My work at the University of Arizona’s Steward Observatory took me on an unexpected trip to Mount Wilson, California.
Mt. Wilson is a 100+ year old observatory about 35 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles in the Angeles National Forest. It’s a beautiful 1.5 hour drive and there are also hikes that lead visitors through the observatory. Mt. Wilson is often overlooked by travelers hoping to visit a telescope by the Palomar and Griffith Observatories, which are closer to central L.A.
Due to its’ age and proximity to L.A., the Mt. Wilson Observatory telescopes no longer complete science and are used for educational purposes. However, there are a few private telescopes at Mt. Wilson that actively perform science.
Mt. Wilson was built by George Ellery Hale, an astronomer who built the largest optical telescope in the world not once, twice, or thrice, but FOUR times! Before he built the largest optical telescopes, he started as a solar astronomer and built the largest solar telescopes.
Mt. Wilson was first established by Hale as a solar observatory with the Snow Solar Telescope, a horizontal telescope now over 110 years old. To my surprise, this telescope is still completely operational, with the help of a little TLC and patience.
The second and third solar telescopes established at Mt. Wilson were the 60-foot and 150-foot solar telescopes. At the time of their completion, each of these telescopes were some of the largest solar telescopes in the world. The 150-foot telescope reigned supreme until the McMath-Peirce Solar Telescope at Kitt Peak near Tucson, Arizona, was completed (this telescope is now retired and there is another ruler). On January 29, 1931, Albert Einstein visited Mt. Wilson and the 150-foot solar telescope. It was incredible to have visited somewhere that Einstein had been! The 150-foot telescope has an operational two-man lift that takes observers and visitors to the upper dome of the telescope. It displays an incredible view of the mountain ridge.
Hale’s first largest optical telescope is at the Yerkes Observatory in Wisconsin. When he moved to California, he built the 60-inch and 100-inch optical telescopes at Mt. Wilson, both also the largest optical telescopes of their time. They are both still operational and used for educational purposes. It’s truly incredible to see these gigantic telescopes.
Hale’s forth and final largest telescope is the 200-inch telescope at Palomar Observatory in California, which I did not visit on this trip (although I wish I could’ve!).
My team and I spent about 9 hours at Mt. Wilson filming astronomers, from 9am to about 5:30pm. We brought a pack lunch of PB&J’s, hummus, veggies and granola bars. They had fresh water and bathrooms accessible for us during our visit.
Sunset at the mountain peak was absolutely amazing. It was so beautiful! I love being up in the mountains, breathing in the fresh air and listening to the squirrels.
Right after we left the observatory just before sundown, my team and I made a quick pit stop to take some photos of L.A. at nighttime. It was so beautiful.
Thank you for reading! Have you ever visited the Mt. Wilson Observatory? Do you want to? Let me know in the comments below and like this post if you want more like it!