Checked off number 2 on Nifty Ninety – Mount Hamilton & Lick Observatory

Grand Views at Mount Hamilton

Lick Observatory on Mount Hamiliton
Lick Observatory atop Mt. Hamilton.

Mount Hamilton, in Santa Clara County’s Joseph D. Grant County Park, is the highest point in the South Bay Regional Parks. At 4,213 feet, it is the second highest point given in the Nifty Ninety Peaks challenge (Mount St. Helena, in the North Bay, is 4,339 ft.). This is one of the few Nifty Ninety Peaks that is reachable by car. There are two options for reaching the peak–driving or riding. (I have yet to find an account of anyone hiking it–not sure if it would even be legal because the highway doesn’t have shoulders. )

Although the drive is scenic, it is slow. From the west, through San Jose, the drive will take you about one hour;  from the east, you will need an hour and a half because the roads are very step and winding.  Bicyclists should allow a couple of hours. Drivers look out for cyclists!

Inside Lick Observatory
The original telescope, the Great Lick Refractor, on Mt. Hamilton.

But, one should not visit Mount Hamilton for only the outstanding views (when weather conditions allow). Choose a day when the Lick Observatory is open–which is currently Thur-Sun. 12-5. There are additional hours, during the summer, for evening events–lectures, musical, viewing through telescopes (by reservation only). Lick Observatory has the distinction of being the world’s first permanently occupied mountain top observatory.

The life history of James Lick is a fascinating one, but I will just give a few relevant tidbits. He made a fortune buying land in San Francisco during the time of the gold rush, and donated a substantial portion of that fortune towards building Lick Observatory. He died eleven years before it was completed, but his body was exhumed and buried under the base of the refractor telescope and resides there at this moment.


Then, in the main building view the exhibits, take a free short tour, which will include seeing the Lick Refractor telescope. On your own, take a short walk to the Shane Dome to view the 120-inch Reflector from the Visitors’ Gallery (open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.). Displays explain the Shane reflector, one of the major telescopes used to discover extrasolar planets. Check out Tom’s video below for more on the interior of Lick Observatory.

Tom’s Video of Mount Hamilton and Lick Observatory 

Our friend Tom Coroneos is a serious cinematographer, and films almost every one of our joint hiking adventures. Within twenty four hours of the trip, we can expect a two to three minute video. His youtube video of our Mount Hamilton – Lick Observatory trip captures the essence of the trip, windy road and all, in one minute and fifty seconds: Tom’s youtube video of Mt. Hamilton trip The day we made the trip, the mists were floating through the trees, and we were not at all sure there would be any view at the top. At the last minute we popped out above the clouds.


Mount Hamilton Visitor Info

You’ll find vending machines with snacks and sodas, but no meals available. Good gift shop with Lick Observatory sweatshirts, T-shirts, mugs, astronomical photos, posters, educational toys, and more.

Driving directions to Mount Hamilton

From San Jose: Quimby Road, Highway 130-E (25 miles).

From Hayward: Hwy. 880-S., 130 E. or Livermore, CA-84 W., Hwy. 680-S.,  Quimby, 130-E. Either is approx. 1 hr. 30 minutes.

However, it’s advisable to call for road conditions. During winter months, the road to the peak may be temporarily closed due to snow or ice. For current road closure information, go to the California Highway Information website and enter Hwy #130.

Though we drove almost all the way to the peak rather than coming on foot, it was still a highlight of doing the #Nifty Ninety Peaks challenge. Date visited: 1/31/19