. Box 155, Pauma Valley, CA 92061; (619) 742-3669.

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