Visit The Historic Lick Observatory Near San Jose

Would you like to visit a historic location centered on astronomy?

If so, drive 20 miles east of San Jose, California, to the Lick Observatory on Mount Hamilton, high above the Bay Area. Here, you’ll find a spectacular view of the Diablo Mountain range and Santa Clara Valley.

You may even see distant planets by using the telescopes at Lick Observatory, the world’s first permanently occupied observatory. This historic edifice is located at 4,209 feet (1283 meters) above sea level in a cool, windy part of the East Bay. The altitude places the observatory above the Bay Area “fog belt” for most of the year, so you’ll get clear viewings in the evenings.

This historic observatory was completed in 1888 when the practice of stargazing through giant telescopes was in its infancy. The observatory was established by eccentric California pioneer James Lick, who is buried on the site.

The 101-year-old facility is managed by the University of California Observatories (UCO) headquartered at UC Santa Cruz. Tours are offered every half hour, and the observatory is open to the public Thursdays through Sundays from noon to 5:00 pm.

Admission is free and the tours are guided by knowledgeable docents. Special evening programs are offered in July and August. However, note that summer event tickets sell out early! The summer program includes special concerts and astronomer-led lectures about new discoveries and future space explorations.

The Telescopes

Visitors to the Lick Observatory will get to use the 36-inch Great Lick Refractor and the 40-inch Nickel Reflector. Nighttime visitors at special summer evening programs will be able to look through these telescopes and see the stars. Still, many amateur astronomers do set up their own telescopes for the evening programs and share the viewing experience with other visitors. The evening programs can also include a four-hour walking tour of the observatory.

The 36-inch telescope was completed in 1888  eleven years after Lick’s death in 1877. A brass tablet marks Lick’s burial site under the building, where the telescope was built. Lick left $700,000 of his fortune for the construction of the observatory. That sum today would be equal to about $22 million!

The refractor was the largest telescope in the world at that time. Today, it is the second-largest refractor telescope in the USA. This telescope uses a glass lens to focus the light. In fact, Jupiter’s fifth moon Amalthea was discovered in 1892 using this telescope. Several scientists also measured the circumference of Jupiter’s moons using this telescope during the 1890s.

Visitors will also see the 120-inch reflector telescope with mirrors that was commission by the State of California in 1950 and completed in 1959. Today, scientists from the University of California work at the observatory and study exoplanets, supernovae, and other planetary sightings using powerful reflector telescopes. The information they glean is shared with astronomers and astrophysicists throughout the world.

A Little Trivia

The Lick Observatory installed a special clock in 1886 to provide accurate time to the Southern Pacific Railroad Company and other West Coast railroads. The time signal was transmitted to railroads west of the Rockies through telegraph lines from the observatory. 

In recent times, the City of San Jose is one of the first cities to install modern low-power LED street lights to conserve energy and curb light pollution. Less light emanating from the city below helps the Lick scientists observe the night sky from the telescopes.

Plan on a Visit

The Lick Observatory is a great place to visit if you are interested in astronomy. Plan on an hour’s drive along the undulating road to the top of the mountain and at least an hour to explore the observatory and its grounds on a clear day. Older children and adults will find that the observatory provides much insight on space exploration.