Day Trip: Palomar Observatory

Head up, up, up a mountain for a peek at the space-tastic structure.

IT'S A PLACE... most of us will never venture, but hoo boy do we ever daydream about space a whole bunch. We say "most of us" because certainly there are people training to be astronauts, and they may one day admire our planet from their weightless perch while aboard a distant station. But for those us bound to the earth for this lifetime, reading the news and watching fantastical films and staring at the night sky must fill up our cosmic coffers. And all of that does, quite often; we hear of astronauts who've spent a year in space (yep, Scott Kelly's stay added two inches to his height) and we're rhapsodic when we eye fresh photos of faraway planets like Pluto, with all of its distinctive topography. How to keep that feeling going, that sense of wonder, while remaining close to the ground while out and around and away from our screens? There are regional field trips to enjoy, to planetariums and museums, yes, but there are a couple of celebrated observatories that are not to be missed for the galactic buff. One of the biggies, as big as Jupiter, at least in stature and significance? Palomar Observatory, a titan among space-search spots, and a destination anyone can visit most any time of the year.

WE SAY "MOST ANY TIME"... because Palomar, sitting at over 6,000 feet on Palomar Mountain, gets its fair share of snow. But it is a glorious drive up the mountainous road, a road that ends at the much-photographed dome and WPA-era visitor center. Within the gleaming white dome the Hale Telescope holds commanding court, as it should, being a behemoth galaxy watcher that's an astounding 200 inches. This once made Hale the biggest on the planet -- and thus, we'll say with some confidence, this side of the Solar System -- for decades, but it doesn't stand alone. A 60-incher is also right there, as well as the 48-inch Samuel Oschin Telescope. Nope, you can't go up to the telescopes and peer out, as they're not the sort of spyglasses set up outside your local planetarium or at the city park. But you can learn, via a walk up the staircase to the dome's main space, what researchers are currently working on, and how the whole fascinating, star-focused, universe-deep operation goes down each and every day. Er, not "down" but up, of course. Way up, into the sky. 

CALTECH... forms a mondo research presence at Palomar, but other scientists also make for the mountain to probe the far reaches of the great beyond. To get all the info on the must-knows before calling upon the research center, such as background on the gift shop, the grounds, picnicking, hours, and such, turn your own telescope this way. 

IT BEHOOVES ALL GUESTS... at Palomar to keep one thing in mind: This is an active science-amazing place, the spot where some of humankind's best knowledge of the wider realm beyond Earth first arrives. Is there a reverence among visitors here? A palpable one. You may leave feeling that, in both elevation and experience, you got a bit closer to your outer space daydreams, at least for an hour.

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