The top of Mount Hamilton provides a view down to San Jose in the valley below and then on to San Francisco Bay. You can see all the way up to San Francisco if the weather is clear enough. On the day we were there, the conditions were a little less clear but we still could see a good distance. Beyond San Jose, the hangars at Moffett Field were easy to spot as was Levi Stadium and the many buildings scattered around the shoreline of the bay.
I would love to be up on the top of the mountain early in the morning on a day with really clear skies. However, it is not an insignificant drive to get up there and you want to make sure it is going to be worth it. Therefore, while I am going to try and do this at some point, it is going to be a combination of good planning, luck and readiness to head off on short notice in order to make it all work out.
Coming down off Mount Hamilton in the car, my sister, who has the sharpest eyes of anyone I know, said she had seen some cats. I was a bit surprised by this but turned around to have a look. It turns out these were two bobcats. They were already moving off through the tress by the time we got back but I got some distant shots of them as they went. How she saw them I have no idea.
In the days before reflecting telescopes, refractors were used. In order to see further and further they got larger and larger. This meant very long telescopes and making these was technically very difficult. The reflecting scopes removed the length limitations and introduced far larger apertures in a manageable size. The old refractors were overtaken. However, they are still very usable. The 36 inch refractor at the Lick Observatory is still in regular use. They do provide tours of it for visitors.
The building it is housed in is quite grand in itself. A function of its time, it has a wonderful wooden floor that is designed to be raised and lowered to allow the observer to reach the end of the telescope irrespective of what angle it is pointing at. The floor movement is current not in use and they have a sturdy ladder instead. The telescope itself is quite huge and it is amazing to think how long it has been in use.
The tour was very interesting and the guide really had a passion for the scope and the work they do with it. He also allowed me to get some additional shots once everyone had moved on which was very kind.
If you know your optical telescopes, you know there are two main types – refractors and reflectors. Refractors use lenses to magnify the image and reflectors use mirrors. Reflectors can be much larger and gather more light so took over from the traditional telescopes. At the Lick Observatory, they have the Shane 3m Reflector. (For those who can’t use sensible units, 3 metres is 10 feet.) the building that houses the telescope has a visitors gallery. You aren’t in the room with the telescope but you can see into the space that houses it.
There are a number of display screens showing how it works and how it was constructed. The clever stuff is out of sight and the main structure is all about holding the mirrors in the right place and reorienting them when required to track a subject. The structures are some substantial bits of steel and getting them up the mountain was no small feat. Nothing was in use while we were there (during the day!) so you had to imagine this large structure being moved around to track the next celestial body. Given that the building has to be at ambient temperature to avoid any heat distortion when I use, I think I was quite glad it wasn’t working since it was a cold and snowy day up on the mountain.
Head southeast from San Jose and the terrain heads sharply up. Mount Hamilton sits ahead of you and, if you want to take the 18 mile trip up the mountain, you will arrive at the Lick Observatory. Operated by the University of California, there are many different telescopes in use. Visitors are welcome to see two of the telescopes.
At one time, the top of the mountain was home to quite a community including a school for the children of the staff. However, as the observations are now able to be made and controlled remotely, there is no need for the science teams to live up on the mountain. They make trips up for initial testing of instruments when they can stay in dormitories. However, once things are up and running, they can head back down the mountain. Consequently, the residents are now the maintenance and engineering staff. This means there is a far smaller number of people up on the summit most of the time.
The view from the summit is very cool. We had a bit of haze in the air which limited things a little but the view down to San Jose and off to the Bay is impressive. It would have been nice to have been up there a day or so before when the skies were very clear. However, they also get some snow up there so it might have been a trickier drive up.