Oregon is blessed that a total solar eclipse is slicing across the state this August. The path of totality — where the moon and sun will perfectly align for minutes, the former blocking out the latter — looks like a belt snugly securing its midsection from west to east.
In Eastern Oregon that belt crosses over Baker City, Fossil, John Day, Ontario, Prairie City and Seneca, as well as countless other farm fields and timbered hills and sagebrush flats.
A total eclipse crossing America from coast to coast has not happened in a century, so it will likely draw quite a crowd from places not lucky enough to fall within the belt. Travel Oregon is expecting a million visitors to descend on this state alone.
Almost two-thirds of all Americans live within 500 miles of the totality zone, and many will make that drive. Emergency responders are expecting that if just two percent do, it will cause the largest traffic jam in American history.
Kelly Beatty, editor of astronomy magazine Sky & Telescope, described recently on NPR what the eclipse will look and feel like: “Where the sun was, there is a black bullet hole in the sky. You see the sun’s feathery corona, its atmosphere. Who knew the sun had an atmosphere, like electric white cotton candy? The sky gets dark. Stars come out. It gets colder. It’s a multi-sensory extravaganza.”
Beatty has flown across the world to see them, so you can bet that people will drive a few hours or more to squeeze into the path of totality and bear witness. And Eastern Oregon will prove especially popular, due to its often clear skies, empty spaces and lack of viewshed obstructions. Should locals beat the crowds or join them? Here are some ideas on how to spend the day.
Stay home, stay safe, save money
What: Staying outside the totality zone and sleeping in your own bed
Where: All of Umatilla and Morrow counties
Perhaps fighting all the traffic, jockeying for camping space or paying out the wazoo for a plot of land to park your RV sounds like a stressful trip and a waste of time and money.
Nothing is simpler than taking a long lunch break and watching the partial eclipse from your back porch in Umatilla or Morrow counties. In Pendleton, the eclipse will hit about 95 percent of totality, and a little less than that in Hermiston.
While that sounds like a big number, the difference between 95 percent and 100 percent will be dramatic. The world around you will not become dark as night, stars won’t come out and birds likely won’t roost. In fact, if you’re not looking at the sun or aware of the commotion, you may not notice the slow dimming of the sky that will increase incrementally over the course of hours. Also, you won’t be able to look directly at the sun without the use of protective lenses.
And by staying in town, you won’t be able to avoid all the eclipse-seeker congestion either. The interstates will be clogged across the region, supermarkets and gas stations will have long lines, restaurants will be overwhelmed.
It may take much longer than usual to drive 70 miles or so south, but the experience will be vastly better there than in much of Umatilla and Morrow counties.
Splurge on top-notch arts and science
What: Atlas Obscura’s Total Eclipse festival of science, music and celestial wonder
Where: Roughly 30 miles east of Baker City in the Burnt River Valley
Cosmos-inspired jazz of the Sun Ra Arkestra should be enough to entice anyone to spend time in an field in the Burnt River Valley while the moon and sun become one.
Add to the music the director of outreach for Columbia University’s Department of Astronomy, editors and writers from The Atlantic, Scientific American, Atlas Obscura and the organizations National Parks at Night and Science Friday, and you’re bound to get a remarkable explanation of what you’re witnessing and cogent analysis of the celestial forces at play in our solar system and our lives.
You will pay for the pleasure, however. The Atlas Obscura bash has a general admission ticket starting at $250. That ticket allows you to bring your own camping equipment and set up camp on a private, irrigated meadow. There are more luxurious “glamping” options available, too — a deluxe tent cabin for two people and two nights will set you back a cool $1,500. According to organizers, everything you need will be on site: food and water, bathroom facilities, medics and a general store.
For a once-in-a-lifetime event, surrounded by people who can help explain it and express how it makes you feel, it very well could be worth letting someone else take care of the essentials, allowing you to keep your eye on the sky. Pay-to-sleep-in-your-own-tent options abound across Eastern Oregon with similar prices, and nowhere near the high-class amenities.
Get wild, get free
Where: Atop the 9,038-foot summit of Strawberry Mountain
What: Backcountry camping, hiking
Go early, beat the crowds and disappear into a wilderness area well before Eastern Oregon’s highways and byways begin to fill with vehicles. The Strawberry Mountains, located near Prairie City, are a rarely-visited, forested range with trails that bisect high mountain lakes and rugged, beautiful country.
Don’t expect to have it to yourself this August, when the eclipse passes almost directly overhead. But a taxing hike will discourage many drive-down-for-the-day eclipse seekers. And the top of Strawberry Mountain — the highest point in the range — is smack dab in the middle of the path of totality. It will offer one of the most unadulterated views of the eclipse in Oregon, and maybe the entire country. Nothing will distract the eye from horizon to horizon — a sunset in every direction as the moment of totality comes near.
The shortest way to the peak is 3.6 miles, if you park at the trailhead at the end of Forest Service Road 1640. Most hikers travel from Strawberry Campground, where the trek to the top is 6.5 miles. Another route is via Onion Creek, a distance of about 4.9 miles. Consult maps and pack plenty of water, and plan to arrive and leave days before and after the eclipse in order to beat the crowds that will surely fill those small, dusty forest roads on eclipse day. The Forest Service is expecting the road corridor to Strawberry Campground to be especially congested, and parking lots will be overflowing at every trailhead.
The best view under the biggest sky
What: Oregon Star Party
Where: Indian Trail Spring outside Mitchell
Every year, professional and amateur astronomers from across the country gather in the Ochoco National Forest outside Mitchell for the Oregon Star Party. They choose the remote location because of its dark skies and unobstructed 360-degree horizon view.
But what makes the 5,000-foot butte perfect for viewing the dark night sky also makes it perfect for viewing the total solar eclipse, and 2017 is expected to be an absolute banner year for the annual event. The totality there will last for almost a minute and a half and — if we’re lucky enough for a clear blue Oregon day — the experience will be amazing. The surrounding sunsets will give way to totality, when the sun’s corona will be visible and the planets of Venus, Mars and Mercury will temporarily appear in the gathering dark. According to Star Party organizers, producers of the IMAX film “Einstein’s Incredible Universe” are planning to send a team to film the incredible experience.
The bad news is that reservations are full up for the Star Party itself — meaning there are no more parking permits or RV spots. But the Ochoco is a national forest, and plenty of space nearby is available free and on a first-come, first-served basis.
Forest roads in the area will be plenty busy. A large music festival is taking place on Big Summit Prairie, which is expected to draw thousands to the forest all weekend. But approaching from the east, jumping on the Summit Road from, say, Forest Road 12 near Antone, you may find place to get a car off the road and a meadow to camp in and watch the unparalleled show.
But the same advice remains — go early, stay late, don’t fight the crowds.
Just jump in the car and go
What: Finding a pullout or a parking lot in the totality zone
Many people were not lucky enough to reserve a campsite in the totality zone, are unable to shell out big bucks for a private event and cannot get a few days off work to allow them to beat the majority of the crowds.
But that does not mean those people are out of luck. If you wake up early on August 21, everyone in Eastern Oregon is close enough to be able to get into the totality zone by showtime — perhaps. But how best to do it safely and on time, and avoid the hassle that often accompanies overwhelming crowds?
Interstate 84 may be the best option, heading east toward Baker City. There are multiple public watch parties in Baker County that you could crash, including at Farewell Bend State Park, Anthony Lakes Mountain Resort, the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center and Sumpter Valley Dredge State Park. You could also just get off the highway in downtown Baker City, try to find an out-of-the-way place, put the tailgate down and look up. That may offer you the best chance of getting back on the road and over Cabbage Hill before the mass of people beats a retreat to where they came from.
There are other options for going south, however. From Pendleton you could head down Highway 395 toward John Day, which offers lots of opportunities to leave the highway into the surrounding hills within the totality zone. From Heppner you could travel on Highway 207 to Spray and Kimberly, where the small towns are prepping public space for paid camping and trying to attract visitors.
There are some serious unknowns when it comes to the ability to travel on the morning of the eclipse, and those unknowns are magnified in small towns and two-lane highways. Will it be able to handle the additional traffic, or will infrastructure be overwhelmed? No one is quite sure at this point — it could be a perfect spot off the radar of many eclipse seekers. Or you could find yourself stuck on Highway 207 behind a dozen out-of-gas out-of-staters, trying to find the sun through the sunroof.
There’s a lot of risk when it comes to traveling the day of the eclipse. It will work out for some, but likely not for many others. You’ll have to ask yourself if that’s a risk you’re willing to take. We wouldn’t recommend it.
— Tim Trainor is deputy managing editor of the East Oregonian. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 541-966-0835.