Soulful Travel: Robert Ferguson Observatory at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park

Robert Ferguson Observatory at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park

Make your next trip a true experience. Unplug, unwind and appreciate every detail of your travel destination. Sometimes, by slowing down and taking in the sites, you can uncover something deep within yourself. 

Here, we help you experience the magic of Robert Ferguson Observatory, a hidden gem, and Northern California’s most active public observatory, tucked away at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.

Robert Ferguson Observatory
Robert Ferguson Observatory at Sugarloaf Ridge State Park

The Wheel and The Wanderers

At the dawn of civilization, mankind spent its days in earnest toil — planting crops, building cities, and paving the way for the arts and sciences. But at night, whether gathered together by fireside or wandering alone on a grassy hill, people would have found their eyes magnetically drawn to the night sky, which filled their imaginations with speculations about the nature of the universe and mankind’s place within it.

Over the eons, two observed phenomenon would have risen above all others. First, sky-watchers would have noticed a kind of wheel that rotates across the firmament, with dawn breaking through one of 12 different star groupings for about a month. This rotating band of astral clusters became known as the zodiac, Greek for “animal wheel.” Second, the innumerable lights that speckle the sky are all fixed in relationship to one another — all of them, that is, except for the seven who wander. These curious entities became known as “planets,” from the Greek for “wandering star,” and, besides the rising and setting sun and the waxing and waning moon, include Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

These two nighttime phenomenon — the wheel and the wanderers — yielded numbers that became so deeply embedded in the structure of reality that, like all things painfully obvious, they’re easy to forget. But you can re-familiarize yourself with the night sky — and the mystery of the numbers 7 and 12 — at the Robertson Ferguson Observatory, located just a few miles off Highway 12 at the top of a winding road in Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.

Robert Ferguson Observatory Telescope

Founded in 1995 by its eponymous benefactor, the Robert Ferguson Observatory is home to the largest public telescope on the West Coast. On clear nights, events hosted by the Valley of the Moon Observatory Association draw more than 200 guests, who mingle with astronomy hobbyists who set up their own telescopes and share their knowledge and enthusiasm. Inside the observatory, there are informative lectures, along with the chance to gander at stars and planets through the RFO’s three large telescopes. The observatory is also situated near a three-mile “solar system trail,” with scale models of the planets placed to show their relative distance from one another. For a calendar of upcoming events, click here.

Saturn on the Solar System Trail
Saturn on the Planet Walk Trail

As you walk the solar system trail, let your mind wander like those seven celestial objects that pass through the 12 star clusters, and you’ll soon realize that seven and 12 are woven into every aspect of daily reality, starting with the way we calculate the passing of time. The 24 hours it takes the Earth to rotate around its axis are grouped into the seven days of the week named for each planet. Next, the annual journey of the Earth around the sun is divided into 12 months of approximately 30 days and degrees, for a total of roughly 360 for the sun to rise in all 12 houses of the wheel in the sky.

What other examples of seven and 12 can we name? On the positive side, there are seven colors that light disperses in a prism, as well as the seven energy wheels in the body known as chakras in Sanskrit. On the danger side lie the seven deadly sins ready to ensnare those of weak virtue, and seven heads of the mythological serpent known as the hydra. Somewhere in between are the antiheroes of the legendary film “The Magnificent Seven,” which is based on another cinematic icon, “The Seven Samurai.” As for 12, it tallies the number of apostles, gods of Mount Olympus, and labors of Hercules, not to mention everything you can buy cheaper by the dozen.

But there’s something else deeply woven in your everyday reality that reveals the great mystery of these two numeric divinities seven and 12 and their intimate relationship with the structure of everything around us.

Sugarloaf Ridge State Park
Sugarloaf Ridge State Park

The term “music of the spheres” refers not to a kind of cosmic symphony you can listen to, but you can “download” it into your consciousness every time you gaze at the sky, whether through a high-powered telescope — the big one at RFO took 10 years to build — or with the naked eye. The term, which originates in the Pythagorean school of ancient Greece, refers to the silent majesty of the universe, with the planetary obits held in perfect sync by their luminous conductor, the sun.

And so, as if directed by some inescapable logic, the Western musical system is based on seven tones — do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti — plus 12 harmonic key signatures, which account for all the black and white ivories on a piano. The revelation that comes from all this — so simple and yet so awe-inspiring — is that the days of the week, from Manic Monday to Sunday Fun Day, and the structural foundation of our favorite songs are all part of one unified thing, cooperatively organized by the forces of the universe and human intelligence.

And the name for this one unified thing is cosmos.

Sonoma County Observatory
Needle Galaxy, photo courtesy of Robert Ferguson Observatory

We moderns mostly think “cosmos” refers specifically to the field of astronomy and the study of outer space, but for the ancients, the term denoted the entire created universe, including physical matter in both the heavens and earth, as well as the invisible and dynamic world of human consciousness. Rekindling our innate sense of wonder when viewing the night sky opens up the pathway to seeing the interconnectedness of everything, and the “it’s all one thing” sense of the cosmos — which includes not just the stars, but you the human being looking up at them through a telescope — is one of the most powerful experiences you can have.

When it hits you, all forlorn feelings of being inconsequential, abandoned, or a speck of worthless dust in a random, hostile universe melt away. The merging-with-infinity feeling is the bridge between you as microcosm and universe as macrocosm, with each reflecting the other as if in a mirror. If pursued with gentle patience and stillness inside, this path can take you to the most powerful sense of affirmation possible, the keen intuition that you are part of everything around you, and it, in the most mysterious way, is part of you.

Other Soulful Adventures

This trip to Robert Ferguson Observatory is just one of a series on soulful travel. For other experiences, visit our Soulful Travel page.

Remember the Leave No Trace Principles

Experiencing our destination through the Sonoma County Leave No Trace Seven Principles gives travelers an opportunity to make a difference. Together, we can protect and preserve this special corner of the world for generations to come. Find more info about sustainable travel in Sonoma County here.

For a list of local businesses helping promote the important message of Leave No Trace, click here.

Written by Christian Chensvold

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