The scene at Pic du Midi is one out of a sci-fi movie: A fortified concrete-and-stone complex, packed full of metal domes, sprawls across the top of a precipitous peak above the clouds. At an altitude of 2,877 meters (9,349 feet), the sweeping view of the surrounding French Pyrénées is rivaled only by the site's magnificently dark night sky.
Prime observing conditions are the reason why astronomers since 1884 have made the arduous trek up this mountainside for an unobstructed view of the firmament. But the history of scientific research on the fabled French peak goes back all the way to 1774, when chemist Jean Darcet and physicist Gaspard Monge climbed the Pic to study the pressure of the atmosphere.
While accessing the summit in those days was a much more trying experience, it did not stop scientists from constructing a full-fledged meteorological station and astronomical observatory in the 1870s. Today, the research facilities are only a fifteen minute cable-car ride from the resort town of La Mongie, and the public is welcome to a view so treasured that NASA scientists traveled there to map the surface of the moon in preparation for the Apollo landing.
Visitors can even choose to spend the night at the Pic, where up to 19 people can be accommodated in a package deal that includes tours of the site's telescopes (including the 2-meter Bernard Lyot telescope, the largest in France), nighttime observing with professional astronomers, and traditional Pyrénées cuisine at the on-site restaurant.
The observatory is also home to the highest museum in Europe, one that will guide you through the history of Pic du Midi and over a century of scientific research and technological progress. But if, for some odd reason, learning about a long history of discovery begins to get tiresome, experienced skiers can plunge 4,600 feet down the vertiginous mountain slopes at no extra charge.