Skygazing at Lick Observatory

With the haunting beauty of Point Lobos behind us, we headed north to the Diablo Range and Mount Hamilton, a four-thousand-foot giant overlooking Silicone Valley.  A domed structure crowns the mountain–our destination, Lick Observatory, the oldest mountaintop observatory in the world.

Lick Observatory atop Mount Hamilton

Stargazing since 1888, the observatory is a monument to James Lick, an eccentric millionaire who wished to immortalize his name with “a telescope superior to and more powerful than any telescope yet made … and also a suitable observatory connected therewith …”  The telescope was not Lick’s first choice: He first considered building a giant statue of himself and his parents–for all ships to see–and then the largest-ever pyramid in the middle of San Francisco. Happily, science won.

James LickA Pennsylvania Dutchman, Lick was a woodworker’s son who made his fortune first as a piano maker in South America, and then as a real estate magnate during California’s Gold Rush. A curious connection: Lick arrived in San Francisco months after California became a U.S. state, carrying chocolate made by his neighbor, an Italian transplant to Lima; the chocolate sold so well that Lick advised his neighbor to move to California. Enter confectioner Domingo Ghirardelli.

Lick Observatory views, Mount Hamilton, CaliforniaGetting to Lick’s observatory is no easy task. The narrow road that snakes up Mount Hamilton was probably the scariest ride I’ve survived in a decade. Once known wryly as “Lick’s Avenue,” it was built for horses, who hauled building materials  to the observatory site. The road isn’t steep, but its twists and turns are sharp and frequent, your views undisturbed by railings (those drops are dizzying!), and there are bikers, colorful platoons of them racing up and down the mountain. Oy.

Winding Road to Lick Observatory

The destination was worth the drama. The observatory, now operated by the University of California, is a working science lab, searching for extrasolar planets and testing the latest technology. It is open to the public but is by no means a lavish tourist attraction (do review the visitor information before you come; there are no gas stations or restaurants on the mountain, so plan accordingly). Free tours are led by volunteers–clearly, a labor of love.

Entrance to Lick Observatory, Mount Hamilton, California

Inside, you are greeted with marble, oak, redwood, and mahogany, Lick’s woodworking roots vividly on display. The visit’s crown jewel is Lick’s telescope: the Great Lick Refractor, celebrating its 125 anniversary in 2013. The floor still rises smoothly to bring astronomers to the telescope. Amalthea, Jupiter’s fifth moon was discovered through its lenses, and photographs taken with this telescope are still used in science textbooks. Don’t miss a bronze plaque at the base of the Refractor: “Here lies the body of James Lick,” it announces simply. Lick is buried underneath his telescope.

36" Refractor telescope at Lick Observatory

Visitors are normally not allowed at night, but this year is an exception: Licks’s Friday Night Visitors Program and Saturday Music of the Spheres concert series sound spectacular. I wish we could attend.

For now, though, we hurried to San Jose. It was time to go home.

View from Lick Observatory

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