We went to see the Lick Observatory in Mount Hamilton yesterday. Its a gorgeous drive off 680 south (exit at Alum Creek) that takes you all the way up to the top of Mount Hamilton. On a sunny, clear day one can see the San Jose valley down below. The road is winding, curvy and narrow with lots of blind corners and not without the occasional idiot who thinks he is driving in Nascar. The spectacular views reminded me of the the road leading to Mount Diablo. But Mt. Hamilton in winter is more barren and desolate. On the other side the observatory, the road leads down 130 to the emply quarter of California. We drove down it for a while. It is abolutely quiet and empty except for a a car or two wheezing past occasionally or cattle crossing the road. If you go, make sure that you take a full tank of gas - there is probably no gas station all the way to Livermore!
The observatory was built on the donations made by James Lick. Mr. Lick made his money from the California gold rush. He used to make Piano cabinets and invested the money that he made into buying up real estate in San Francisco when people started selling off everything to go look for gold in Northern California. The property appreciated considerably over time and he decided to build a monument to himself. He apparently toyed with the idea of building the world's greatest pyramid in downtown San Francisco, but was convinced instead to build the greatest telescope by U.of California. After he died he was buried at the base of the telescope.
Those days, Mule trains hauled the parts up the mountain. At the time of its completion, at 36 inch diameter it was the largest refractor telescope in the world. Even now, there is only one bigger refractor telescope (a 40-inch telescope in Illinois). But no one builds refractor types any longer. Lick observatory now houses a 120 inch reflector telescope which is used a lot more often. There is some images shot by one of the Lick observatory telescopes here.