My old apartment had a clear view of Mount Wilson, and sometimes when I’d see low lying clouds floating below the 5,700-foot summit, I’d have this crazy compulsion: I need to go there now. All I’d have to do was hop on the 2, head up Angeles Crest Highway and careen along the cliff-hugging pavement of Red Box Road through patches of dense fog. It would be a questionable amount of effort, sure, but about an hour later, I’d be above the clouds, breathing in the crisp air of an evergreen forest and watching the sun set below the marine layer. Or… I’d be seeing nothing but the zero-visibility interior of a cloud—assuming, of course, the roads hadn’t been closed due to heavy rain or snow.
It turns out these altitude-seeking treks are totally unnecessary to take in the mountaintop views. Enter the Mount Wilson Observatory webcam, the easiest way to get a glimpse of Los Angeles from up above the clouds without even leaving your couch.
There are actually two sets of webcams; UCLA’s Department of Physics & Astronomy operates the easiest to navigate one. Simply head to the towercam site and every couple of minutes it’ll pull in a clean, high-res photo from atop the 150-foot solar tower.
Each image is almost postcard-perfect: The camera is pointed toward the white dome of the century-old 100-inch telescope, the world’s largest for a chunk of the early 20th century, and it’s perfectly framed against the sometimes-snowcapped peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains. Wisps of clouds sometimes lap against the summit. But there are also plenty of times you may pull up the webcam and see… nothing. Just thick fog, snow caked all over the lens or even a blank signal. There can be some beautiful moments to behold because of inclement weather, too, but happening upon them requires a lot of luck or a lot of time spent checking on the cam.
That’s where the second set of cameras comes in (my personal ongoing obsession during this particularly wet spring). The High Performance Wireless Research and Education Network operates about a half-dozen different cameras on the mountain’s peak, with minute-by-minute photos and time-lapse animations recorded from each. The University of California San Diego-led project specializes in monitoring things like astronomical and seismic data, particularly in some of SoCal’s most remote spots (most of the webcams are stationed in San Diego, Riverside and Imperial counties, in addition to one stationed in Topanga). But for us non-academics, the Mount Wilson site is an opportunity to check in on some stunning views of each cardinal direction: north toward the area’s rugged interior, east along the curve of the mountains, south into the San Gabriel Valley and west toward L.A. and the ocean.
HPWREN’s fisheye perspectives may not seem instantly as photogenic as UCLA’s single cam, but the magic is in its back catalog: Scroll down the page to the links that say “data” and you’ll find images saved every minute from each camera, dating back to late 2018. That’s a year and a half of sunrises over the San Gabriels and sunsets on the Pacific—and also specific moments in time, like blurry bursts of fireworks on the Fourth of July or, on the harrowing end, the far-off flames and billowing smoke of the Woolsey Fire.
The most jaw-dropping asset, though, is the trove of time-lapse animations generated every three hours (accessible under the “post-interval generated animations” header on the site, or with the MP4 folders nested within the “data” links). It’s here that you can watch time play out at warp speed as clouds rise and fall, the sun comes up and down over the mountains and marine layer, and snowstorms sweep across the summit. This astounding perspective of the peak far outweighs whatever presence you lose by not being there in person.
So now, when I see clouds drifting near Mount Wilson, I have this other crazy compulsion: to click over to the webcam.
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