Totality in the Tetons

By Kate Hull
Illustration by Marinna Holmstead

I n 1991, a total solar eclipse passed over Hawaii and the southern tip of Mexico near Cabo San Lucas. Identical twin brothers Charles and Lewis Phelps plotted a family vacation to a destination where they could view the phenomenon. The awe-inspiring spectacle so struck the native Californians that they hatched a plan to replicate the experience. However, they would have to wait.  

The only total solar eclipse of the twenty-first century to pass over the entirety of North America from coast to coast—entering at the mouth of the Columbia River and leaving through South Carolina—happens on August 21, 2017. The brothers wanted to be there. 

“Chuck and I started looking into where we might go to observe the eclipse as early as 2000,” Lewis says. “We studied the entire eclipse path, looking for places near the totality line that would maximize our opportunity for how long the eclipse will be visible with the best conditions possible. We wanted a place with high probability for clear skies—Teton Valley is as good as it gets in that respect.” 

The totality line indicates where the sun will be completely covered by the moon for the longest amount of time, and Teton Valley is located right on the route. 

Charles and Lewis learned that smack dab in the middle of this prime viewing area is a ski resort nestled above Alta, Wyoming, whose summit towers at just under 10,000 feet above sea level. The vast expanse of eastern Idaho’s Teton Valley lies below, with open fields perfect for watching the moon’s shadow zip across the landscape at up to 1,500 miles per hour.

“The [best] way you can get that view is from an airplane, but that’s expensive,” says Lewis. 

The next best? Bring two hundred of your closest friends to Grand Targhee Resort to experience the Great American Eclipse. In 2005, the Phelps brothers mailed a proposal to Grand Targhee with an idea to host alums, along with their families, from their 1965 Pomona College class. Twelve years later, Charles and Lewis are anxiously awaiting their August reunion trip. 

The path of the August 21, 2017, Total Solar Eclipse Across Idaho. The blue Line at the center of the path runs through Teton Valley. 

An Astronomical Opportunity 

A total eclipse occurs when a new moon aligns between the sun and the earth. The moon’s umbra—the darkest part of its shadow—casts a blanket of nightfall on the earth. The only light visible is the sun’s corona, the plasma surrounding it. This is the singular moment where the sun’s ethereal gaseous shadow is visible from earth. The infrequency of solar eclipses is due to the earth and moon’s differing orbital angles; when the geometry aligns, the results are extraordinary. 

“This ghostly shadow that dances around the sun gives off a remarkable halo of light,” says Samuel Singer, the founder and executive director of Wyoming Stargazing, a nonprofit in Jackson Hole that offers public and private stargazing opportunities throughout the year. “That is what people are traveling from around the world to see. We’ll see a dazzling glow up in the sky. The whole sky becomes dark, like twilight. We will go from mid-day brightness to twilight, in a matter of moments.”

On Monday, August 21, at 10:16 a.m., the partial eclipse will begin, leading to climatic totality beginning at 11:34 a.m. That will last for two minutes and eighteen seconds. 

For such a short climatic moment, why all the fuss?

“It is like the Grand Canyon,” says Singer. “You can see pictures of it, but until you are standing on the edge looking in, you don’t really grasp how deep it is and how vast it is. I think it is the same thing with these eclipses. You can see all the pictures you want, but until you are right there watching it happen, you don’t really grasp what it is about.” 

Charles and Lewis are equally ardent, asserting that only by witnessing a total solar eclipse firsthand could you comprehend why the two of them planned so far in advance to get the best view. “When you see the eclipse, you will understand,” says Charles. “It is almost a religious moment. It is an extraordinary event, and unlike anything else I have ever experienced.” 

That is, if the weather cooperates. But as Charles and Lewis learned during their research in 2000, the odds are in the observer’s favor. 

“It is about 75 percent chance of clear weather that day if you look at historical records,” says Singer. “But I am less concerned about the weather and more concerned about the fire season.”

Valley residents on both sides of the Tetons will remember August 2016, when nearby wildfires brought a cloud of hazy smoke and a dark red sky. “If that happened, you would still see the sky get dark, but you wouldn’t see the corona,” Singer says. “That is my biggest fear in terms of the atmosphere not cooperating.” 

But the region experienced above average precipitation in the winter of 2016–17. The National Interagency Fire Center reports that this could result in a much milder fire season than last summer’s. Let’s keep our fingers crossed. 

Illustration by Marinna Holmstead

Behind the Scenes

Not everyone has been planning for ten years, but Teton Valley is eagerly—and a little bit nervously—awaiting the event: busy with visitor number predictions, planning associated events, and preparing for the arrival of the Eclipse Chasers.

Eclipse Chasers, or Umbraphiles, as they are referred to in the astronomy community, are passionate travelers who cover the globe to witness astronomical events. Teton Valley will welcome them and thousands of more casual visitors from as close as Salt Lake City and as far away as Africa. For well over a year, the basin has been buzzing with the excitement, and sometimes worry, of how to handle an estimated 50,000 people heading to the valley to view the eclipse.

What if it’s less? 

What if it’s more? 

Will we have enough resources? 

To answer these questions, Teton Valley leaders started hosting weekly eclipse meetings with area residents involved in transportation, public works, food and beverage facilities, safety, and more, as well as regular “Eclipse & Chips” community gatherings at the Wildwood Room in Victor.  

“This has been a great opportunity to jump on what could be an undesirable event [the quantity of people, that is] and learn how to make lemonade out of lemons,” says Alan Allred, the eclipse manager hired by the county to manage logistics. Not your run-of-the-mill event planner, Allred is approaching August 21 as if it were a natural disaster sure to take place. 

“If no one does anything to prepare and this occurs, it could take us months to recover,” he says. 

So, Allred is making it his mission to dot the “i’s” and cross the “t’s” in hopes of providing a great experience for residents and visitors, while thinking ahead to the valley’s future.  “If we can capture these people, manage them while they are here, and help them have an orderly exit, then the cities, the counties, the businesses, and the visitors will all benefit,” he says. “It is a win-win all the way around.” 

Hosting thousands of extra folks is not a new occurrence for Victor, Driggs, and Tetonia. The summer months in Teton Valley swell with visitors, with peak periods like the 4th of July booking out all of the nearly 2,500 lodging options in the valley. 

Tourism has been a steadily climbing industry in Teton County, Idaho, which boasts two decades of an upward trend in lodging sales (the single best indicator of a tourism economy, according to the Teton Valley Almanac). In 2012, June through September generated just over $4 million in lodging revenue, nearly double the sales of the summer of 2004. 

As for the eclipse, the early bird got the room. By January 2017, lodging in the valley was booked out for the weekend surrounding the Monday event. Those just planning their visits are now looking to find coveted rental opportunities from area homeowners or seeking out camping permits. 

Jerry Cole is director of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in Meade County, South Dakota. He has been helping to guide small towns along the eclipse totality line over the past year—communities that have reached out to him, wondering how Sturgis, a town of fewer than 7,000 residents, manages to host an event that brings in an average of half a million attendees. And, can these towns do the same?

“The advice I have is: Prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” Cole says. 

Cole has watched Sturgis grow with the massive motorcycle event, noting that year after year it becomes more and more of a well-oiled machine. He says other events he’s been involved with, particularly the Sequim Lavender Festival in Washington state, felt more like what the eclipse might bring. 

“The first year of the lavender festival, we were expecting 5,000 people, and we had about that,” he recalls. “The next year, we were expecting 8,500 and 30,000 showed up.”

There weren’t enough buses, bathroom facilities, or space for the people, he says. That year, he and his team learned a lesson in planning for the unexpected, advice he offers to communities awaiting the eclipse. 

“You don’t want it to end up like Woodstock, where you have thousands of cars lining the ditches and ending up on the side of the road,” Cole says. “If you plan and you are in control, it will be a successful event.” 

August 21, 2017 

In the weeks leading up to the event, visit TetonValleyEclipse.com for information on viewing spots in the valley, as well as for all information pertinent to the weekend’s festivities. 

The key to successful viewing of the eclipse is to find a spot where you have a far westward view and an unobstructed vantage point of the sky. The higher elevations will allow for a superior view, but be sure you are prepared physically and with the proper gear before wandering into the surrounding mountains. And don’t forget to obtain a pair of the eclipse glasses necessary for safe viewing. (Visit page 19 to read about four local friends who are selling custom Teton Totality glasses.)

 “The more unobstructed your view, the better your experience,” says Singer, who will be hosting a private viewing event on top of Snow King Mountain in Jackson. He expects the national parks to be prime viewing spots, but advises travelers to prepare for crowds.

Susie Blair, the Driggs branch manager for Valley of the Tetons Library, has taken on the educational and informational component of preparing people for the eclipse. “We are hosting programs that inform the citizens and visitors of Teton Valley what to expect with the eclipse and how to experience it,” says Blair, “as well as educating people about what an eclipse is and how it affects us.”   

Visit the library for author lectures and eclipse talks to learn more. The Driggs branch is one of three national libraries to be initiating the NASA education program, called NASA @ My Library, through Colorado’s Space Science Institute. 

One thing all eclipse enthusiasts can agree on: Enjoy the experience. Put away your iPhones and your telescopes, and savor the fleeting moment that so few will get to experience. The total solar eclipse is a rare opportunity to enjoy something that can’t quite be captured on film. 

“It is just rare enough to be unique for a lot of people,” says Singer.

Ready or not—and this reporter thinks Teton Valley is in fact ready—the eclipse is coming in late August, when this issue of the magazine will still be on the newsstands. So, find an open field with a northwest vantage point, grab your eclipse-viewing glasses, and get ready for a once-in-a-lifetime event. 

That is, unless you’re an Eclipse Chaser planning on globetrotting to the southern tip of Africa in 2020.