Palomar Mountain: Home to ‘Crater Lake Monster,’ other fun films

Palomar Mountain: Home to ‘Crater Lake Monster,’ other fun films
Palomar Mountain has been a destination for filmmakers for over 100 years. Photo courtesy California State Parks

REGION — Forget “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” Closer to home, the sci-fi flick “Crater Lake Monster” was filmed on Palomar Mountain in 1977, among others.

The low-budget film is about a dinosaur lying dormant in Crater Lake that is suddenly awakened by a meteor crash. The film’s director, William R. Stromberg, used David Allen, the same animator/claymation artist who made Mrs. Butterworth and Swiss Miss commercials in the 1970s, to create the effect of a rampaging dinosaur, according to historians.

Located in San Diego County, Palomar Mountain has served as a great spot for Hollywood and others to film a variety of movies over the years. In fact, as far back as 1914, director Cecil B. DeMille partially filmed “The Virginian” on Palomar Mountain.

“It was one of DeMille’s first films,” said Peter Brueggeman, who has an entire website (http://www.peterbrueggeman.com/palomarhistory/index.htm) dedicated to Palomar Mountain. “In watching the film, one sees outside scenes that were undoubtedly shot on Palomar but not recognizable. However, key scenes were shot outside and inside George Doane’s abandoned cabin in Doane Valley, in what is now the State Park.”

Brueggeman, a retired library director at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and his wife owned a cabin on Palomar in the 2000s.

“I got interested in Palomar history at that time and then started the website,” he said.

Brueggeman said a second location, the El Capitan Reservoir, was where the monster scenes of “Crater” were filmed.

Apparently if you’re local, it’s well-known that Palomar has been used in various movies. According to Jack and Phyllis Stookey, who shared their knowledge with Sid Michael Walsh of Friends of Palomar Mountain State Park, Inc., some early films were indeed filmed on location at Palomar.

For instance they said in 1947’s “Nightmare Alley,” the Palomar Observatory appeared as an observatory. Also, in “Girl of the Golden West” (1915), and “The Rose of the Rancho” (1914), were filmed in the local mountains, Walsh said.

Like “Crater,” several other horror or science-fiction films have been shot in San Diego County locations. Among the most well-known was “Invaders from Mars” (1953) in which martians land on Earth and take over the minds of the adults living in a small town. The movie was partially filmed at Palomar Observatory, Walsh said.

“In addition, from time to time, independent film makers file for permits from the California Department of Parks and Recreation, and shoot footage/film in the Palomar Mountain State Park,” Walsh said.

For years Palomar Mountain and its valleys have been a place where many San Diegans go to vacation, ski, camp or simply visit throughout the year.

For example, Brueggeman said Palomar Mountain was closely tied or linked to Escondido historically. People went back and forth from Palomar and Escondido regularly.

“A travel route to Palomar went through Escondido, and summer vacationers from San Diego went through Escondido. Palomar people went to Escondido for supplies and doctors. Apples and agricultural produce were brought down from Palomar to Escondido. Also, Clark Cleaver on Palomar farmed apples and when he died, an Escondido newspaper article said he was the ‘Apple King of Escondido.’”

So, what’s the fascination with the mountain?

“I can see advantages in shooting on Palomar Mountain for Westerns, in that there are meadows, forests, streams, cattle, etc.,” Brueggman said. “To our modern eye, it seems relatively close to the then-location of studios in Hollywood and Los Angeles, and similar film shooting locations would be found farther north in mileage in the Sierras. However, it was a quite a haul to get up onto Palomar Mountain back then, and probably easier to go to the Sierras for film production.”

Brueggeman said the actual location of Palomar may have been a selling point for directors to film at the mountain.

“With the current roads and looking at Google maps, Palomar Mountain is 126 miles from Hollywood, and it would have been longer mileage on older roads of the time,” he said.

The now-named Nate Harrison Grade was built in 1900 and was the principal road up Palomar until S6, the Highway to the Stars, was built in the later 1930s. Nate Harrison Grade was not a super highway. It was a twisty, long dirt road much like it is now and is somewhat steep in stretches, he added.

“People tied trees to the backs of their cars to act as a drag brake for going downhill on Nate Harrison Grade,” he said. “I would guess it would have been easier logistically to truck gear and people to shoot films in the Sierras. It is 198 miles from Hollywood to Sequoia National Park and given that it was probably more miles on older roads, it still is not much farther to go to the southern Sierra from Hollywood, and roads would undoubtedly have been better.”

It’s anybody’s guess as to how or if Palomar Mountain will be used in any future films, but if it is, the mountain will surely be waiting to accommodate.

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