My Epic Experience Watching The Great North American Solar Eclipse

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As most of you know, I was pretty excited about the total solar eclipse on August 21st. Sure I liked the science of it and all, but the travel aspects were equally fascinating to me. It’s just so rare for millions of people all across the country to want to cram themselves into a 70-mile wide path, often in the middle of nowhere.

For those that didn’t live in the path of totality — which is to say most of us — it became a multi-variable optimization problem in terms of finding the closest, cheapest, and most weather-advantaged viewing location.

Anyway, after talking about it so much for the past few weeks, I wanted to share the experience with you guys.

Our original eclipse watching plan

Way back in October 2016, about 10 months before the eclipse, my good friend Dawn posted that the Wyoming State Parks had just started selling their eclipse camping packages and that everyone who was interested should jump on this immediately. She had been planning her eclipse watching trip for about the past 10 years — no exaggeration — and was convinced that Glendo State Park was the place to be given that the centerline of totality passed right through the park.


Glendo State Park in Wyoming, on the centerline of the path of totality

My wife and I are well accustomed to the book now, ask questions later mindset, having booked airline mistake fares for over a decade, so we bought a pass.

I thought it was a little expensive at $60 per night with a four night minimum stay required — they usually charge $30 per night, no minimum — but whatever. Little did I know that this would turn out to be a huge bargain.

Our eclipse backup plan

At the same time, I was curious to see what hotels located within the path of totality across Wyoming and Nebraska were charging. A few of them were already sold out , even 10 months in advance, but there were also some really good deals to be had, particularly in Nebraska.

I ended up making refundable reservations at a Wyndham property in Grand Island, Nebraska, for about $150 per night (no minimum). I figured this would give us a backup plan in case the weather forecast for Wyoming didn’t look so great. Grand Island was also on the centerline of the eclipse.


Grand Island, also on the centerline of totality

Diverting to Scottsbluff, Nebraska

We started to get a little nervous about our eclipse plans as the date arrived.

We were really starting to question our sanity at the thought of camping out with three kids six and under for four days. I mean, my wife and I used to head to the backcountry a lot. But in the modern era — that is, since we had kids — I think our record for a single camping excursion is about 18 hours. And more than once, we’ve thrown in the towel and made the drive of shame home at 1 AM.

Add to that the fact that I had been battling a nasty case of bronchitis for a month, and that Wyoming was advising visitors to bring extra gas, toilet paper, and sufficient food to last the weekend, and we decided to explore other options.

The hotel in Grand Island seemed enticing, but it was twice as far away. And the 72-hour weather forecast for the region warned of cloudy conditions. That didn’t seem so good.

I had been watching the hotel market continuously all week, partly out of amusement at what some places were trying to charge — like the Baymont Inn and Suites, Casper, Wyoming, that was bound and determined that they could get $2,000 for a room — and partly because I had a bunch of friends all across the country still looking for options.

Then with about two days to go, I found someone renting their 22-foot camper in Scottsbluff, Nebraska, on Airbnb. Amazingly, they only wanted $100 for the night, or would “park it wherever we wanted for an additional fee.” That seemed like a bargain compared to the profiteering going on across the border in Wyoming where ranchers were demanding $150 to set up a tent in their pasture among the cow patties. Even in Scottsbluff, people were listing rooms at $500 and the option to camp in their backyard — bring your own tent — for $150.

We booked the camper in a heartbeat.

I then posted my Glendo camping permit to Craigslist where I quickly sold it for $500, twice what I paid for it. Maybe I shouldn’t be so critical of all the profiteering afterall….

The drive from Denver to Scottsbluff was incredibly easy. We didn’t experience any unusual traffic at all. In fact, we often didn’t see any cars, period.


Traffic on the way to the eclipse…

We arrived in Scottsbluff in late afternoon on Sunday, and settled into the camper. Our Airbnb hosts had parked it on the street in front of their house, which was fine, and totally met our goal.


The first time I had booked an Airbnb where the host would transport it to wherever we wanted for an additional fee

That evening, we met a couple who were veteran eclipse chasers from Ohio — this was to be his fourth total solar eclipse, and her second. They had flown from Ohio to Denver, and then driven up to Scottsbluff, for the combination of decent prices and favorable weather.

Suddenly I felt like I knew what I was talking about when I wrote my last minute guide to planning an eclipse watching trip.

We hadn’t yet completely decided where to watch the eclipse. Although we were within the path of totality, Scottsbluff is closer to the edge than the centerline, so we generally thought we’d drive north to get a longer experience. We just weren’t sure how far toward Wyoming we’d need to go in search of better weather. We nominally set our sites on Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, which was just north of the centerline, and very close to the Wyoming border.


Agate, Nebraska, was just north of the centerline of the path of totality

We figured we would be willing to sacrifice a bit of totality to watch the eclipse from a venue that had at least some infrastructure — toilets, food vendors, emergency first responders, etc. — such as Agate National Monument.

In this case, it would be a loss of just six seconds (2:23 vs 2:29).

The morning of the eclipse

We awoke to heavy fog in Scottsbluff.


Scottsbluff in the clouds with about 5 hours to go until totality

I quickly texted Dawn over in Glendo to see what their weather was like (great), and started looking at the satellite maps on my phone. These indicated that we were just on the edge of the clouds and that going perhaps five miles west could get us into completely clear skies.

We packed our stuff, piled into the car, and headed to Agate. We were on the road by about 7:45 AM. A quick stop at Taco John’s for some breakfast burritos, and we were ready to roll. There was modest traffic, but not enough yet to have a significant impact on our driving speed.

We figured we’d make the decision in Mitchell as to whether to head north to Agate, or push on toward Wyoming in search of blue sky. And then, just as we left Scottsbluff, the weather completely cleared. Our decision was made.

The drive up to Agate was beautiful.


The road to Agate on the morning of the eclipse

As we approached the centerline of totality, we saw more and more people setting up to watch the eclipse.


Eclipse watchers setting up along the centerline of totality

It looked like a giant tailgate party. As a science nerd, I was really happy to see so many people turning out to celebrate an astronomical event. It was really really cool.


The centerline of totality just south of Agate, Nebraska

We momentarily considered stopping there. But then we remembered we have three little kids, so we pressed on.

Arriving at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

We arrived at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument around 8:45 AM, about two hours before first contact.


Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

We weren’t the only ones with the idea to go to Agate though as there was a line of cars waiting to get parked.


Eclipse goers waiting to park inside Agate National Monument

There was scenery to enjoy while we waited. We knew there was still plenty of time, so no one was getting nervous.


Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

There were four rangers / volunteers handing out information packets at the entrance, and eclipse glasses for those that didn’t have any. We assured him that we had a pack of 20, so he should save them for someone else.

Our hope was to watch the eclipse from the visitor center where there was supposed to be a pregame program with a Native American speaker. But the primary parking lot was already full, so they directed us into overflow parking which turned out to be just a mowed strip sloping up toward one of the bluffs.


Overlow eclipse parking from the bluffs at Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

We thought about riding the shuttle bus (or walking) the mile or so into the visitor center, but decided that this was actually a pretty nice location to watch the eclipse itself. Plus, it had a few porta-potties, which was one of our original objectives.

Many of the folks that had already arrived were getting out chairs, setting up telescopes, and generally settling in to wait for the eclipse to start. Others were exploring the surrounding bluffs, which actually looked like an awesome place to watch the eclipse. So we packed up our stuff and made the short climb to the top. The climb was pretty easy, though we did have to watch out for cacti.

The 360-degree view from the bluff was stunning. We could see for miles in every direction, with almost no man-made objects in sight.


Panorama from the bluffs of Agate Fossil Beds National Monument

It really gave a primal feel to the event, and made it easy to imagine what it must have looked like when the Native Americans and other early peoples experienced eclipses in this location.

By the time we set up the tent (to give the kids something to play in) and our lawn chairs, first contact was about to begin.

Watching the total solar eclipse from Agate National Monument

We got out eclipse glasses at first contact and explained to the kids how to use them. We had also made two pinhole projectors out of cereal boxes the night before. They weren’t all that well crafted, but the kids got a kick out of using them and it gave them something else to fool around with as we waited nearly an hour for the main event.


Not quite two, our littlest eclipse watcher wasn’t really sure what to do with his glasses

I had downloaded the Solar Eclipse Timer app for my phone which provided narration, via my portable Bluetooth speaker, throughout the process. And I even remembered to do it before we were outside the realm of cell coverage! That was klutch.


Solar eclipse timer app was key

It was actually really helpful. But there was still plenty of time to kill. So we posed for some pictures to model our eclipse attire. Did I mention we’re a family of nerds?


Tree-posing prior to the eclipse on the bluffs of Agate National Monument

The kids would occasionally put on their glasses and check the status of the sun, but were otherwise mostly content to run around with some friends they had met.


Checking the progress of the eclipse

Finally, about fifteen minutes before second contact, the fun really started to begin. At that point, the sun was sufficiently covered such that it was getting noticeably darker. I had read that you should observe the crispness of your shadow in the moments before totality, as the sun effectively becomes a point source.


Crisp shadows just before totality

The temperature started to drop, and, perhaps most significantly, the wind died down. It had been ripping much of the morning, threatening to blow our tent back down to the van in the parking area below, but was now mostly calm.

With just a few minutes to go until second contact, I heard the engine of a plane overhead. I looked up to see two private aircraft flying down the centerline, front running the shadow of the sun. I thought that was incredibly cool and momentarily pondered the logistics they must have faced that morning.


Two planes passed over just before totality, trying to outrun the eclipse. I think they lost.

A few folks were convinced that by looking west — we could see for miles in all directions after all — we would be able to watch the shadow go racing across the prairie at 1,500 miles per hour. I glanced that way and noticed the glint disappearing on some surfaces in the distance. One moment they would be reflecting light, the next, not. But then I looked back so as not to miss Bailey’s Beads and the Diamond Ring, both of which were spectacular.

And then it happened. Totality was upon us.

We took our glasses off, stared at the “black hole” where the sun was supposed to be. And the corona.

It was breathtaking. One of the most beautiful things I had ever seen.


You’ve seen a lot of pictures of the moment of totality. This is my wife’s, shot with our Canon T3i, 50-250 mm lens.

My wife danced around a bit.


Dancing in the twilight of totality

We took some pictures of the sun. My wife had specifically requested this shot if we had time. I was happy to oblige.


My wife raising her hands to the heavens — the sun and the moon — all at once

And of the 360-degree sunset taking place all around us.


The 360-degree sunset was spectacular from the bluffs of Agate National Monument

Then we stared at where the sun should have been some more.

Much too soon, the voice on my app informed us that totality would be ending in 5… 4… — Glasses on! Glasses on! — 3… 2… 1… totality was now over.

Driving back to Denver after the eclipse

We hung out a bit on the ridge, and then slowly made our way back to the van in the parking area below. Everyone was still in a festive mood, having just witnessed one of the most spectacular events mother nature has to offer. We decided to let the crazies get started for home. I setup the grill and started making lunch.

Since our original plan had been to watch from the visitor center, we decided to head down that way. It was still really busy, but the park staff and volunteers were doing an incredible job at keeping things orderly. Everyone was being courteous.


Agate Fossil Beds National Monument Visit Center and Musuem

The visitor center was still packed. But they had commemorative eclipse pins and junior ranger badges for the kids which was awesome.


My son showing off his commerative eclipse and junior ranger pins

And a special national parks passport stamp for the eclipse.


Commemorative parks passport stamp for the eclipse

From there we decided to drive out the east entrance of Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. That promised us something like 30-40 miles on a gravel road, but there was absolutely no one going that way. It was a beautiful drive, and we really didn’t see any other cars until we got back to Scottsbluff.


When faced with a choice, choose the road less traveled. 

We paused for a bit in Scottsbluff for the kids to run around and to plan our drive back to Denver. Google and Waze both wanted us to angle over to Cheyenne and then take I-25 down to Denver. But there are times in this world where you just have to tell Google “hell no” and do what you think is right. So we continued south toward Kimball, Nebraska, then down across Pawnee National Grassland before meeting up with I-76 in Fort Morgan, Colorado. While there was definitely heavy traffic — including a couple brief slowdowns — we were able to drive 50-60 mph most of the time.


Eclipse traffic passing through Pawnee National Grasslands on the way back to Denver

By the time we reached I-76 in Fort Morgan, the only noticeable impact was a longer than usual line at McDonald’s. Otherwise, it was smooth sailing all the way to Denver. It ultimately took us about 5.5 hours (including our stops for dinner, gas, and one minor miscalculation that took us down a dead end county road) to drive what Google says should usually take 3.5 hours. In other words, not much more than we would usually expect it to take for our family of five!

Our friends over in Glendo didn’t have it so easy, however. We would occasionally see group texts from them lamenting the fact that it had taken them three hours just to get on I-25, which was itself mostly a parking lot. In the end, it seemed that most of those folks spent 9-10 hours on a drive that should have taken 3-4 hours. Many of them didn’t get home until almost midnight or later.


The sun put on an encore presentation that evening as it set over the Rockies

Bottom line

My family had an incredible time at the Great North American Solar Eclipse of 2017. I’m so glad we made the effort to go, as it really was a bucket-list type of event. Our decision to watch it from the Nebraska panhandle worked out perfectly.

I didn’t really plan it that way, but the unspoiled natural landscape of the Agate region made the eclipse all the more spectacular in much the same way that that the proper stemware accentuates the flavor of a fine wine. It wasn’t hard to put ourselves in the shoes (or moccasins) of our ancestors and imagine the awe and terror of watching the sun get devoured by the moon, only to reemerge a few moments later signifying that perhaps the world would continue to exist for yet another day.

What was your experience watching the Great Solar Eclipse of 2017? 

Comments

  1. “…I-25, which wasn’t itself was mostly a parking lot.” You are LITERALLY sending a mixed message 😀 I also didn’t take any sun classes, I knew I forgot to do something 🙁

  2. So cool. When I saw the title, I knew this wouldn’t be a post from Lucky, since he can’t seem to do anything that doesn’t involve a long haul flight somewhere.

  3. “there was definitely heavy traffic”
    “we were able to drive 50-60 mph most of the time”

    Come pay us a visit in LA and then tell me that’s heavy traffic! 😛

  4. Awesome. I live in Jacksonville, Florida and we had about ~91%. We tried to go north to Georgia but it was rainy there so we thought 91% is good enough. And it was AWSOME!

  5. I had to teach that day and my high school is in the path of totality outside of Nashville. We went outside at 1:10….totality was at 1:30. It was a hot sticky August day, but it was bearable when the sun started to slide behind the moon.
    Picture about 100 jaded teenagers suddenly engaged and awestruck and looking up from their phones. When the totality came there were gasps, cheers, tears, clapping, wows, etc. I could not have imagined a more exciting place to watch the eclipse than sharing it with my students all amazed at the same time. We weren’t teachers and students, just people sharing different cool things that we saw. About 1:45 it got too hot again and we went inside.

    The students were talking about it all week. It was such a great experience. The 30 minute commute home took over an hour because the freeways were jammed, but it was a great day. Thanks for sharing yours.

  6. We had a 13 hour drive from Casper to Denver – usually 4 hours. Biggest mistake was following Waze. Lack of cellular data coverage meant that Waze wasn’t informed by motorists about road closures and actual traffic conditions. For example, Waze suggested that we exit I-25 and take a frontage road for a 40 minute savings! Technology is so cool! But the south end of the frontage was closed, and the closure couldn’t be reported due to lack of connectivity. So we spent 2+ hours going down a 5 mile frontage and back up it, packed in traffic. Ended up going far east next to Nebraska and then heading back west to Denver.

  7. Awesome write up Travis!! Seems like your whole family had a great time. But man, this is nerdom to a new level that I didn’t know existed 🙂

  8. Since my first exposure to astronomy back during High School in 1971 (we had a planetarium in our school) seeing a total solar eclipse has been a bucket list item. Started planning our eclipse excursion to Nashville in March. Booked round-trip flights from DFW for $256 each (just before airfares doubled). Booked two nights in an Airbnb 2 bedroom house for a very reasonable $343 all-in with fees, which we turned out not needing about two weeks prior to Aug 21, and cancelled for full refund. I’m pretty sure the Airbnb host was happy we cancelled because by then the going rate had skyrocketed if you could find one at all. Reserved a rental car through Costco.com for three days at $63 (total) which beat reserving directly through the car rental companies quoting 4 x higher.

    Our goal was to be close as possible to the centerline so started by staking out points on Google Maps where rural roads crossed its path about 40 miles north of Nashville. Started heading toward Cross Plains, TN about 9:30 am taking back roads since I-65 northbound already had heavy traffic. Very little traffic going up through Ashland City and Springfield. We arrived at our viewing spot at Mt. Carmel Baptist Church on Highway 25 on the west side of Cross Plains at 10:30 am.

    There were maybe 80 people there, including eclipse chasers with sophisticated telescopes connected to video monitors. Turned out to be a perfect spot less than 1/4 mile from the centerline. Plenty of parking and shady areas to setup chairs, plus the church staff went out of their way and opened their restrooms and offered cold water to everyone. There were large open fields on both sides of the church so we had unobstructed views of the sky.

    Could never have imagined what this experience would be as special as it turned out. Seeing how the lighting and colors change when the sun is 80% , then 90% then 95% covered was amazing. The crisp edges of the shadows, even seeing shadows of individual pine needles! We had a few scattered clouds just prior to totality, then at the last moment as the moon’s shadow approached and the temperature dropped from mid 90s, the clouds disappeared. For 2 min and 38 seconds we were awestruck.

    Already looking at plans for the one in South America in December 2020. Maybe rent out our home near DFW for the one in April 2024.

  9. Forgot to add our return AA flight to DFW the evening of the Aug 21 was oversold so we volunteered to bump, got $1000 in vouchers, plus hotel, dinner and breakfast. Nice return on our investment!

  10. My family of five watched it from gorgeous alpine Canyon Creek Meadows in Oregon, near Three Fingered Jack. Drove in the day before, then hiked in and camped. A magical place!

  11. I watched it from a park just north of Salem, Oregon with my mom (who is a retired science teacher) and it was epic. Like nothing I’ve ever seen before – like seeing the clockwork of our solar system in motion.

    Great pictures, Travis! I don’t think any camera can quite capture the way the sun’s magnetic field lines looked during totality though.

    Got my calendar marked for 2024!

  12. I drove to Government Point just north of Depoe Bay on the Oregon Coast in the middle of the night before to avoid any traffic, set up a blow up mattress/cot in the bed of my pickup, and slept in the fog on the side of the highway. We expected the fog to lift in the morning before totality as it usually does on the coast, but as the time approached we were still pretty socked in. Although we saw some sunbreaks when picking up coffee in town, ultimately the fog did not lift at our location. The MyRadar app I usually use for local weather didn’t have any data for our area, and it turned out they had sunny skies only a couple of miles south of us, but in the end I was happy with our location and experience. Because of the heavy fog we were able to watch the partial phases without our eclipse glasses, which was a beautiful experience even my iPhone camera was able to capture.

    As totality approached we stared to the west, hoping to catch sight of that curtain of darkness. We noticed nothing facing that direction but the erie grey, to purple, to black sunset over a matter of seconds, as the temperature plummeted and the wind picked up. Turning around we saw the true show, I gasped and cried at the beauty and wonder of the moment. From reading other accounts, I don’t think we missed much of the experience even through the fog. The most incredible moment was the very end of totality, when the diamond ring burst into existence in the corner of the black sun.

    Traffic home was no worse than any weekend day on Highway 101, though there were huge crowds in many of the little communities we passed through that we may have beat on the road on our rush to get back.

    My boyfriend was very skeptical of the experience and did not want to drive in the middle of the night and waste a work day, but acceded to my demands and afterward agreed it was a indescribable and worthwhile experience. I really hope anyone in the miles and points community considering traveling to a total solar eclipse in the future will listen and understand how special this experience is. I will remember it far longer and in greater detail than any aspirational redemption or A380 shower suite.

    My parents watched it from a high viewpoint they hiked to near Sun Valley, ID, and I think next time around I will choose a location like that, with better natural scenery and perhaps a more secure weather forecast. I would like to experience that 360 degree sunset!

  13. Awesome. So refreshing to get a post talking about real life experience. Too bad your kids are so young, not sure whether they will remember this in a few years. Thank you for sharing! Greetings from Belgium.

  14. Sadly, we had already planned a trip to Canada so rather than being able to easily get to the Eclipse from our home in COS, we “drove a rental Kia to Nova Scotia to see a partial eclipse of the sun.”

  15. PS. Travis, your post brought me to tears. What an amazing time you had with your family. A memory to be cherished.

  16. Nice writeup Travis and a GREAT family outing – be sure to do in 2024 when your kids are older and they’ll remember more of it.

    I was just a little East of you next Tryon, Nebraska camped out on 40 acres of farmland truly in the middle of nowhere. We had HEAVY fog overnight and in the morning … but it did clear and was an outstanding experience. My pics/writeup here:
    http://www.komar.org/faq/2017_solar_eclipse_tryon_nebraska/

    But as you know, it’s 100X better in real life!

  17. My family of three watched from the campus of the Kentucky Technical College in Paducah, KY. A great decision. The event was extremely well run and a ton of fun. One of the most emotional experiences of my life. The drive back to Ohio, though, was brutal. The 5.5 hour drive took almost 8, including a winding gravel road in SE Indiana I was convinced would never end. The event of a lifetime that I would do again in a heartbeat!

  18. This may be the best post I have ever read on OMAAT (with my apologies to Lucky). I am a fellow nerd yet was too preoccupied with work stress and my two and a half year old to plan ahead for this year’s eclipse. Rest assured that will NOT happen again in 2024, as I long for the memorable experience you had with your family, Travis.

    How old are your kids? And what was there general reaction when totality arrived?

    Thank you for the fantastic write-up!

  19. We live along the outer edge of the optimal path, and opted to go closer to the center line just north of here. My daughter and I joined a group of other paddlers on the Tennessee River, combining some time on the river with viewing the spectacle. We left the boat launch just as the eclipse began, and headed for a backwater. The power boats were parked everywhere, definitely in full party mode, and we were glad to be outside of the main channel. As the eclipse peaked, loud cheers arose in unison from across the water. “Here comes the sun” was heard playing from one boat. It was as good as it had been built up to be.

    Our group of paddlers split into two groups, with some returning to the launch ramp and others continuing on to an island beach for some swimming and refreshments. Bird activity was noticeably greater, and we were treated to several osprey and a bald eagle, among others, during the excursion. The experience was worth a vacation day.

  20. What a great post! I was looking forward to this great event, but our weather was not the greatest, Cloudy and overcast. Thanks for sharing the experience with us.
    Cheers,
    Rhonda & The Unstoppable Family

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