Mount Palomar Observatory, about two hours northeast of downtown San Diego, is home to the 200-inch Hale telescope, an amazing astronomical instrument that’s been in continuous use since taking its first official image on 26 January 1949.
The drive from San Diego to the observatory is quite scenic once you leave I-15 heading east on CA 76. You’ll pass through groves filled with orange, lemon, and avocado trees, as well as a number of farm stands selling their fresh produce. Once you leave CA 76 and head north on South Grade Road (San Diego County S6), you’ll have panoramic views as you twist and turn your way up to the 5,550-foot elevation of the observatory.
Next to the large parking lot is a small picnic area in the shade of a number of old trees, as well as the small visitor center, museum, and gift shop. It’s worth a brief stop in the museum to learn a little about the observatory, the telescopes, and astronomy in general.
Once you’re done in the visitor center, walk the 300 yards to the observatory housing the telescope. With its Art Deco influences, you can tell that it was built in the 1930s.
Stairs lead from the entrance up to the visitor gallery at the floor level of the observatory, and once your eyes adjust to the dimly lighted area, you’ll see the giant Hale telescope. Of course, it looks nothing like the backyard telescopes that we’re familiar with with an eye piece on one end and a lens on the other. No, the Hale telescope looks more like an Erector set.
The Hale telescope’s 200-inch parabolic mirror sits at the bottom of the structure and is pointed towards the heavens. The light that it collects is reflected back to a focal point at the opposite end where a camera or person can observe the universe around us.
I was lucky to have a docent in the gallery talking about astronomy in general, and about the telescope, too. Between April and October, the observatory offers hour-long guided tours ($5 per adult; $3 children over 5), but today’s tour was cancelled.
For a nice drive in the country and a great introduction to astronomy at an active research facility, explore Mount Palomar Observatory.
What You Need To Know
Location: 35899 Canfield Road, Palomar Mountain, CA 92060-0200
Hours: 9 a.m.–3 p.m. during Pacific Standard Time; 9 a.m.–4 p.m. during Pacific Daylight Saving Time
Cost: Free except for the guided tours mentioned above.
Phone: (760) 742-2119
Tips: The drive up S6 is filled with hairpin turns as you climb in elevation. Watch for crazy motorcyclists who like to zip around those hairpin turns as fast as they can. Bring a sweater or jacket for two reasons. First, it will be cooler at elevation (it was 83° F when I passed through Escondido; 61° F atop Mt. Palomar). Second, they keep the interior of the observatory at the anticipated night temperature for the elevation (quite cool!).
Click to see full-sized photos.
Visited: 17 April 2016