Lick Observatory – Mount Hamilton, California - Atlas Obscura

Lick Observatory

Mount Hamilton, California

The world's first permanently occupied mountain-top observatory continues to report on the stars. 


High atop California’s Mount Hamilton, the double domes of the Lick Observatory never stop staring at the stars thanks to its live-in science crew.

Built between 1876 and 1887, the Lick Observatory was the dream of astronomer James Lick, who saw the great scientific benefit of having a staff that could live on site to observe the stars anytime of the night. Unfortunately Lick would not survive to see the completion of his observatory, but his body was buried under the site of the first telescope at the site. Despite his death, construction on the facility continued, using horses and carts to drag equipment and materials up a winding mountain road laid down specifically for the construction. The road itself has exactly 365 bends, a precision detail which not only kept the road from being too steep, but also entertained the new scientists at the site. A massive refracting telescope (the largest in the world for a time) was installed to take advantage of the uninterrupted mountaintop view, and round-the-clock coverage of the heavens began in earnest in 1888.

The observatory was expanded and upgraded as the years passed, and the station continued to welcome new scientists to its rooms. As development of the surrounding Silicon Valley increased during the 1970s and 80s, light pollution threatened to make the telescopes unusable, but the community at the base of the mountain began an initiative to replace their streetlights and other public lights with lower impact bulbs which allowed the observatory to maintain its relevance.

Today the Lick Observatory continues to observe and report on the stars. Due to budget cuts, the on-site staff has been reduced to around a dozen people, but Lick’s ambitious facility remains viable. However, they did have to close the swimming pool.     

Know Before You Go

Best route: From US 101, take the Tully Road exit in San Jose and head east. Turn right on Quimby Road and continue east for 8.5 miles into the Diablo foothills, past the Sikh Gurdwara San Jose. Turn right on Mount Hamilton Road (CA route 130), and drive for approximately 11 miles. Parking is free.

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