Lick Observatory: Visiting the Historic Telescopes On Mt Hamilton

The historic Lick Observatory, located on the summit of Mount Hamilton in Northern California, is a must-visit destination for anyone interested in astronomy, science, or just stunning views of the surrounding landscape.
Getting to the Lick Observatory is half the fun. The drive up to the summit is a winding, scenic road that offers breathtaking views of the surrounding hills and valleys. Once you reach the summit, you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of the Bay Area and beyond, plus a beautiful observatory you can explore. The observatory was paid for by James Lick, a wealthy businessman, and philanthropist who left a large sum of money in his will to fund the construction of an observatory. Today, the Lick Observatory is operated by the University of California and is home to a wide variety of research telescopes and instruments. Here is all the information on a visit to this historic spot.

Details

  • Free
  • Hours: Saturday and Sunday 12 PM – 5 PM
  • The road to the top takes a lot longer than you would think.
  • This information is from my visit in February 2023

Getting There

The drive up to the observatory is certainly not for those that are afraid of narrow roads with big drops on one side. It is only 15 miles or so from San Jose but it takes a full hour as the drive is so narrow and windy that you have to go slow. Once you make it to the top, there is parking you can take advantage of as you explore the observatory.

Lick Observatory

During your visit to the Lick Observatory, you’ll have the opportunity to tour the facilities, learn about the history of the observatory, and sometimes observe the night sky through powerful telescopes (check their website for these events).

I highly recommend going on a day where they have viewings of the historic refractor telescope (usually on the weekend). Visitors to the Lick Observatory can view the refractor telescope as part of a guided tour or observation session. The telescope is housed in a massive dome that is nearly 100 feet tall, and visitors can see the intricate mechanisms and massive gears that allow the telescope to move and track objects in the night sky.

This short 30 minute talk was the highlight of my visit as it gave me a lot of information about the historic telescope, once the largest refractor in the world. Here is some more information on the telescope’s fascinating history.

The refractor telescope at the Lick Observatory is one of the most iconic and historically significant telescopes in the world. This massive telescope, which has a lens diameter of 36 inches, was completed in 1888, eight years after construction began.

The construction of the refractor telescope was a monumental undertaking. The lens, which was manufactured in France, weighed over 4,000 pounds and was transported to California by ship and train. Once the lens arrived at the summit of Mount Hamilton, primarily via horse and carriage, it was mounted in a massive steel tube that was over 57 feet long and weighed nearly 30 tons. Despite the immense size and weight of the telescope, it proved to be a remarkable instrument for observing the night sky. In the years following its completion, the refractor telescope was used to make groundbreaking discoveries in astronomy.

After seeing the telescope, be sure to take the short hike over to the newer telescope they have at the observatory. You can enter the ground floor here and see the gigantic telescope through the glass.

There are also many information plaques and even a short movie that tells you more about it. After spending some time there, you can walk back to your car and begin the sketchy drive back to San Jose on the narrow, windy road.

Whether you’re a serious astronomer or just looking for a fun and educational activity in Northern California, the Lick Observatory is a destination you won’t want to miss. With its rich history, stunning views, and world-class research facilities, it’s a true gem of the Bay Area.

California, Destinations

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