To find out how people reach for the stars first you must climb 4,209 feet.
You’ll find more bicyclists — and motorcyclists — journeying up Highway 130 from the Alum Rock district of San Jose or from Livermore via San Antonio Road on weekends to reach the lofty summit of Mt. Hamilton than you will vehicles.
But if you don’t mind sharing the narrow, windy road with bicyclists and you have patience to make the hour drive up from San Jose, spectacular vistas and a bit of uniquely California history awaits you at the summit.
Mt. Hamilton is where the University of California operates the James Lick Observatory. This is where in 1888 astronomers first peered through what was then the world’s largest refractor telescope at 36-inches to scan the heavens. Today, there is only one refractor telescope larger in the world at 40 inches — the ultimate weight of the required mirror can be held in place on the edges.
Lick Observatory actually has eight telescopes today including one of the world’s largest reflectors at 120 inches.
One of the hottest tickets in the Bay Area isn’t to a rock concert but to the summer evening visitors program dubbed “Music of the Spheres” that includes a musical program, world-renown lecturers, plus the chance to look through the 36-inch refractor and the nearby 40-inch reflector. The only problem is the summer series sells out quickly, often within hours, when the tickets become available. Very few tickets are left although you can check for availability at www.uclock.org/public/music.html. The tickets prices, though, are out-of-this-world. Standard tickets are $45, preferred tickets $90 and the much coveted VIP tickets are $199 and include a light buffet and a private tour of the 120-inch reflecting telescope.
Also extremely popular are summer evening tours at $75 a pop. The only problem is you will have to wait until 2020 as tickets for this year have sold out. Assuming those prices are a bit too rich for your blood anyway, there is still a lot to enjoy about a day drive to the top of Mt. Hamilton.
First — and for some people foremost — are the unparalleled views of downtown San Jose, the Silicon Valley and the South San Francisco Bay that unfolds as you ascend the narrow, windy road.
Once to the top, there is the observatory itself that was built as the result of a $700,000 bequest left by James Lick.
Lick was a Pennsylvania woodworker who made his wealth that he would parlay into a massive fortune making pianos in Lima, Peru.
Lick arrived in San Francisco in 1848 with his tools, $30,000 in Peruvian gold coins and 600 pounds of chocolate purchased from a neighbor — Domingo Ghirardelli. The chocolate sold quickly and Lick convinced Ghirardelli to move to San Francisco.
Lick made his real fortune buying real estate at depressed prices in San Francisco when people were heading to the gold fields in 1849 and were trying to raise cash to buy mining equipment and supplies. Lick later resold land at boom prices.
The idea to fund the observatory was to leave a lasting monument to himself.
The research center that Lick’s fortune helped create is open to visitors Thursday through Sunday from noon to 5 p.m. Admission is free. There are free talks inside the dome of the 36-inch Great Refractor at 12:30 p.m., 1:30 p.m., 2:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m., and 4:30 p.m. The visitor gallery is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. You can access vending machines, water fountain and restrooms in the main building seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
You can take a brief guided tour and learn the inner workings of the observatory. You can also view the reflector telescope from the visitor’s gallery a short distance away. There is a short film you can watch as well as a gift shop. There are no services at the observatory or on Highway 130.
The views from the summit are spectacular.
The best way to enjoy it is to climb from San Jose and then head back toward the Central Valley via San Antonio Road that brings you to Livermore near the Wente Winery.
The trip up the mountain is roughly an hour in duration from San Jose while you’ll spend about an hour and a half driving toward Livermore through some of the most pristine country in the Bay Area.