People from all over are making plans to descend on southern Utah next month, for an astronomical event that will last just a few minutes: An annular solar eclipse.
“[It’s] a quick thing that you never forget,” said Paul Ricketts, observatory manager at the University of Utah. It’s so quick — the annularity lasts, at most, less than 5 minutes, depending on where one sees it, he said — that Ricketts encouraged people not to get distracted.
An annular solar eclipse is different from a total eclipse, Ricketts said, because “the moon is farther away, and so it doesn’t block out the sun fully. You basically see a ring of sunlight around the moon.”
While an annular eclipse can occur somewhere on Earth once or twice a year, “the rare part is it landing where we are,” Ricketts said. “The path for them is so thin that only a small slice of any country actually gets to see it.”
According to the website GreatAmericanEclipse.com, all of the lower 48 states will see the moon obscure at least part of the sun on Oct. 14. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration estimates the eclipse will be visible for millions across the Western Hemisphere.
The path of annularity — where the entire disc of the moon moves in front of the sun — is expected to be a narrow band, around 125 miles or so in width, that will start in southern Oregon, skirt the northeast corner of California, pass over northern Nevada, cross southern Utah to the Four Corners area (snagging bits of Arizona and Colorado), go through New Mexico and finally across southwest Texas. The band will then travel down the length of Central America, and cross through Colombia and Brazil.
In Utah, the annularity will just miss Zion and Arches national parks on either side of that band, but hit the other three of the “Mighty 5.” Towns in the middle of the band, such as Richfield and Torrey, will see the annularity for more than 4 minutes. The parts of Utah outside the band will see the moon cover at least 80% of the sun’s rays.
The path over in Utah is particularly significant, Ricketts said, because it will be close to, or right over, dark sky designated areas — where light pollution is limited — such as Fremont Indian State Park, about 25 miles southwest of Richfield.
“People in Utah have spent a lot of time trying to maintain our dark skies, so that way we’re able to see stars, nebulas and galaxies without having the lights impede our views,” Ricketts said.
People in southern Utah towns say they’re expecting an influx of eclipse tourists.
‘Dark sky’ tourism
Torrey was the first town in Utah designated a “dark sky community” by Dark Sky International, a nonprofit that advocates to reduce light pollution worldwide. It’s why Joshua Rowley said he and his husband launched the Skyview Hotel in Torrey, just outside of Capitol Reef National Park, last March.
When they found the property, Rowley said he joked that it was like the stars aligned.
“Dark sky astral tourism is becoming an increasingly important thing for vacation travelers,” Rowley said.
With 14 guest rooms and six glamping tents — and a rooftop terrace for stargazing — the hotel has been booked for eclipse tourism since they opened, Rowley said, and they get calls every day about availability.
“We didn’t really realize how big of a deal this would be,” he said. “There’s excitement, and a little bit of like nervousness, especially for the restaurants. It’s just kind of like, ‘What is it going to look like? How busy is it going to get?’”
Nancy Saign, co-owner of Torrey’s Hunt & Gather Restaurant, said she’s cautiously optimistic about the possible tourist rush.
“For our area, being one of the least traveled National Park towns, it’s just a wonderful way for us to kind of quote ‘get on the map,’ for people to come here and spend at least the full day and really get to know what this area has to offer,” she said.
Saign advised visitors to understand that Torrey isn’t “a town like Spingdale or any of the other bigger tourist areas. … We are both a rural town that’s home to many families, and we’re a rural town that does our best to support the tourism that comes through our area.”
A lot of the businesses in Torrey are locally owned and operated, Saign said, adding that she and her husband, Chet, work seven days a week, and their kids help out when they can.
“We’re used to being ready for what comes our way, depending on what the weather or holiday is,” she said, “But to the volume that people are predicting, no, we won’t be able to serve every guest that comes that evening.”
The Saigns bought Hunt & Gather “on the eve of COVID,” Nancy Saign said, so in some ways they’re accustomed to the constant rush of guests to their restaurant.
“It actually was wonderful for us because our first few years, the Mighty 5 tour was great support for our business, [because] of how many visitors were taking outdoors vacations,” Saign said.
Saign said she’s excited to see tourists coming to rural southern Utah, but advised them to bring what they need — and not just rely on what’s available in the area.
“The governments are smaller, the services that are offered are smaller, and we don’t have cleanup crews. We don’t have the same type of law enforcement,” she said. “Everybody should just be really respectful to the area and clean up after themselves.”
Taking it in stride
“The eclipse is not a nuisance at all,” said Ray Golden, general manager of Ticaboo Lodge & Offshore Marina in North Lake Powell — the only business in its immediate area in Garfield County, right in the middle of the path of annularity.
“It’s always full,” Golden said about his business, which offers lodging and recreational opportunities. “It’s something that we’re used to.”
In the first week of November every year, Golden said, there’s an ATV rally in Bullfrog Valley, which draws riders of between 130 and 200 vehicles. They take part in a “Jurassic Park”-type experience, guided by Dr. Josh Lively, curator and paleontologist for the Prehistoric Museum in Price.
The “Ring of Fire,” as Golden has dubbed the eclipse, has affected what’s usually the lodge’s off-season — which usually starts, except for the November rally, right after one last spike in business on the Labor Day weekend.
Ticaboo has 72 rooms, 22 spots in an RV park, 720 boats in storage (including about 389 houseboats), as well as 8 Vrbo homes and 8 tiny homes. All of it, except for the tiny homes, is booked for the eclipse.
“Before we recognized that this was going to be an event, last fall we had a couple of people call in advance and book that date for just one night, just that night of the eclipse,” Golden said. “We were like, ‘Wow, that’s really weird. Nobody ever does that.’”
Eventually, Ticaboo put a two-night minimum for bookings in October, and increased rates by a third. “It wasn’t because we’re trying to gouge anybody,” Golden said. “We’re just trying to cover our costs on that. It doesn’t phase anybody, they just book.”
With the increase, Golden said the lodge also is offering an eclipse viewing trip to Sunset Pass in Glen Canyon. That trip is also booked solid.
“It’s towards Canyonlands, and it’s a beautiful spot when you’re up on top of it. You can see into Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona,” Golden said. “You just see red rocks for miles and miles. The eclipse is going to pass right over it, and I think that that may have been what triggered a lot of the people to say, ‘Oh, wow, that’s a really cool place to be for the eclipse.’”
How to watch, safely
Ricketts, from the U., said people wanting to watch the eclipse should take safety precautions.
“We’ll actually see so much light from the sun that it’s still not safe to look at without solar glasses,” he said.
Glasses, telescopes, binoculars and cameras should have solar filters that have a high enough optical density to blockout the sunlight properly, Ricketts said. NASA recommends using only solar filters built specifically for those devices; rigging up your own version could lead to eye damage.
“What you want to do is, initially, use them to look at the sun, and if it’s uncomfortable any way — like if it feels too bright or something — immediately stop using them,” he said.