Seeing Stars: Innkeeper's observatory open to guests

By RUTH LEPPER - San Diego Union Tribune
August 15th, 2001

JULIAN, Calif. -- Mike Leigh has a fascination with the stars. And planets. And heavenly bodies.

A few years ago, Leigh, 46, and his wife, Caroline, 42, started looking for property in Julian where they could build an observatory.

"It really started as wanting to make a living out of something I enjoy," Mike Leigh said. "Caroline and I decided we would open a bead and breakfast (with a place) to view the night sky in comfort. We wanted to make a place where people could come, have a dark sky and all the comforts of normal living."

They found their dream location about three miles south of Julian on Highway 79. They call it Observer's Inn. There are two guest rooms separate from the main house. The Leighs live in the house with their sons, Trenton, 11, and Travis, 10.

After moving to Julian in 1998, Mike Leigh commuted to Irvine for six months where he worked for a company that makes telescopes. Caroline Leigh kept her job as manager of a department store. The bed and breakfast was available for guests on weekends.

As word spread about the bed and breakfast with an observatory, Caroline Leigh quit her job and opened the inn full time. Her husband continued to work part time in Irvine, driving 1100 miles weekly, until five months ago.

Now it's a full-time operation for both of them.

"It's a dream come true to be able to work from home," Mike Leigh said. "We schedule time off. Sunday is family day, and Thursday is a day for Caroline and me."

When guests stay over, they join the Leighs in the observatory for a guided tour of the night sky. The tour also is available to other visitors, such as guests from other inns. The observatory houses five research-grade telescopes.


"I think the sizes of the telescopes, just themselves, are intimidating," Mike Leigh said. "With these telescopes, we can even see stars in the daytime."

The largest is a 16-inch telescope with a magnifying power of 200. The two computerized telescopes are programmed to find 64,000 objects on command, Leigh explained.

"I punch in what I want to see, and the telescope moves," he said, demonstrating how swiftly it focuses on a selected object. Inserting a filter brings out more minute details of the stars and planets.

Leigh has had a serious interest in astronomy for 30 years. He easily rattled off the names of stars and their distance in light years from Earth.

"The Andromeda Galaxy is 2.2 million light years away, and you can see it with the naked eye right here in Julian," he said.

Robin and George Shull recently traveled from Pine Valley to be part of the one hour guided sky tour.

"It's neat how you look out there, and you think you're seeing everything there is to see, and you don't really see it," said Robin Shull, 46. "There's so much more to see through the telescope."


George Shull, 49, said he came out of curiousity.

"The moon was the grand finale, it really was," he said.

"The moon itself is a fantastic target," said Mike Leigh. "Normally, what I show is the double stars, the planets, the moon, and the brighter nebulas we can still see even with a full moon."

Guests also have an opportunity to see globular clusters, plantary nebulea and multiple star systems.

Audrey and Bill Black of Rancho Bernardo stayed at the inn recently because of their interest in the sky tour.

"I think it is so great," said Audrey Black, 60. "I particularly liked Mars. The brightness of it, the uniqueness of it. You don't see that with the naked eye."

The tour is included in the overnight rate at Observer's Inn. Visitors who are not staying at the inn pay $20 a person. For more information, call (760)765-0088.