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Take the alternative drive to Palomar Mountain on the historical and beautiful Nate Harrison Grade. Learn all about the man that inspired the name.

If you start from the top of Palomar Mtn:

Hwy S7, Pauma Valley, CA 92061, 33.322397, -116.891816

If you start from the bottom of Palomar Mtn:

15650-15728 CA-76, Pauma Valley, CA 92061, 33.316157, -116.990693

Dog-Friendly: Yes   Kid-Friendly: Yes

Although you can hike this, most people just take it for the scenic drive




About Nate Harrison Grade

For those whose cars are equipped for this type of expedition, there is an alternate route to Palomar Mountain that is just as gorgeous, if not more stunning than the traditional drive. Nate Harrison grade, also known as the “highway to the stars,” is promised to take you back in time.

The windy, dirt road is filled with views that are hard to compete with. Over 100 years ago, horse-drawn wagons would make the treacherous climb up this steep mountain to the Bailey Hotel and few homesteads atop.

About Nate Harrison

The Nate Harrison Grade was named after Nathaniel Harrison, a freed slave and, as legend goes, the first African-American to live in San Diego.  Nate had a small cabin halfway up the grade and was known for providing food, fresh water from his spring and a place to stay for tired travelers.

The backstory on Nate seems to be all over the place. We are going to go with Soho’s story as they are a highly reliable source for the history on San Diego. It seems as though Nate was born in the South during the 1820’s or 30’s and made his way to California with his enslaver during the Gold Rush.

When Nate’s enslaver died, Nate became a free man and  eventually decided to call Palomar Mountain home. Nate lived there for at least 50 years.

During recent archaeological digs near Harrison’s home, survey and excavations have unearthed his main cabin, patio and orchard which was occupied roughly from 1865-1919. There have been many fascinating finds during the digs, suggesting a man who lived a full life and most likely entertained many notable figures. You can actually stay at his property by booking a spot at Harrison Serenity Ranch!

There have been found artifacts from all over the world on his property as well as animal hides. Instead of being a hermit as many sources have suggested, these findings are indicating a man who entertained many and lived an enjoyable life.

The SDSU archaeological team has also found artifacts belonging to children and women, such as a cosmetic tin with powder, a toy tea cup, silver-plated silverware, assorted coins, fancy suspenders and two marbles. “Harrison may have chosen to live by himself on Palomar Mountain, but he was neither isolated nor alone.”

Originally named the “N-word Nate Grade” the NAACP thankfully was able to successfully petition a name change in 1955. Back then most people didn’t think twice about racial slurs. Beyond racism, many tried to peg Nate as being “lazy” and “never working a day in his life”.

Large amounts of sheep bone have been found on his property as well as hide suggesting a sheep-raising farm for wool, hide and a regular food source.

Personal Experience

I have been wanting to do this drive for at least a decade now. One day after doing a hike up at Palomar Mountain, a friend and I decided to try it out while heading back home.

The drive was both gorgeous and nerve-wracking as we felt we may get stuck on the side of a mountain with no reception and nobody around at any moment.

There was no reception for the majority of the drive and being a dirt road, it’s not out of the realm to get stuck, especially in winter after rainstorms. I drive a regular car, not a truck or 4-runner so this was definitely a risky drive.

All turned out well and it will remain a memorable trip. The majority of these photos were taken through my windshield as we were driving so please excuse the quality.

 If you are taking this trip back down the mountain, look for this sign and then follow the dirt road:

We started the journey off in fog:

nate harrison grade

This small plaque caught our eye during our drive and we pulled over to read it. “Nathanial Harrison’s Spring ‘A Man’s a Man For a’ That”. I am pretty positive this is the location where his homestead used to be:become a member

On top of the world with not another person in sight. It was lovely.Nate Harrison Grade

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9 Reviews

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9 Reviews


  • Anonymous
    Rating Overall Rating Difficulty Finding

    The creek that follows the grade has native trout in it. I fished it many times in the 1970’S and caught many trout.

    November 28, 2018

  • Anonymous
    Rating Overall Rating Difficulty Finding

    I grew up in Valley Center which is just west of Parma Valley and in the early to mid 60’s we would ride up ‘Nigger Nate’ at least once a month on our little trail motorbikes. As kids, we were completely unaware that the name of the trail was a slur, for us, it was just a name. Also, at that time, it was more of a trail than a road. Great memories but I feel bad that we used a racial slur so easily.

    January 21, 2019

  • Anonymous
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    I found the grade there but the plaque must have been hidden away off grade some place. I was on the grade. I was able to see a bob cat.

    February 11, 2019

  • Anonymous
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    The most important thing is that you’ve learned and now know. I’ve done some things I regret from the past, but now I know what’s wrong is wrong and what’s right is right, and I’ve grown as a person. What a great story though- thank you for sharing!

    January 29, 2020

  • Tom Patterson
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    May I also suggest shifting terminology from “Nate’s master,” to “Nate’s enslaver,” or something like that? Super interesting and much appreciated read, otherwise! Thanks! I’ve been up Palomar countless times through the years, and was totally unfamiliar with this history.

    March 6, 2020

  • Anonymous
    Rating Overall Rating Difficulty Finding

    Rode up on 4/18/2020. Found the monument thing. The paper was outside of the picture frame and it was very water-logged from the recent rains. Very memorable trip up and down the grade. Thanks for the history lesson!

    April 20, 2020

  • Kelly Nosal Hansen
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    The hubby and I love taking road trips and I always try to find back roads. I found the Nate Harrison Grade road by accident….I usually get us on roads that are closed or that we can only go half way up. This was a fantastic OHV road…almost had to change my pants when we got to the top!!!

    June 28, 2020

  • Peter. Brueggeman
    Rating Overall Rating Difficulty Finding

    Hello, that old photo of a road up Palomar is not Nate Harrison Grade. It was taken on the old South Grade road by Percy Cox, a photographer in Escondido, who went up Palomar in the 1890s with a group of friends to camp. Cox shot several photos on that trip. The Nate Harrison Grade opened in 1900, several years after Cox’s trip. Percy Cox moved to Mexico City and opened a photo studio there, and is known for his photos there during the Mexican Revolution time period.

    July 24, 2023

  • Reid
    Rating Overall Rating Difficulty Finding

    I’ve been up and down the grade a few times on my motorcycles and always enjoyed it. It’s a mountain dirt road, yes, but a well-maintained one as far as I’ve seen. Absent snow or recent heavy rains, it’s nothing you can’t manage in a 2WD car. The views are absolutely breathtaking and you’ll be glad to have taken the road less traveled.

    November 26, 2023

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