The Barcroft High Altitude Star Party
is held at the University of California’s Barcroft High
Altitude Research Station, located about 4 miles south of White
Mountain peak, in the White Mountain Range which runs roughly
60 miles north-northwest to south-southeast on the east side of
the Owens Valley in California. The remoteness of the location,
plus an altitude of approx 12,450’ above sea level, affords
visiting amateur astronomers truly world-class viewing conditions
that are yet relatively affordable and easy to access.
Reservations to attend must be submitted no later
than 2 weeks before the event, and a maximum of only 10-12 people
can be there at any given time. Those registrants who sign-up
for the full length of the event will be given preference, as
will club members of the Eastbay Astronomical Society and the
Tri-Valley Stargazers*. Minors must have their parent(s) or guardian
sign a liability waiver. The reservation rate this year is $60
per person per night which includes all meals and snacks, plus
dorm-style sleeping in a darkened room (bring your own sleeping
bag!) If you make a reservation but decide you can't attend, please
do let us know at no later than 10 days before the first day.
BEFORE YOU START: At times, one or more of the
traditional roads up to Barcroft is washed out due to weather
or forest fires. For that reason, it would be a good idea to call
CalTrans at 800-427-7623 to confirm the roads are open. Even better,
check their web
ACCLIMATIZE: Before arriving at Barcroft, it’s
a very good idea to gradually acclimate oneself to less oxygen
in order to avoid altitude sickness. One way to help do this is
to spend time at somewhat higher altitudes for a day or two. Before
making it all the way up to Barcroft, you should try to stay at
least one night either at a motel in Mammoth Lakes at 8,000 feet,
or at the Grandview Campgrounds in the White Mountains at 8,600
feet. Or, if you can manage it, the Bridalveil Creek Campground
near Glacier Point in Yosemite is at 6,980 feet, and on the weekends
during summer, there are public star parties hosted by several
different California astronomy clubs at Glacier Point. Attempting
to stay at the Bridalveil Creek Campground is a bit tricky, though,
as it’s a first-come-first-served car camp, and is usually
full. You can better your odds of getting a campsite if you get
there on Friday or Saturday mornings – that’s when
some campers leave, in order to avoid weekend crowds. Oxygen is
NO LONGER PROVIDED at Barcroft Station. This isn't too big a problem,
because it's a quick hour's drive down from Barcroft to the much
lower altitude Owens Valley (5K' as opposed to the 12.45K' at
Barcroft). If you're still worried, you can bring your own personal
bottled oxygen supply. Please note that portable oxygen concentrator
machines don't work at high altitudes.
The Bridalveil and Grandview car campgrounds have
no running water, but do have pit toilets and tables; Bridalveil
has anti-bear lockers, as well.
*Non-members can only sign-up within two weeks
of the reservation closing date. If any members sign-up within
those last two weeks, and the attendance limits have been exceeded,
non-member reservations may be cancelled with full refunds in
favor of members.
(you can copy/paste these coordinates into Google
Bridalveil Creek Campground
N37° 35'1.58" W118° 14'12.29"
Town of Mammoth Lakes
37° 38.925'N 118° 58.832'W
37° 19.991'N 118° 11.257'W
Barcroft Research Station
37° 35.026'N 118° 14.205'W
BARCROFT AMENITIES: Excellent warm
meals, hot drinks and snacks, satellite TV, videotapes, microwave
oven, a radiotelephone, showers, bathrooms, and a workshop with
tools for any equipment emergencies. The staff is extremely helpful.
Guests are expected to help out with some light cleanup chores.
VEHICLE ADVICE: Make sure your vehicle is in good
working order, with fluids and air filter checked. It’s
also a good idea to let a little air out of your vehicle’s
tires by the time you get to Schulman’s Grove, to avoid
over-inflation at the higher altitude. Make sure you have a functional
spare tire, and it’s best not to speed around once you hit
the dirt road. It takes about 45 minutes to reach the station
from Schulman Grove if you only go 10 – 15mph. If your vehicle
doesn’t have automatic fuel injection, you might want to
learn how to adjust your carburetor for operating at a higher
elevation. If your vehicle has fuel injection, as most vehicles
do, you're in good shape.
DIRECTIONS: To get there from the Bay Area, take
Interstate 580 east to Interstate 205. Continue east on Interstate
205 past I-5 to Highway 120. Continue east on 120 to Highway 99.
Take 99 north one mile into Oakdale where Highways 120 and 108
merge for about 22 miles. At "Yosemite Junction," you
have a choice: you can take 120 to the southeast towards Yosemite,
or you can take 108 northeast towards Bridgeport. Hwy 120 is the
shorter route, but if you go during the daytime, you'll be charged
a Yosemite Park entrance fee of $30 - if you go at night, you
can skip this fee. Hwy 108 avoids this fee, but it adds an additional
25 miles to the trip. If Hwy 120 is closed due to snow, Hwy 108
can again act as an alternate route. Both 108 (Sonora Pass) and
120 (Tioga Pass) end up on Hwy 395 on the east side of the Sierra
Mountain range. Once on Hwy 395, go south for about an hour to
the town of Bishop, and continue on to the smaller town of Big
Pine. MAKE SURE TO REFUEL IN BIG PINE! Premium gas is recommended.
Go east from Big Pine on Hwy 168 which takes you up into the hills.
Just before you get to Westgard Pass, 12.9 miles out of Big Pine,
make a left and go north on a paved road that goes a few miles
to Grandview Campground, and continues on a few more miles to
Schulman Grove; past this, the road turns into a well-graded dirt
road that goes roughly 20 miles north along the spine of the White
Mtns to the Barcroft Station. When you get close, you'll come
to a gate with a couple of signs saying “Barcroft Facility,”
etc.; there may be a chain, but it will be unlocked, so just open
it up, drive through, and be sure to secure it again before continuing
THINGS TO SEE: If you start off early in the day
from Mammoth or Grandview, you might want to stop off at Sierra
View, with a spectacular view of the Owens Valley and the east
side of the Sierra Nevada Mtn Range. About fifteen minutes further
up the road, you’ll come to the Schulman Grove Visitor Center,
where you can spend a good part of the day exploring the Bristlecone
pine forest; at over four-thousand years, they are the oldest
known living organisms on the planet.
THE GOOD NEWS: Seeing can be outstanding (sub-arcsecond),
if the weather cooperates, as there simply isn't much air up there.
Solar viewing is generally excellent. It's an especially good
spot for astrophotography! White Mountain was the second choice
for the twin Keck Telescopes. You'll never forget your view of
the Milky Way from Barcroft.
THE BAD NEWS: It is hard to function when there
is no air. A good source of information can be found in the book,
Mountain Sickness: Prevention, Recognition and Treatment
by Peter Hackett. It's available at at Amazon.com for ~$8.50 (used
copies are much cheaper). One just doesn't think as clearly at
12,000 feet. Visual astronomers should remember that the human
cornea requires oxygen to function. It will take about two nights
for your eyeballs to fully get up to speed. Also, low blood oxygen
levels can make you feel the cold more, SO DRESS WARMLY! Bring
several sets of long underwear (I found that three long johns
were about right). Night temps can reach down into the teens,
and with a bit of wind plus the lack of oxygen, it can make doing
even simple things very difficult. There are a few survival suits
available, if necessary.
THE WEATHER is unusually variable in the White
Mountains due to their location. Don't be surprised if there are
severe thunderstorms and even snow during the late afternoon,
though it often clears out in the early evening even after such
weather. The White Mountains are some of the coldest places in
the continental U.S.
OXYGEN: There are several things to watch out
for at high altitude. When you first get to Barcroft, TAKE IT
EASY! Please go slow for the first day and night. There is an
oxygen dosimeter in the station. Upon arrival, everyone should
measure their pulse rate and oxygen saturation level and write
it in the log on the table in the dining room. You'll be amazed
at the numbers you get. You might also want to compare them with
the numbers you'll get just before you leave. Oxygen saturation
at sea level is usually 95% to 99%. Don't be alarmed if you get
80%. Your pulse will probably be around 100. Dr. Don Parker believes
that Vitamin E ingestion before and during high-altitude stays
alleviates symptoms. There is also a prescription drug called
diamox (acetazolamide) that can help some people who have problems
at altitude. Unless you are a severe case, you are probably better
off without it. Sleep the first night will be a little difficult
for some people due to the altitude, especially if you drive straight
up. IT HELPS A GREAT DEAL TO BE WARM, so bring a good sleeping
The people who usually get high altitude sickness
are those who "tough it out". The symptoms are very
hard to notice until you get pulmonary and/or cerebral edema (excess
water build-up in the lungs or brain; life-threatening conditions)
SO WATCH IT. The first symptom is euphoria. Headaches and/or fatigue
follow in a few hours. If you know or suspect you are prone to
altitude sickness, it might be wise to invest in a personal/portable
oxygen supply. A whiff of oxygen will help almost immediately.
Aspirin will help you sleep and help with the headache, so bring
some. Another symptom that occurs later is irritability, which
will be a problem since we will probably have up to a dozen people
up there in close quarters. Try to be patient with your fellow
astronomers, no matter how stupid they may seem to be at the time,
because chances are that you are being equally stupid. Keep a
watch on your fellow astronomers. If someone seems to be having
problems or is behaving erratically or irrationally, let the staff
know. If you are told to take it easy, please cooperate.
FOOD: All meals and snacks are covered by the
$60 fee, but if you have special dietary needs, do let us know
in advance so the chef can accommodate you. If you have a really
unusual diet beyond "vegan," "gluten-free,"
"low-sodium," low-sugar," etc., you may want to
bring your own food to supplement whatever the Barcroft kitchen
can reasonably provide.
WATER: Another thing to watch for is dehydration.
You don't perspire at altitude --- you vaporize, so you won't
notice how fast you're losing water especially as your thought
processes will be somewhat muddled. So make sure you drink more
fluids than you normally would, except for caffeine drinks and
alcohol, of course. Caffeine is a diuretic, so you lose even more
water. Alcohol impairs judgment (as if your judgment needs to
be even more impaired at 12,000 feet!) and the functioning of
the retina and its effects are heightened by the altitude.
ULTRAVIOLET RADIATION: Another often over-looked
high-altitude problem is sunburn. You think you tan fast at 7,000
feet? Wait till you try 12,000 feet! Remember, there is very little
between you and that big tanning salon in the sky, so make sure
you bring a hat and sunscreen!
HANTAVIRUS AND PLAGUE: Finally, if you haven't
already been scared off, try to stay away from rodents and rodent
excrement! It's hard to believe, but a U.C. researcher once died
from Hantavirus that she got while in the Eastern Sierras 25 miles
north of Bishop. This was the mysterious virus that plagued Indian
reservations back in the '90s. It seems to be caused by either
very close contact with deer mice or by breathing aerosol or dust
contaminated with their urine or feces. Watch for flu-like symptoms.
In addition, some of those cute little rodents are carrying bubonic
plague. You remember, the BLACK DEATH that wiped out one-third
of Europe from 1348 to 1351. You may laugh but I once had to evacuate
my campsite in the Eastern Sierras many years ago due to a plague
infestation of the local rodents.
In an emergency, feel free to call the White Mountain
Research Station office in Bishop at 760-873-4344. Make sure you
take these numbers with you, just in case. The number up at Barcroft,
if the phone is working, is at 760-937-5202. Cell phones can work
if you climb a short road up past the station to where you can
view the Owens Valley.
If you have any more questions, please contact
Don Saito at (510) 301-2570, or firstname.lastname@example.org
day or night.
MISCELLANEOUS: For those
of you who are interested, up Hwy 395 about 15 miles north of
Mono Lake (about halfway between Bridgeport and Lee Vining), and
then east on 270, is the Bodie State Historic Park. Bodie was
a legendary (or perhaps infamous is a better word) mining town
that was famous for its bars, murder rate (at one point it had
the highest per-capita murder rate in the world), and houses of
ill repute. People used to say, "Goodbye God, I'm going to
Bodie!" It's now a ghost town, and kind of interesting. Please
note that no smoking, pets, or firearms are allowed at Barcroft,
and even though it's not Bodie, they do require all visitors to
sign a liability waiver.
If you ever want to do some extreme
amateur astronomy, Barcroft is the premier site in the U.S. to
do it. See you there!