Yes! We went to the path of totality for the great eclipse of 2017. This trip was five years in the making, but we only seriously started planning about a year ago. Our first idea was to drive to the nearest location of totality, which would have been in maybe Kentucky or Tennessee. But the humidity of the eastern US made me worry about cloud cover, so we decided to go west. As it turned out, most places in the East had good weather on eclipse day, but I have no regrets about the extra travel to get west. We figured that if we were going to take time off work and shell out for a trip, it was worth a few dollars more to maximize the chance of a good view.
It came down to either eastern Oregon or Wyoming. Eastern Oregon had slightly better weather odds, but it looked hard to get to without a whole lot of driving. So we went with Wyoming, specifically eastern Wyoming away from the mountains which tend to generate and trap clouds. We could get there in about three hours from the Denver airport, which is easily reachable for us on Southwest.
We ended up staying in Guernsey, Wyoming in a very nice, new hotel at reasonable rates. But that took some doing, and it’s a good thing we planned ahead. Shortly before the eclipse, rooms were going for $500-$1,000 a night with multi-day minimum stays, and rental cars at the Denver airport were $1,500 a day. That is not an exaggeration. There were thousands of tents in campgrounds and on ranchland, all along the roads. One place in Guernsey was asking $150 for (I assume overnight) parking space.
|Tents pitched in a grassy area between a hotel parking lot and the North Platte River on the morning of the eclipse (Guernsey, Wyoming)|
The National Weather Service had a cloud cover prediction that was updated twice a day or so. Guernsey was well within the path of totality, but 48 hours before the eclipse, the NWS was calling for over 30% cover versus 5% in Casper, about an hour and a half west. So we planned on getting up really early on Monday and driving up to Casper. But on Sunday night the prediction changed, to 15% around Guernsey and 25% in Casper, but with a wide band of 5% in between. We decided to go to Glendo State Park, in the 5% zone, keeping open the option of moving around if there was a reason to. It's a good thing we didn't try to go to Casper, because we'd never have made it. We would have watched the eclipse from our car on the side of I-25. By 8 a.m., I-25 west of Glendo was at a standstill, filled with people from Denver who'd left at 3 or 4 a.m. That was too late; we talked to people who'd left at 2 a.m. and they'd reached their viewing spots just as the traffic was locking up. People who didn't leave Denver until 7 a.m. never made it out of Colorado.
Local totality time was 11:45 a.m. When we pulled out of Guernsey at 7 a.m., the roads were moving well. There was some congestion near the park, but no real line at the ticket booth (the state of Wyoming charged a very reasonable $6 a car, compared to some private viewing sites in Casper that were asking $50 or more.)
|View from Wyoming Route 319 just south of Glendo, parallel to I-25, which is where the line of traffic is sitting. This was about 7:30 am.|
Glendo State Park was set up really well – I’d estimate there were 5,000 cars there and space was available for many more, although there was not enough road to accommodate entry and exit (more on that later.) Several college astronomy departments had tents up, and the University of Wyoming gave us free t-shirts. Some people had large (10-inch or bigger) fancy-looking telescopes. We parked and walked over to a pavilion where we struck up a conversation with a guy from Italy. He invited us to observe some sunspots using filtered binoculars on a tripod. We also met a space weather specialist from the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab and I had a long talk with her about the ins and outs of government-funded research. But most importantly – there was not a cloud in the sky!
|Eclipse watchers near Bennett Hill, Glendo State Park. The tripod holds the filtered binoculars of our new Italian friend.|
|Panoramic view at the foot of Bennett Hill|
Near the pavilion was flat-topped, rocky Bennett Hill with a path leading up. We trekked up the hill around 10:00, and found about 200 people at the top, some in folding chairs, some standing around, and some sitting on the bare ground. The view from up there was tremendous, eclipse or none – it must have been 50 miles from horizon to treeless horizon. The atmosphere was very slightly hazy from some wildfires several states away, but that was only noticeable along the ground. The overhead sky was clear and blue. We had heard that if you have a wide enough view, you could see the shadow of totality advancing across the ground at something like twice the speed of sound. I venture to say that the only way to improve on this viewing spot would have been to go airborne, which some people did in a helicopter and a hot-air balloon we saw overhead. Many videos taken from the hill can be found on YouTube.
|View from atop Bennett Hill|
|On Bennett Hill, pre-eclipse|
|Eclipse watchers on Bennett Hill, Glendo State Park, Wyoming|
|The boys bought these t-shirts at the Casper Eclipse Festival the day before.|
One lady had a big white sheet spread on the ground to capture the shadow bands that are supposed to happen just before totality. But the buildup to totality had us all a little bored. You could see the moon covering the sun using eclipse glasses, but it was so clear and sunny that it didn’t get noticeably darker until about 15 minutes before totality. We listened to “Brain Damage/Eclipse” by Pink Floyd, just as I'd planned it five years ago. Then the light became…the only word is unworldly. An antelope was spotted near the top of the hill within a couple of minutes of totality, and it drew everyone’s attention. I wanted to yell out, “Forget the antelope!”
Totality came on very suddenly, which is characteristic of being right in the middle of the path, which we were. It happened too fast to look for shadow bands, and I didn’t see the approaching shadow or any Baily’s Beads. (In fact, I'm skeptical that the approach of a distinct shadow is ever visible, because we didn't see it under these near-perfect conditions.) The temperature dropped but I didn’t notice any change in the wind. The sky darkened as if someone had quickly turned down the knob on an adjustable room light. The stars came out, and the horizon took on the pink-orange of a sunset at all azimuths, not just in the west. We had rehearsed the taking of a single picture of my boys and me with the corona in the background, and got that out of the way quickly. Then we just looked at the corona.
I can only partially capture it in words. There was an illusion of the sun only being a few thousand feet high. There were three very long white streamers from the corona, much longer than you see in pictures. A high airplane crossed the corona, leaving a faint contrail. The corona looked like a bright, white, round fire with a perfectly circular hole in the middle of it. The boundary between the umbra (dark circle in the center) and the corona was very slightly dynamic, not like a flame. The corona streamers were stable. It could easily be viewed without eclipse glasses; the brightness was not harsh on the eyes. I could have watched it for hours, but of course it ended after two and a half minutes. Then we were treated to a very distinct “diamond ring” before the sun’s photosphere was uncovered again, and the lights went back on. There was an artificial quality to it – like a very high-quality planetarium show, only it covered the entire goddamned sky. It is no exaggeration that a Siberian tiger could have waltzed through the crowd during totality and nobody would have noticed.
After totality, people started down from the hill. The rest of the eclipse was anticlimactic and only the real astronomy buffs continued to observe it. Everything had gone perfectly, just as planned, up to this point. Then…
It took about half an hour to walk back to our car, and I foolishly started the engine as if we were going to just drive off. But the cars were at a standstill on the only road out. So I turned off the engine and we waited another half hour. The next two hours were short periods of driving down the exit road interrupted by long periods of standstill waiting. It was only about 80 degrees, but inside the rental car it got hot quickly with the engine and A/C off. The fun was only starting.
We intended to go west on I-25, then cut south at Casper to Independence Rock and thence on to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, normally about a five-hour drive. But we didn’t even exit the park onto Wyoming Route 319 for two hours. We were moving so slowly that we were able to get out and visit the porta-johns between movements of the vehicle line. Kids were selling water and popsicles from wagons, and they were moving a lot faster than we were. Once on the road, nothing sped up. There was another line of jammed cars coming in the opposite direction, which we soon figured out were eclipse viewers leaving from Casper who had hit a huge traffic jam on I-25 south and had exited thinking the state route would be faster. There were trucks off-roading it, driving on the dirt path along the railroad that ran between I-25 and the state highway. People were hanging out windows and sunroofs, sitting on top of campers, and walking along the roadside. I got out and walked for a while myself, to stretch my back. Usually it was the car that had to catch up to me, not the other way around. It was like the traffic jam scene from Woodstock.
Three hours and fifteen miles later we came to US 20, which cut us over to I-25 north. At the intersection of Wyoming 319 and US 20 there was a stop sign, with nobody directing traffic. There must have been three or four thousand cars in that line of traffic, and every one of them was stopping at the stop sign. Assume the stop takes five seconds, multiply by 3,000 and you quickly understand the cause of the delay.
When we finally got onto I-25, we could see stopped traffic on the southbound side stretching for twenty or thirty miles. It was the biggest traffic jam I’ve ever seen, and I used to live in Los Angeles. I-25 north was clear, but our plan of going to Steamboat Springs was in the trash. We made it to Casper by 6 p.m., having spent seven hours in the car already, and called it quits. There is no way I was going to drive hundreds more miles of unlit two-lane Wyoming state highway after that much car fatigue.
The only problem was, we had no room reserved in Casper and there was no possible way to get south back towards Cheyenne with the traffic. There were only three towns of any size between Glendo and Casper, and they didn't look like they had any hotels. The distances in the western Great Plains are orders of magnitude longer than in other parts of the country, and there can be sixty miles between cities that have even basic services.
With the eclipse crowd not completely out of Casper, we ended up paying $250 for a smoking room at a low-end Days Inn. It may well have been the last room in town. We also had to forfeit a night’s room charge in Steamboat Springs because it was a nonrefundable reservation. We headed to Independence Rock and Colorado the next day, but the traffic cost us an entire day out of our vacation.
Verdict: Worth every penny and every iota of hassle. People have lived their whole lives without seeing a total solar eclipse and that's almost tragic.
Lessons learned: Stay near a big city if the path permits it. They’re set up to accommodate hundreds of thousands of tourists; Wyoming isn’t. You can keep your location flexible, to avoid cloud cover, until the day of the event, but don’t expect to be mobile on eclipse day. You're going to have to just hunker down and hope the sky is clear. Thus the importance of getting to an area with good overall weather odds. (If everyone in a large city ever had to leave suddenly due to some kind of calamity, and there was no special traffic pattern set up, the scene would be very, very bad. I have new respect for the people who do this type of disaster planning.) Reserve your room and car at least a year in advance, and try not to tack on side trips for a couple days on either side of the eclipse. But most of all…do it if you possibly can.