Mt. Wilson towers up over the San Gabriel Valley, big desert mountain with alluvial fans radiating down. When the smog is gone or nearly so, you can see it from Arcadia, a dominating presence.

In the very early 1950's someone decided that Mt. Wilson would be an ideal site for the primitive television transmissions of the time. Accordingly, facilities were placed there for this purpose, at the end of a long, winding road.

The silence was worth more than the television. But again, what isn't.

I'm looking at Mount Wilson right now, as I write this. I can see it from my desk here in the study. Of the many things I love about Los Angeles, Mt. Wilson may be one of the things I love the most. In the summer, the television lights on the broadcast towers seem to float in space. In the winter, Wilson is covered in a rich jacket of snow. Snow! In Los Angeles!

It doesn't seem like it should be there, this massive wall of sandstone and metamorphic fault churn nearly a mile high. The alluvial basin that it overhangs contains between 12 to 20 million people, the greatest urban grid on the planet, a vast processor made of people, cars, phones, rail lines, and freeways - meat, data, and metal whizzing around computing what?. But on top of Mt. Wilson, just 20 miles from the beach, nearly a mile in elevation, there is silence. There are tall fir trees with pinecones the size of a football. In the valley below it's nearly 100 degrees. Up here, it's 80. I can face south and gaze out over the urban superprocessor, or look north into a wilderness harsher and emptier than any I ever knew growing up in the Monongohelia mountains of West Virginia. Here, standing on top of one of the youngest mountains in the world, a mountain that grows inches a year, like a teenager, is an observatory that first fixed the estimated size and date of the universe. The dumb, punny irony of real stargazing happening up here, 150' tall towers staring into the sun while global villagers desperately hunt for minor terran stars down on Sunset Boulevard, is not lost on me. It just seems so damn obvious.

Moisture loaded air from the sea is ramped up its face, pushed right over the sawtooth ridgeline of the mountain, bumpered between Mt. Lowe and Mt. Harvard. This microclimate brings in over 45 inches of water a year. That's east coast, temperate hardwood rainfall levels. In the high hanging canyons, you can hear creeks running, see waterfalls tumbling down from the massive relief. You are 25 minutes from downtown Los Angeles. Leaning on one of the giant oaks atop the Mt. Harvard spur, you can SEE downtown Los Angeles, you can see the ocean, you can see the curvature of the earth. Jets fly above, international flights working up out of the controlled basin airspace, F-18's kicking ass out to Twentynine Palms to blast another unlucky dumpster into that great landfill in the sky. Down below, people are working, eating, sleeping, shopping, screwing, as all the while you can feel those faultlines cranking tighter and tighter, enormous terrestrial catapults waiting to discharge continental energies. You can feel it under your feet, the edge of the continent grinding against the weight of the Pacific's big water. And you are utterly alone - 20 million people down there, and you're the only person on the mountain. Housewives below, astronomers above, the rest is available for any mountain boy willing to take it.

At the top is an alpine village seemingly built by Disney and manned by bearded astronomers. Let them know you're legitimately interested in what they're doing, and they'll merrily give you the factory tour. The 150 foot solar tower was my favorite - a real time image of the sun almost 4 feet across, hidden inside a cinderblock building that looks like it should house telecom equipment. The 100" telescope is impressive, recently refitted with adaptive optics, giving a nearly 100 year old instrument a new life. The coolest thing up there is the CHARA array, the largest optical interferometer ever built. It's essentially 6 small telescopes that synthesize their images into a single, reinforced waveform. They had to fly in the new instruments by helicopter. The old stuff came in by mule train.

Down the ridgeline is the commercial broadcast facility - hundreds of antennae, microwave horns, generators, windowless buildings of no discernable purpose. The amount of EMF beaming off that mountain is so powerful you can feel the juice in your guts. There's enough telecom that if you say a phone number out loud in the parking lot you'll be connected. A magic mountain inhabited by morlocks, busily engaged in the conduct of the unknowable.

From Altadena, park by the Eaton wash, and work your way up the old Mt. Wilson toll road. Start early, as you will be on the anvil of the sun. The one change I would suggest is if you're heading up in the winter, start in the middle of the day for the exact same reason. Mountain biking is an arduous 2-3 hour grind up, followed by an exhilarating defiance-of-death descent that takes nearly 90 minutes. Bring water, food, and a shell jacket for the descent. Katabatic winds really cool the mountain in the fall and winter, and the dry air moving over your sweat drenched body can chill your hands until they won't work - at 30 miles an hour on a mountainous scree-bedded road, this is no good. You can walk up, but the ground track is seven and 1/2 hours - an all day round trip, so plan accordingly. Please /msg me for any advice or consultation.

Or you could drive... but I won't dignify that with a gameplan.

Yes, Mt. Wilson is the home of the Hubble Observatory, and all the major TV microwave towers in the Greater Los Angeles area. But it does have an interesting history in the area, although most residences are unaware of it.

Mt. Wilson is named after Benjamin "Don Benito" Wilson (If you think it is the highest peak in the San Gabriel Mountains, it's not, that title belongs to Mt. Baldy). In 1864, Wilson built the first trail up to the mountain for the sake of lumber. He also constructed the famous Halfway House (Named because it was around the midpoint between Sierra Madre and Mt. Wilson). In 1889 the first observatory built on Mt. Wilson (Located on a lump called "Harvard Peak,") for Harvard University. The current observatory was built by George Ellery Hale, in 1908 and for many years was the world's largest telescope.

Another thing Mt. Wilson is famous for in the L.A. area is the Mt. Wilson Toll Road, built in 1891 by the Pasadena & Mt. Wilson Toll Road Co. Until 1936 when it was superseeded by the Angeles Crest Highway, it was the way to get to the top of the mountain. It was also the scene of an annual race as well (The record was set by a Frank Benedict in 1922 with a Paige 6-66 in 22 minutes).


Robinson, John. Trails of the Angeles

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