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The Webfooted Astronomer - July 2000


A Newcomer's Guide to the Table Mountain Star Party

By Laurie Moloney

WHEN I went to my first Table Mountain Star Party nearly 10 years ago, I had no idea what to expect. It ended up being a marvelous experience, but I could have been better prepared. This article is for those of you who have never experienced a Table Mountain Star Party. I hope my experiences will help your first trip be a successful one.

I dragged along my brother, who didn't have much interest in astronomy, but was game for adventure. We decided to go up Saturday afternoon and get a hotel in Ellensburg. This was our first mistake. There was some sort of cattle convention in town and all the hotels were full. Oh well, we were young—who needs sleep?

We left Ellensburg and headed up the mountain. The one-lane road was paved most of the way with occasional turnouts. It was hot in Ellensburg, but the temperature dropped quickly as we climbed. The road turned to gravel about five miles before we saw a bunch of tents, cars, and RVs in a large meadow on the rise to our left. These were the days when there was no registration booth, no parking maps, and no espresso stand! The telescope field was full of more telescopes than I'd ever seen at once. And the trees were full of tents and RVs.

That year, there was a partial eclipse of the sun. We followed a bunch of people up to Lion's Rock for a better view. I had no eye protection, but many people shared their filters with us. Someone let us look through their scope to see the Moon's mountains against the sun. It was the first solar eclipse I'd ever seen, and I was stunned.

As it got darker and we went back to the telescope field, the clouds moved in. But around 11 p.m., the sky cleared suddenly. I didn't have a telescope, but people were more than willing to give us a look through their scopes. We spent most of our time between two 10-inch SCTs. That night I saw for the first time M57, M51, M81 and M82, and M13. Then we heard Tom Colwell's "Planetarium Under the Stars" talk at midnight. Finally, we tore ourselves away and headed back to Seattle. We arrived home at 6 a.m. tired, but happy. I consider that first year a reconnaissance mission. The next year we camped down the road at Salmon la Sac (the mountain drive in the middle of the night wasn't fun). The next year I packed up all my gear and camped next to my scope and fellow astronomers. I learned this is the only way to get into the true spirit of the TMSP. I've gone every year since and watched it grow into a great event. Here are some tips to help you enjoy your first Table Mountain Star Party.

The weather is totally unpredictable

Don't rely on a weather report out of Ellensburg. Table Mountain makes it's own weather. One year it was 90 during the day and very warm at night. Another year it rained for days and was very cold and cloudy. This was, of course, the year I went up early on Tuesday. It suddenly cleared up Saturday night after I had packed up my soggy tent to go home. It seems that every other year is a good one. Last year was cold, cloudy and wet, so perhaps this year it will be warm, dry, and clear.

Sometimes the wind blows hard. Anchor your canopy and tent well, or they will blow away. I remember the year my telescope blew over. I now lay down the mount when I'm not using it. If you wear contacts, the dust will get in your eyes. The dust will cover everything, so bring a tarp to put over your telescope equipment when you're not using it.

You will need more clothes than you brought

It gets cold at night at 6,000 feet, but it's even colder when you're standing around not moving, and even colder when it's raining. Pack like you're going on an expedition to the North Pole and a trip to the equator. You will use your shorts and t-shirt and in a few hours switch to long johns, electric socks, a heavy parka, and gloves.

Tents heat up very early in the morning

I've been awakened by a very warm tent as early as 6 a.m. You won't find any shade, especially if you want to camp near the telescope field. If you want a coveted camping spot in the trees, you'll have to get there a week early. One solution is to bring along some of those shiny emergency blankets and tape them to the outside of your tent, or bring a canopy.

Be willing to get cozy with your neighbor

The Table Mountain Star Party is well attended, and there are hundreds of campsites concentrated in a small area. Your camp will likely be just a few feet from the next one. You will hear the guy in the tent next door snoring, and you will see perfect strangers brush their teeth in the morning. But everyone has astronomy in common and people are very considerate of each other. There's a quiet time until 10 a.m., but when you're that close together, it's hard to be totally quiet. Bring earplugs if you want to sleep in. One of my best TMSP memories was drinking hot chocolate and visiting with my fellow astronomers in a rainstorm. Everyone congregated in the camp with a canopy.

Bring everything, even the kitchen sink

It's fun to walk around the mountain and look at how people set up their camps and observing sites. Some simply have a two-person tent and their scope. Others have elaborate set ups with a camp kitchen, showers, tents with patios, RVs, and portable observatories. I've even seen a yurt! Bring a chair for the speaker sessions and the door prize drawing.

Unless you want hamburgers and hot dogs all weekend, you will want to bring a camp stove and some food. I've seen gourmet meals prepared at some camps, but others buy all their meals from the vendors. There is no water up there, so bring plenty. Remember no open fires are allowed for fire safety reasons and to keep from ruining night vision. Double-check your equipment before you leave. I've seen people forget counterweights, eyepieces, and batteries for clock drives. There are lots of vendors on the mountain, but they don't always have what you need.

No white (or pink) lights allowed

If you don't want to be booted off the mountain, always use red light. You can cover a regular flashlight with something red, but make sure you cover it very well. I've had my night vision ruined with pink lights or very bright red ones. The best bet is to get a red LED light from the vendors on the mountain, or you can get a military flashlight with a red lens from an Army surplus store. Always point lights at the ground. A red light in the eye can mess up night vision, too. And remember to turn off your dome light before you open the car and cover the lights in your RV.

The Table Mountain Star Party is a fun and unique experience. It's definitely worth packing up everything and enduring all kinds of weather. For more information, see the TMSP Web site at

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