Lick Observatory

I was supposed to go up to The Rhino yesterday to help the actors with their borrowed bikes. Duca and I spoke after the last rehearsal and agreed that the actors shouldn’t ride the bikes during the show, but they still wanted a “motorcycle overseer” during the bike scenes. We postponed the bike scenes, though, as some of the actors couldn’t make it; suddenly, I had an unexpected free afternoon.

I went straight to my copy of Day Trips: Roaming the Backroads of Northern California (thanks, Cat!) for inspiration. I found it almost immediately: a nice long circular route highlighting Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton.

Don’t tell anyone, but even though I’ve been riding in the Bay Area for years now, I’d never been to Mt. Hamilton. Shhh! I’ll have my “cool license” revoked. It’s practically a crime against nature.

I liked the route suggested in “Day Trips” because it wasn’t the direct route. Lick Observatory is about 30 miles east of my house (albeit a very curvy 30 miles), but I wasn’t interested in a 60-mile trip. So, on the book’s recommendation, I took the freeways up to Livermore, and hopped onto Mines Road.

Mines Rd. runs through vineyards and sparsely-populated farms for about 25 miles before the junction with Del Puerto Canyon Rd. It starts out fairly flat, but after five miles, it starts heading upwards into the Diablo Range. At around 12 miles, you’ll be about 1400 feet higher and the road narrows to one lane. The single lane section was pretty clear of both traffic and gravel, and aside from a couple of other motorcyclists, it was pretty lonely out there. There was an old man on a little beater cruiser that was puttering along ahead of me for part of the ride. He’d pull over to let me pass, I’d go by, I’d stop for pictures, he’d pass and we’d wave, I’d get behind him again, he’d pull over, etc. This happened three or four times, and he was always grinning from ear to ear.

Once Mines Rd. crosses into Santa Clara County, it widens back into two lanes.


The guy on the ‘Busa there is Sonic from Sport-Touring.net. Small world!


View from Mines Rd.

The Junction Cafe is at the intersection of Mines Rd. and Del Puerto Canyon Rd. after a few annoyingly-placed cattle guards (normally I don’t mind them, but christ, they don’t need to be at the apex of a turn…). I didn’t stop, but it appears to be The Sportsbike Hangout Place in the area.

After the junction, Mines Rd. becomes San Antonio Valley Road (California State Route 130). This is Quite A Road. It winds up and down and around and around for another 20 miles or so to the Observatory. Watch out for more oddly-placed cattle guards, too — not like you’ll be going fast enough to have them catch you by surprise. I got lapped by a huge group of sportsbikes leaving The Junction Cafe a couple of miles in, but even they weren’t going that much faster than I was. I get the impression that even the “hardcore kids” who ride this road do it for the technical aspect as opposed to for the speed. I stayed at the high end of 1st/low end of 2nd for most of the road — it’s definitely a skills-improving road.

About 13 miles from The Junction Cafe, there’s an 8.6% grade with a cattle guard smack dab in the middle of it. There’s about 1000′ change in elevation within two miles. Woo! A couple of hairpins took me off-guard in the threeish miles left before the Observatory. I was pretty happy to pull into the parking lot and have a granola bar and some water.


View of Mt Hamilton Rd descending from the Observatory


Dome for the Crossley 1m reflector telescope, from the parking lot


Main entrance and the dome for the 1m Nickel refractor telescope

The Observatory itself was surprisingly cool. I happened upon one of their tours, and listened for a while. They run every half-hour all day, and give a neat little history of the Observatory and of the telescopes. It definitely made me want to come back another time, earlier in the day, to spend more time wandering around and listening to the whole tour.


36″ refractor telescope in the main building

My favorite story about the Observatory is that it was originally planned for construction in the Sierra Nevadas, but that idea was rejected as no one would be able to get within 40 miles of it in the wintertime. The location on Mt. Hamilton was eventually chosen because James Lick — who was bedridden by this point — would be able to see it from his bedroom window. After construction on the Observatory was completed, Lick’s body was exhumed from his burial site in San Francisco and he was reburied under a support pillar for the 36-inch refractor telescope (the one pictured above), as per his will. Nifty.

After my 90-mile trek to get to Lick Observatory, I decided to take the direct route home. San Antonio Valley Road becomes Mt. Hamilton Rd. as it passes the Observatory. I pulled over after the second hairpin to take some pictures with the telescopes in the background — the turnout was pretty gravelly, but it was flat, thank goodness. I’m getting better at choosing picture spots that won’t end up with the SVS on its side in a bunch of gravel.


Along Mt. Hamilton Rd, with the main building visible on the hill

Mt. Hamilton Rd. may be shorter than San Antonio Valley Rd., but that just means that it fits all of the latter’s curves and elevation changes into a smaller distance. The average grade of Mt. Hamilton Rd. is an impressive 5.8%, which is very exciting when you’re descending. I took Mt. Hamilton for about nine miles to Quimby Road, and I estimate that there were at least four major hairpins in that section. The road falls almost 2000 feet, and wow, you can tell.

Quimby looks like a little side road off to the left; I almost rode right past it (thank goodness for the GPS!). There were a lot of bicyclists in this area, but very little other motorized traffic. Until…..the postal truck. First of all, Quimby is an ass-kicking road. There’s just no other way to put it. From the intersection of Mt. Hamilton, it immediately barfs you into an 8.3% uphill grade, and then tosses you back down with an 11.5% downhill grade. Eleven and a half percent grade. With two big hairpins right in the middle of it. You really learn to pay attention to the “10mph” signs. I got stuck right behind a postal truck during this section; let me tell you, you learn religion when you’re coasting through a 10mph hairpin on an 11.5% downhill grade behind a truck and with oncoming traffic. I learned my lesson, and backed off enough to let the stupid truck get a bit ahead of me. At least then I could roll on a little through the next killer hairpin. Rarrrr!

A quarter of a mile later, Quimby eases up on you, and your downhill grade flattens out to a nice and relaxing 9.5%. Whew! Time to take the hands off the bars and have a cappucino.

Suddenly, Quimby barfs you out into San Jose. One moment, you’re singing “Jesus Keep Me By The Dawn” in your helmet while staring straight down onto rooftops and coasting around hairpins; the next, you’re in a downtown residential area with traffic lights and flat streets. It’s a bit of a culture shock.

So, that was my Saturday afternoon. It was about 120 miles round-trip, and took 4.5 hours (including the time puttering around the Observatory). Lots and lots and lots of fun.

The best part is that I figured out a small portion of my mapping software. So, here are my GPS track logs, courtesy of National Geographic’s TOPO! maps:

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8 Responses to Lick Observatory

  1. Smitty says:

    Interesting article with good photos plus good map if one was in said area to take use of the run. Actually some lovely terrain & so green to ours up here in Canada at the same time of year.
    Any m/cist would like the lingo bluepoof puts into it for all then jives & one gets the feeling of being actually part of the ride especially if they are accustom to riding on moutain roads as I have been doing for almost 57 years.
    My thanks for the article, photos & maps.

  2. Alex says:

    Absolutely beautiful write-up Carolyn. I’ve missed these type of things. Definitly reminds me of riding, while i’m all cooped up with my gimp leg, and the foot of snow that is covering everything outside. Pictures are *beautiful* as well. Glad to see you back on the SV!
    Awsome review, cant wait for more to start pouring in! Yee-haw!

  3. Stephanie says:

    Not whining here, Carolyn, but think how much better you would have felt about your form if you’d had me puttering along somewhere in back of you. (or maybe in back of the old man) I wish I knew you were headed up this way, I did *no* riding this weekend… ๐Ÿ™

  4. carolyn says:

    Hee! No, seriously, you’d have lapped the old man. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Sorry! I was fully planning on having to go up to SF until 10 minutes before I was supposed to leave — totally spur of the moment.

  5. Tim says:

    Carolyn, great writeup! Now I have to go add a link to this page on the pashnit.com site!

  6. Colin says:

    Stop at the The Junction next time and get a root beer float…
    It’s kind of a bizzare Harley/sportbike/rancher hangout. You’re only ~20 miles from the heart of Silicon Valley but the locals look like Uncle Jesse from the Dukes of Hazard and the place is decorated with animal heads!

  7. Lefty says:

    Great Write Up!!! Your pictures are awesome too.
    Don’t feel bad, I only live about 20 miles from there, and I too have not ridden those roads.
    Thank you for the great read.
    p.s.- now I’m going to call Soniq and yell at him for not inviting me on his ride!!

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