As I said in my last blog, I will be spending this week in Southern California, touring the astronomy sights, observing the night sky, and doing as much hiking as possible.
Sunday, my first full day, was devoted to the Griffith Observatory. In addition to being a museum and planetarium, Griffith has nightly viewings through its 12-inch Zeiss refracting telescope. It's also the centerpiece of Griffith Park, one of the finest, best-kept, and best-used urban parks in the world.
Visiting Griffith was one of those gratifying experiences where I started out with high expectations, and the expectations were met and exceeded. The museum portion of the Observatory is modest-sized -- which is just as well, because I and many others are easily overwhelmed or bored by big museums. But the displays are very well thought out, both engaging and educational, which is a lot harder to achieve than it sounds.
Griffith is full of references to the local area. In other places, that might seem provincial, but in Southern California it's completely appropriate. Whether you measure by scientists, telescopes, or space exploration, Southern California was probably the single biggest driving force for astronomy throughout most of the 20th century.
That, in turn, reflects its natural advantages: a favorable latitude, ample clear skies, and an inexhaustible supply of mountaintops for siting telescopes. Situated on a spur of 1,640-foot Mount Hollywood, overlooking the entire Los Angeles basin, Griffith Observatory exploits those advantages to the fullest.
They boast that more people have looked through their 12-inch Zeiss refractor than through any other telescope in the world — and I see no reason to doubt it. They have public viewings from sunset to 10 p.m. on every clear night, and most nights in Los Angeles are clear. Judging by my one experience, the events are very well attended. Waiting on line for an hour for a one-minute peek through a telescope might be onerous in another setting. But who could ask for a better place to stand on line than balmy Los Angeles, with the city lights spread out below you all the way to the Pacific Ocean?
If this were a hiking blog rather than an astronomy blog, I would also describe what I did between the daytime and nighttime parts of my visit to Griffith. Many of the people who visit the observatory also stroll up the easy trail to the top of Mount Hollywood, which has a panoramic view of the entire metropolitan area and the huge San Gabriel Mountains nearby. Fewer people — but still lots — do as I did, and follow the horshoe-shaped ridge over to the top of 1,704-foot Mt. Lee, where you can look down on the back side of the famous Hollywood sign. You can take the easy, long way along carriage roads or the shorter but very rugged trail along the ridgetop. May following a wet winter is the perfect time to do it, because the chaparral is in full bloom.