When we drive up into the hills to sightsee, it’s usually to look down and appreciate the view below us. There’s another direction to gaze, though, and that’s up—way up, into the stars and planets. And you don’t have to tackle the mysteries of the cosmos alone. There are many hilltop science centers in the area, offering free use of high-powered telescopes for public viewing. The kids will love seeing the real thing, a million steps up from the glow-in-the-dark stickers on their bedroom ceilings.
Chabot Space and Science Center offers telescope viewing for the public from dusk to 10:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday evenings. Three high-powered telescopes are available free of charge, including 36-inch Nellie, the biggest telescope on the facility. Staff members are on hand to help kids and parents find ring nebulas, binary stars, galaxies, and other heavenly marvels. Call the center beforehand for viewing conditions and info on special closings. 10000 Skyline Blvd, Oakland CA 94519, (510) 336-7300.
University of California, Berkeley Lawrence Hall of Science (LHS)offers Saturday Night Stargazing from 1,100 feet above the Bay. This public viewing program is free all year every first and third Saturday of the month, weather permitting. Astronomical telescopes on the facility will show the moon, planets, star clusters, and galaxies like the kids have never seen before. Celestial events such as the equinox, star clusters, and total lunar eclipses are also on the radar here. Viewing times are between 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., so be prepared to stay up past bedtime dressed in warm layers. 1 Centennial Drive, Berkeley, CA 94720, (510) 642-5132.
San Francisco Amateur Astronomers (SFAA) once a month from starry points like Mt. Tamalpais, Land’s End, and the Randall Museum, in conjunction with other programs like Mt. Tam State Park lectures. SFAA encourages sharing, so help the little ones pass your telescope around, or borrow someone else’s. And look out for a Sidewalk Astronomer to help you use your star-gazing contraption.
Foothill College Observatory is open for free public viewing every clear Friday evening from 9 p.m.-11 p.m. See the universe through a 16-inch reflecting telescope. Depending on the season, visible objects include craters and mountains of the moon, moons and cloud-bands of Jupiter, nebulae, and distant galaxies. Cloudy weather means no stargazing—so be prepared for tantrums.12345 El Monte Rd., Los Altos Hills, CA, (650) 949-7334.
County hosts public observing events several evenings of the week at dusk. For a small $3 charge, stargazers can hear an introductory presentation on astronomy, view the stars with a 24” telescope and other portable telescopes, and discuss astronomy and cosmology with docents and other guests. Children are admitted for free. Sugarloaf State Park, Kenwood, CA, (707) 833-6979.
Fremont Peak State Park’s dark skies away from city light pollution. The 3,000-foot peak has an observatory where astronomers mingle with curious onlookers of all ages. On select Saturday evenings from April to October, public viewing and educational programs take place for free. Challenger, a high-powered, 30” telescope, is ready to show you the skies close-up. Observing takes place at sunset, with presentations at around 8:00 p.m. Donations requested. Fremont Peak State Park, San Juan Bautista, CA, (831) 623-2465.