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Weekend Escape: San Diego County

Star Chambers

Scanning the Milky Way with telescopes at a Julian B&B

July 19, 1998|DON BARTLETTI | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Bartletti is a photographer for The Times

JULIAN, Calif. — The observatory on Palomar Mountain is a magnet for astronomers--internationally famous for its Hale Telescope. And I'd always thought of Julian, nestled between the neighboring Volcan and Cuyamaca mountains, in terms of apple pie and great motorcycle roads. That is, until the Comet Hale-Bopp led me to a stargazer's dream getaway: Observer's Inn.

Last year, after chasing through San Diego County's back roads to photograph the comet, I stumbled into Julian as the sun rose. The only other person on the streets was a guy in jeans who was also sleepless over the comet. He told me about a B&B soon to open just outside of town.

During a recent stay at Observer's Inn, I was in visual bliss. This B&B offers a serious observatory, where the roof slides open at night and has three powerful telescopes for stargazing guests. On my first night at the inn, the Milky Way streamed above me like a sequined veil. Intellectually, I knew that these glimmering images were millions of light years distant, generated perhaps before the birth of the sun. Emotionally, I'd never felt so close to heaven.

My wife and I, joined by friends from the Bay Area, visited the inn to celebrate our sixth wedding anniversary.

From our home in Vista, the 70-mile route to Julian took us east along California 76, one of California's most beautiful scenic roads. From there we connected to California 79 to Santa Ysabel, and on California 78 up into the mountains northeast of San Diego. The Observer's Inn is 1 1/2 miles past the town of Julian (elevation 4,200). A remnant of an old stage route, the driveway now leads to the residence of proprietors Mike and Caroline Leigh. Mike is a technical rep for Meade Instruments, an Irvine telescope maker.

The Leighs host guests--maximum two couples per night--only on weekends. Much of their inn's development has gone toward the observatory, and we appreciated their priorities. So the natural landscaping is without embellishment, with two exceptions: roses in front of the house and hammocks swinging in the oaks. Our accommodations were in the detached two-room guest house. The rooms (named Andromeda and Omega) were cozy, each with full bath, and photographs of galaxies.

Our arrival at sunset allowed plenty of time for a meal before the sky reached optimum star-viewing darkness. We dined at Romano's Dodge House in Julian. The menu offered basic Italian fare. The gentle lighting was much appreciated by my wife, who was nursing an altitude headache. Our waitress informed us that this room had once been her grandmother's bedroom. She was a Dodge--one of the area's pioneering families--and that name still graced the restaurant building that had once been her family's residence. Her stories of the family's long history in Julian--from mining town to apples--provided real spice for our meal.

Then it was back at the inn for the star attraction. The observatory is below the house. With flashlights Mike Leigh guided us down to the building where we climbed onto a deck, switched off our beams, looked up and gasped in awe. Zillions of stars sparkled above us. Shooting stars traced glittering trails. Not even the most magical Steven Spielberg sky came close to the reality that shimmered overhead. While we were waiting for our "visual purple" (night vision) to develop, Mike began our tour of the night sky by explaining the Earth's position on the edge of our own spiral galactic home--the Milky Way. He directed our attention to the North Star, Scorpio, the Northern Cross, the Big Dipper and other areas that he promised we'd look at through telescopes.

We entered "Tranquillity Base," his name for the observatory. Mike and Caroline had already manually rolled open the roof, but we were sheltered in the 19- by 24-foot observatory--complete with stereo system, wall-to-wall carpeting, heaters, leather couches, coffee and cookies.

And, of course, the three telescopes, which brought us details of the wondrous star-scape. Looking through the telescopes we fully appreciated visual purple--images sharpened as our vision increased. We saw nebulae in the shape of spirals, rings, lagoons, a swan; star clusters that looked like dandelions and fireworks. A binary system called Albireo--a blue star and a gold star 4 billion light years apart--was my wife Diana's favorite view. She retired after that sight saying she wanted to take the vision fresh into her dreams.


Morning began with a lavish breakfast on the sun porch. In the calm of the back country we enjoyed the display of fruit and pastries, savoring the coffee as we discussed the previous night's experience.

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