Stars Over Yosemite Q & A

FAQ about the Glacier Point star parties
in Yosemite National Park

By Jim Van Nuland

[Excerpts from my e-mail, newest on top]

It’s my first time driving to Yosemite.
What route do you suggest? Any tips?
(Updated 130810)

If you have not been already done so, download and print Gary’s detailed directions and driving tips, including the camp and setup areas.  Gary’s recommendation is to take I-680 and 580 past Livermore, then I-205 to California 120 which enters the park. Watch for CA41, leading to Glacier Point Road.  Write Gary with comments and suggestions.

Jim’s recommendation is is to go south on US101, CA.152 east across Pacheco Pass, CA.33 north to Gustine, then CA.140 east to Merced.  Fuel up here! Gas gets more expensive with elevation. Continue on CA.140 through Mariposa, along the Merced River, and into the park.  Pick up CA.41 leading to Glacier Point road. This has more twisty roads and is about 45 minutes longer, but roughly the same distance.  I feel that the beauty of the Merced River is worth it.

But the northern route has scenic places too! Regardless of your route, be sure to read Gary’s directions for the information on the camp and telescope setup area, tips from a very experienced astronomer and Yosemite-goer.

Many thanks to Gary Mitchell for his help with this item, and for his detailed directions and tips.

Why the “leaving windows?”
Why not leave when I’m ready to go?

The first “leaving window” will start at midnight, with the second at 3:00 am.

This will give you about 90 minutes after the public part of the star party. Please don’t jump the gun — some people may be running a photo shoot planned to end just before midnight.

The 3 am leaving window may seem a long time after the first, but consider that we can bring in just a few vehicles at a time, and the loading will take some time as we stumble around on the irregular and unfamiliar ground. So it will be about an hour after midnight, until darkness again reigns supreme.

Glacier Point presents an unusual set of problems, as we are not allowed to keep our vehicles in the observing area, there is room for only a few of them, and it’s a considerable distance to the parking lot (0.1 to 0.2 mile). Add the hills, stairs, and irregular surfaces, and it’s a tough nut!

At past Glacier Point star parties, we have had no specific times for leaving the star party site. So there would be intermittent but frequent instances of one or two people driving in to load up. The observing area would be swept by lights, which interfered greatly with observing and photography. We come this far from home to obtain a superb dark sky, and we all like to have as much of it as possible.

Do cell phones work in Yosemite National Park?
What carriers are supported?

They will work in some places at Glacier Point, and at some places in the Valley, including the valley Store. In 2012, there was adequate signal at The Point when parked in the
upper part of the parking lot, and also in the setup area. There was a strong signal at the Wawona Tunnel overlook parking lot.  There was no signal in the Bridalveil Creek Camp, loop C. I did not try other places.

In 2012, a “smart” cell phone was used in the setup area to access the internet for weather information.

Only ATT is supported. If anyone knows of any others, or more places where access is available, please write to Jim.

Is WiFi internet access available?

Not at Glacier Point nor in the camp.  But see previous question regarding cell phones.

See the Park’s internet page regarding the valley hotels that provide some access at a considerable cost.

In some years, we have a Sunday.   Will we have a much smaller crowd?

Yes. Our experience in 2010 was that we had about 2/3 the number of astronomers, and perhaps 1/3 the number of guests, compared to Friday and Saturday.

I see warning signs about bears. Has this really been
a problem? Or are the rangers merely being cautious?

Yes, there often are bears in the camp and at Glacier Point; it’s no exaggeration. They are active day and night, sniffing around for anything that smells like food. The bear pictures at the bottom of the SJAA Yosemite page  were taken at Glacier Point by amateur astronomers.

In one case, a tent was cut open and a sleeping bag removed by a bear; clearly the bag smelled of food. A human would have simply unzipped the tent.

In 2007 we had two bears near the setup area. When the astronomers were off to one side, a bear snatched an equipment bag that had candy in it. The bag was found 20 feet away, one end neatly sliced open and the candy removed, with nothing spilled on the ground. The following night, we were adamant about NO SNACKS at the star party. We had no trouble.

In 2009, Rangers were at the star parties all evening, and chased bears as they came sniffing around.

In 2011, Rangers were putting notices (I did not see any citations) on any vehicles that appeared to have food (coolers, etc.) in them. Leave it all in the bear boxes in the campground! There are also some bear boxes in the Glacier Point parking lot. They are at the back of the lot, just past the bend at the rear.

For information on what to do, how to store food, etc., see the park’s bear information page.

> What about the gate pass?
> Can I get in without it?

Without the gate pass, you’d pay the $20 entrance fee. However, if the park is full, people could be turned away, but the gate pass would get you in. The Golden Age Pass will get you in for free, but I don’t know if it would get you in if the park is full.

You will also need the pass to get out of the park without paying another admission, so hang onto it. It is also needed to show that you are allowed to use the reserved camp sites.

If the gatekeeper doesn’t understand the pass, or if you have lost it, ask for a visitor’s pass to visit Ranger Dick Ewert at Glacier Point. Then see me for a replacement, or have Dick (or another ranger) sign the visitor’s pass.

Are we expected to bring our own tents, camp stoves and other gear, and food?

Yes. Bring everything, including filled refillable water containers. Cold water is available but not everywhere. There is a mix of pit and flush toilets. Baths consist of warming a bit of water on the camp stove and sponging off the day’s dust and sweat. Baby Wipes did the job for me, but I do no hiking, so I’m probably not as dusty or sweaty as some others.

Is there a store in the park? What about ice?

There is a small store and fast food place at Glacier Point, but it does not have ice. The posted hours are 9 to 6 every day, that applies to the store (tee-shirts, etc.). The fast food part closes early if they don’t have customers, possibly two hours early.

The big store (groceries, clothing, ice, etc.) is in the valley, about 30 miles and about an hour each way. They have bagged ice cubes. To find it, follow signs for “Yosemite Village”. While following them, also watch for “Store”, and switch to following those.

Bring as much as you can from home! The parking lot is big, but often it’s entirely full, especially after noon.  And though the valley is utterly beautiful, traffic is often very
heavy and very slow.

Be careful when leaving the store. There are two exits that look alike (big showcase of beverages on the right, cash registers on the left). They lead to parking lots on opposite sides of the building.

What camp sites are reserved for astronomers?

In the past our sites have been on the “C” loop, sites 81, 83, 85, 94, and 95. All are on the left side the road, along a long curve. The curve and sites enclose a large common area “behind” the sites, where tents can be set up.

Sites 89 and 93 are also on the left (between 85 and 94, of course), but are not reserved for us. If you come up early, try to buy one of these sites for the weekend.

What sort of weather should we expect?

Sunny and hot days, chilly evenings. Possibly thunder and lightning, rain and wind. Yosemite is not within the San Jose coastal climate. Sometimes we’ve had smoke from a forest fire.

At Glacier Point (elevation 7200 ft), days can reach 95 and nights nearer 40. The valley (4000 ft) can be as much as 20 degrees higher. Bring a big heavy coat, light jacket, two flannel shirts, shorts, long lined pants, and on top of all, a warm cap.  The air chills suddenly about 5 to 6 pm.

Is a GPS receiver useful?

GPS receivers do pretty well on the drive up to the gates. They are erratic on the park roads because trees are abundant and radio-opaque. In the Valley, they fail due to the trees and steep rock walls.

Is gasoline available in the park?

There is a gas station on the road from the Crane Flat entrance, just south of the junction of Hwy.41 and 120. In 2011, the price was about 20% more than in San Jose.

When you are driving to Yosemite, you’ll probably go through Oakdale or Merced. Fill the gas tank there — from now on, the price goes up with elevation. It’s about 115 miles from Oakdale to Glacier Point. From Merced it’s about 102 miles to The Point.

How far away are the nearest non-camping accommodations?

The nearest is a small community / development called Yosemite West. It has some hotels and a Bed & Breakfast.  Google on “Yosemite West”. Some of our members have stayed there. From Glacier Point, the entrance to Yosemite West is about 17 miles (as compared to 9 miles from The Point into the camp).

Are camp sites available in Bridalveil Campground on Friday?

Odds are against it; perhaps early in the day. You have a better chance on Thursday. Sites cost $14/day in 2012

What other information may I find?

The park’s own FAQ page has lots of answers, and links to even more.

Clear Skies!

Mail to Jim Van Nuland.

Page last updated: 2013 Sep 6, 1707 hours, pdt