Mount Wilson II

25 09 2011
Mount Wilson Observatory

Mount Wilson Observatory

And speaking of Mount Wilson Observatory, it was featured in a souvenir postcard booklet I picked up in the same antique shop in which I found my Jules Vernes classic comic. Founded in 1904 by George Ellery Hale, the observatory now consists of multiple instruments, both historic (Hale’s 60-inch Telescope, for instance) and “cutting edge” (the Berkeley Interferometer and Georgia State University’s CHARA Array). The observatory is located ideally for tourism: 30 miles from Los Angeles, on the summit of Mount Wilson above Pasadena in the San Gabriel Mountains, just an hour drive from the city. Today, the observatory’s public program is focused on a guided tour that includes a visit to the observing floor of the Hooker 100-inch Telescope.

100-inch Telescope

100-inch Telescope, Mount Wilson Observatory

There is also a museum and a cafe on site so you can make a leisurely day of your visit. If you are feeling a need to spend a lot of money, you can organize a group of your friends (up to 25) and spend a night observing with the 60-inch telescope. As of 2011, the fee was $900 for a half-night of viewing, but you should check the fee schedule for the current rates (also, check out the glossy brochure).

The postcard booklet demonstrates the longevity of the tourist industry on the mountain. At the time of the booklet’s publication, the observatory was reached via the Mount Wilson Toll Road (now a hiking trail). While fully one-half of the descriptive text in the booklet described the wonders of the observatory, Mt. Wilson Hotel (first built 1904, no longer extant) was clearly the planned money-maker in this organization. Road tolls, meals and accommodation went to support the Mt. Wilson Toll Road Company—later the Mt. Wilson Hotel Company. Unfortunately, according to Marv Collins’ article at, neither the toll road nor the resort were good financial investments, eventually going belly up despite public interest in the observatory.

Mount Wilson and Observatory Tourist Description

Mount Wilson and Observatory Tourist Description

As far as visual astronomy is concerned, it seems to me that the hotel and the observatory must have been at odds from the very beginning of their relationship. The first attraction listed for the resort? “Sixty towns illuminated by their own lights at night, a wonderful sight that will live forever in your memory.” Did the astronomers working at the observatory sense they were witnessing what would eventually become the almost global problem of light pollution? Or were they just happy to be able to buy a good meal for Sunday dinner at the hotel?

View of Pasadena

View of Pasadena and Los Angeles from Mt. Wilson