Arts Listings

The Thrill of Visiting the Lick Observatory

By Steven Finacom, Special to the Planet
Friday August 03, 2007

Well before nuclear physics, Nobel Prizes, Free Speech, championship athletics, or alternative fuels research, the University of California was known for academic work in fields such as agriculture, mining … and astronomy. 

Less than a decade after its founding, the University received what remains one of the most lavish and striking gifts in its history, $700,000 from Santa Clara valley pioneer, farmer, and investor James Lick to build a “telescope, superior to and more powerful than any yet made … and also a suitable observatory connected therewith.” 

The result was Lick Observatory on the peak of Mount Hamilton east of San Jose, completed in 1888. 

The public can visit Lick throughout the year. It’s still a working observatory, now managed through the UC Santa Cruz campus. Lick, along with the Keck telescopes in Hawaii, helps keep UC a leader in Earth-based astronomy. 

Conceiving and building Lick was a project of superlatives. It contained the then-largest telescope in the world and was the first permanently occupied observatory built on a mountaintop. Much of modern astronomy follows from research undertaken at Lick, and from the work of men and women who trained there. 

The project was a painstaking process, taking years. Telescope lenses of unprecedented size were manufactured in France, and a road carved to the summit. 

The visitor follows the same road today through classic Northern California coastal countryside, with distant glimpses of the gleaming, white-painted, multi-domed, observatory. As you head up the last stretch, the landscape shifts from grassland and oaks to pine forest, and the domes rear vertiginously from the heights above. 

If our current civilization were to catastrophically come to an end these structures would presumably still stand for centuries and what would rustic herdsman, nomad or traveler think, seeing them far off on the mountaintop? 

That they were some temple or remote monastery, perhaps, where earlier humans sought closer communication with the heavens? In a way they would be right. 

The 36-inch refractor telescope that has been in use since 1888 is housed in a Pantheon-like domed brick drum, finished on the inside with wooden bead board walls. A polished wooden floor, spiraling and curving metal staircases, and a narrow balcony surround the enormous silvery instrument, 57 feet long, which aims out a slit in the open dome like a colossal cannon. 

This is a working survivor from the industrial age of scientific gigantisms, when better research often met bigger mechanical instruments. It’s also a science research space that’s elegant in a way most modern facilities can’t match. 

You almost expect Jules Verne to step out of the shadows or, perhaps, Flash Gordon. 

The observatory lies about 13 miles east, and some four thousand feet above, San Jose. Visitors from the west take Alum Rock Road, which crosses both Highways 680 and 110. From Alum Rock, you follow nearly 20 miles of two-lane roadway, climbing up and down rural ridges, with a final ascent up Mount Hamilton itself. 

The road is in good condition, but it’s no trip through Tilden Park. It winds back and forth, up and around, with hairy hairpins, narrow stretches, many blind curves, few guardrails or safe places to pull over, and steep drops off the shoulder. 

Make sure your excursion has a good driver, good tires, good brakes, and enough gas. And remember you may be coming down after dark, or late in the day with the sun in your eyes. 

On a July trip we didn’t meet deer on the road but did pass a coyote standing on the shoulder after dark, and nearly became an off-road vehicle when two turkeys decided to fly across the road, windshield high. 

It takes a solid two hours to travel to and from Berkeley. Allow an hour at least for those last 20 miles of two-lane road, and more if you want to stop along the way to admire the views. 

Spare a thought for early visitors, including astronomers from Berkeley who periodically commuted to the Observatory. They took trains to San Jose then horse-drawn stages to the Observatory, a five-hour drive that was often punctuated with an overnight stop at a roadhouse near the base of the mountain. 

Today, on public observing nights (see sidebar), you can step up to the eyepiece of the Great Lick Refractor yourself and for a few minutes be Percival Lowell puzzling out the possibilities of canals on Mars, or perhaps astronomer E.E. Barnard at this very same telescope, discovering the fifth satellite of Jupiter on September 9, 1892 

Or even just a shivering pre-Space Age graduate student looking to complete a thesis or dissertation with observational data on comets, double stars, asteroids or cosmic nebula. 

The vast wooden floor of the main dome rises and falls hydraulically to keep the viewer positioned properly at the eyepiece as the telescope tracks across the heavens. Below the floor there’s the solid and simple brick base of the telescope pier marked “Here lies the body of James Lick.” It looks a bit forlorn, but a vase of flowers stands in front. 

On the night we went, the telescope focused on bright Jupiter. Four moons, identified by Galileo in 1610, were all clearly visible. 

Outdoors, enthusiastic volunteers offered supplementary looks at the night sky through portable telescopes. One pointed out a satellite moving down the southern sky. 

The elegant entrance lobby of the main building displays a bust of the donor and the monumental inscription, “Lick Astronomical Department of the University of California.” 

Straight ahead is a courtyard with a fountain and a bust honoring the mountain’s namesake, The Reverend Laurentine Hamilton who climbed the peak in 1861 with his friend, William Brewer, of the California State Geological Survey. 

Although the original building has been substantially remodeled in parts, it still has a late Victorian feel, including high ceilings, spacious hallways, marble floors, and beautiful wooden casework around the transomed doorways. 

There’s an exhibit room with historical materials and photographs and a gift-shop which, for my taste, had a few too many T-shirts and toys and too few books. The rest of the mountain-top is punctuated with other research and operational buildings, including a large dome housing the newer, 120 inch, Shane Reflector, which daytime visitors can see. 

Aside from the buildings, there’s also the elevating experience of being on a 4,200-plus foot mountaintop (about as far above sea level as Yosemite Valley) that’s near, but still removed from, urban civilization. Tree-dappled hills and canyons surround the mountain and it’s amazingly quiet. 

The mountain top weather can get chilly and severe, including winter snow, but a summer visit can also be calm and balmy. After dark, the Santa Clara Valley sprawls a vast latifundia of light beyond the hills to the west.  

Most visitors come to Lick come during the day, when there isn’t telescope observing of course, but we visited for a periodic summer night event called “Music of the Spheres.” 

For $30 (more, if you want special tours and seats and a buffet dinner), you enjoy a live concert by visiting musicians, a lecture, the opportunity to walk around in the main dome and building, and viewing through the telescope after dark. Courteous staff and volunteers are on hand to explain the Observatory’s history and operations. 

Attendees receive, in the order they arrive, numbered passes for viewing access; concert seating is first-come, first served. We got there 15 minutes before the concert started and found ourselves near the end of the viewing queue. Our turn at the telescope eyepiece finally arrived close to midnight, making it a long night, including the travel time back to Berkeley. 

There’s also a much cheaper Summer Visitors Program, sans concert, that provides the same viewing opportunities on several Friday and Saturday nights, plus talks on the history of the Observatory and astronomers speaking on their current research. Tickets for all these events go on sale in the spring, and typically sell out. Check the Lick website for details. 

At the event we attended we heard an engaging lecture by Berkeley Professor Alex Filippenko, who cogently theorized about the existence of multiple “and perhaps even infinite” universes. 

“We may be just one island in a bunch of universes, of which most are less interesting than ours,” he concluded. 

Just so, I thought. That’s what many people think about living in Berkeley. Go down to Lick for a look at the greater things beyond. 


The Lick Observatory website, has plenty of information on visiting. 

Free daytime public visiting hours are Monday-Friday, 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m., and 10-5 p.m. on Saturdays. Open every day except Thanksgiving and December 24 / 25. 

There is no drop-in, nighttime, viewing. Special nighttime Summer Visitors Program and summer “Music of the Spheres” events are advertised in the spring. At press time, the Lick website indicated some tickets still available for August and September music nights. 

From Berkeley/Oakland take Highway 880 (then 101) or 580 some 50 miles south to eastern San Jose and Alum Rock Boulevard. There is no gas available for the next 20 miles, coming and going.  


Photograph by Steven Finacom. 

The main facade of the original observatory building glows in the early evening sun.