Saturday, August 19 through Saturday, August 26, 2017
Part 1 of 3
Utah, Wyoming- Including the Eclipse - and a bit of Montana
In late 2016 became aware of a total solar eclipse crossing the nation in 2017. This was a great opportunity to finally see a total eclipse and the track would cross not all that far from home, comparatively. A quick survey seemed to indicate Idaho or Wyoming would be a great place for me to view the eclipse and camp in the few states in the west I had not visited ever.
Time flew by and one thing or another kept me from formulating any firm plans or making any campground reservations. It wasn't long until I realized I'd waited too late to get reservations anywhere near the track. So my plan then was to wing it. With my pop-up camper I had the perfect impromptu camping vehicle, after all.
I'd been following the solar eclipse thread in the Trip Planning forum on WanderTheWest.com (where mostly pop-up camper folks share stories, tips, and plans.) I'd hoped someone would organize a meet-up at a cool spot for eclipse viewing, but most of the talk was how crowded western Oregon was going to be.
A little more than a week prior to the event I dug out all my maps, previously requested tourist brochures, and my Benchmark atlases for the relevant states. I'd been scrutinizing the content on the GreatAmericanEclipse.com site and they had lots of resources including projections on numbers of expected visitors for each highway that cross the center of the totality path. From this I decided central Wyoming would be a great spot. I determined from my maps and the web that there was BLM land in the area that would allow dispersed camping. My atlas showed a feature named Castle Gardens Petroglyphs. In looking at the satellite views on Google Maps it looked like there was a good spot for dispersed camping just before the hills in which the petroglyphs are found.
On August 12th I posted on the WTW Trip Planning forum eclipse thread that I had found what I thought was a good spot for viewing in central Wyoming and dispersed camping. I then wrote "If anyone would like to join me for camping and eclipse viewing, send a PM and I'll share the details." MarkBC promptly replied that he and fellow WTWer Stew were already planning to meet up somewhere in Wyoming on Thursday before the event and asked about what I'd found. This would be great if they could secure the spot ahead of time, as I wouldn't be able to get there until Sunday afternoon. Several other WTW members responded and I replied with my details. I'll leave the rest of the story for the body of this report, but there was at this point the potential for a meet up of old and new friends.
Remember, click on any photo to open larger versions of all images.
Saturday, August 19
As I was getting ready to leave I noticed my neighbor was having a yard sale. They had a 12' x 12' free-standing canopy for sale. I thought it might come in handy for the eclipse viewing camp and picked it up for $25. I put it on the floor of the camper, finished loading, and took off. (The black nylon carry bag for the canopy had seams which had separated, so when I took it out of the camper each evening to set up I was reluctant to set it on the ground lest mice get inside the bag, then move inside my camper when I put the bag back in the next morning. So in most of the photos of my campsites you will see the large rectangular bag sitting on my truck hood.)
I took my usual route up to the Four Corners then through Cortez, CO, across to Monticello, UT and Moab.
|I'd driven by Church Rock many times on my way to Moab, but the light was good enough to stop for a photo this afternoon.|
Then Green River and Price, UT. From Price I continued to follow US-191. In planning my trip up, I'd noticed the highway cut through a small outlying piece of the Ashley National Forest. There were a couple of forest roads that I though might provide dispersed camping.
Ashley National Forest
The forest roads were unmarked and I missed them. But there were a few dispersed sites near the creek which the highway was following through the canyon. I found a nice spot. It was only about 50 yards from the highway, so I could see and hear the light traffic, but mostly I heard the little stream.
|My campsite in the southern section of Ashley National Forest.|
Sunday, August 20
Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area
After breaking my fast and packing up, I continued down canyon on US-191. This took me through Duchesne and Vernal, up through a mining district. It was interesting that Utah had erected signs to designate the various geological layers and eras the highway was cutting through. The route led to the Flaming Gorge National Monument in Wyoming. Instead of continuing on 191, I turned west on UT-44 which would take me along the west side of the lake, and I hoped, a more scenic route. It was a very pretty drive with a few dramatic views.
|The lake formed by the Green River has this colorful cliff rising above the waters.|
At Manila I took 530 north which lead to Green River, WY and I-80. This section was dry prairie. I followed the freeway until I could again pick up US-191. At Farson I took WY-28 north toward Leander and Riverton. Just before the junction of WY-789 that leads to Riverton. I spotted a pop-up camper on a white pickup at the side of the road. Thinking it might be one of our group. I quickly pulled over. It wasn't. It was a nice young couple taking a photo of a funky trailer parked nearby. When the fellow checked out my camper and asked how I liked it, I knew he would be simpatico with the group. They were in Wyoming for the eclipse, but had no particular destination in mind. I told them a bunch of pop-up campers were meeting near Castle Gardens Petroglyphs and told him if they wanted to join us to take 136 just before Riverton, then turn up Castle Garden Road and look for the sign to the petroglyphs.
Castle Garden, BLM, UT
I filled the gas tank in Riverton (and picked up some ice per request.) I then found WY-136 and headed east (it's tricky, you have to follow 135 for a mile, then take a poorly marked turn left onto 136). Up to this point, though there had been lots of traffic on the highway, it had seemed not unreasonable for a Sunday afternoon. Once I got out into the true boonies there seemed to be a more unusual amount of vehicles than one might normally expect. Then when I made the turn onto the gravel Castle Garden Road there seemed to be people, cars, tents, trailers, and RVs everywhere. I guess this was the place to be!
Using my Benchmark atlas, and various online resources, I had picked a spot near Castle Gardens Petroglyphs that looked like a good dispersed site that would accomodate several vehicles. Mark and Doug, the first on the scene, evaluated the situation and sent coordinates of a slightly different site closer to the county road.
As I turned off the county road onto Castle Gardens Petroglyphs Road I was stopped by a BLM officer. They were stopping everyone to warn of the high danger of wildfire, that open fires were not allowed, and to please drive slowly to keep the dust down. Great advice and I was glad to see them keeping an eye on everyone. The numbers of people and vehicles was indeed unprecedented.
I easily spotted our encampment and was happy to see many pop-up campers gathered around. I parked beside my old camper buddy Bob and got out to meet new friends.
It turns out that everyone with whom I'd corresponded and who had said they "might" be able to meet, did in fact make it there. WanderTheWest.com forum members who joined the meet up were: Mark from Bend, OR; and Stew aka Doug from Pueblo, CO - they'd picked the exact location on Thursday and had forwarded the coordinates via Mark's SPOT device. Syncro Bill, an old climbing buddy of Doug's, from Truckee, CA, was the only non-pop up camper. (He takes his handle from the VW Syncro (tm). He has one, but didn't bring it on this trip.) CougarCouple, Russ and Syma, from Las Vegas, NV were there. Gregory and his young daughter, Chloe, from Farmington, NM came in his Flip-Pac camper. My old camping buddy Bob from Spokane, WA (of White Rim Trail and Valley of the Gods fame) was there with his friend Sabine from L.A. An hour or so later, the young couple I'd accosted on the highway to Riverton arrived - Jessie and Kim were late as they'd initially missed that tricky turn onto 136.
Wow! We had 12 attendees in 8 vehicles for our eclipse viewing party. Not bad at all for a more-or-less last minute decision. All but two were WTW forum members, and all but one was in some sort of pop-up camper. Cool!
With help, I set up my garage-sale canopy. It was windy enough and it was wobbly enough that even with the feet staked down, we lowered the forward edge and ran guy ropes. I sat under it for a while, but most folks were content to sit in the shade of their campers. Russ helped me take it down before dark in case of strong overnight winds.
We socialized, got to know our new friends, talked about camping and campers, marveled at the number of other people out on the prairie and driving the road to the petroglyphs. Everyone was super nice and friendly, as I'd expected. The couple from SLC fit right in, too.
|Sunset from our Eclipse Viewing campsite along Castle Gardens Petroglyph Road, WY|
We enjoyed a nice sunset and once it got truly dark, admired the stars and Milky Way. I had brought my spotting scope. I set it up so we could look for the moons of Jupiter - that had impressed me the first time I saw them in my back yard. I used one of my phone AR night sky apps to help identify major stars and planets. Someone asked if the rings of Saturn could be seen. On no real data, I replied probably not, but was delighted to be proven wrong. Not only could we see the rings, but they were oriented perfectly to provide an iconic view. That was so cool.
Monday, August 21
This was the day of the event that had brought all of us out here, close to the geographical center of Wyoming. Looking out across the prairie you could see many other encampments. Cars, trucks, and motorcycles continued to pass us headed down the road toward the petroglyph park - it must have been a zoo farther in.
|Our Eclipse Viewing campsite. Just look at all those wonderful pop-up campers!|
I took a few photos of the folks in our group, and the vehicles around the campsite. Not all of the photos turned out as well as would like, and I missed a few people. Apologies.
|Sincere Bill, Doug (aka Stew), and Russ.|
|Gregory, Bob, and Saabine|
Everyone was excited, checking their camera gear, looking up the time the eclipse would begin and when to expect totality. Many of us were concerned as there were some clouds in the sky. As it got closer to the time, many of us began packing up and lowering the roofs of our campers. I did as well - I didn't drive two days to have the sun behind a cloud at the last minute if I could jump in the truck and drive a few miles to get out from under the cloud (perhaps a nieve assumption reflecting upon the geometry of it all.) Others were packing as they needed to head out right after totality, such as Bob who had to get Sabine to the airport to catch a flight home.
|Kim, Jessie, and Winston|
|Doug is ready for action|
Gregory had brought solar film and was making filters for his binoculars. He had enough left for Sabine to convert hers, too, and for me to make a filter for my spotting scope. I set up the scope and we marveled at the sun spots before the eclipse.
|Mark takes a break|
|Sabine and Bob ham it up for the camera|
I'd brought a camera with a long lens to photograph the phases, then the corona. A camera to video the phases and totality. I had cut up an extra pair of solar viewing glasses and with various plastic containers, and cardboard rolls, made solar filters and tested them before I left home. And I was going to set up my phone camera to take a Hyperlapse of the campsite getting progressively darker, then lighter around totality time.
Once the eclipse was underway - the dragon had taken a big bite out of the sun - the day was obviously dimmer and folks were walking around saying "Does it feel cooler to you?" I'd begun taking photos of the phases, though I wasn't organized enough to actually time my shots. I thought I'd just take a bunch then select even intervals in post.
|Solar Eclipse 2017 - the protective film caused the orange coloration.|
I started my Hyperlapse video and when it got closer to totality, I started my eclipse video.
Total Eclipse Video - the dot to the left of the sun is Mercury.
Hyperlapse Video - 6x time-lapse of the period just before and after totality. No audio - a friend suggested I add the Benny Hill theme music.
Moments before totality it began to get really dark. I thought to myself maybe I should get a flashlight. Then totality... Wow! I don't really remember much at all about the totality, other than that first sight. I think my animal brain just stopped. After about 15 seconds I did remember to take the filters off my cameras, and I did snap two 3-exposure brackets. Later, on the video, I heard myself marvel that we could see solar prominences, and told someone to look at the western horizon. I don't recall seeing any stars, though the corona video did show Mercury. It seemed like it was all over in an instant. Later I wished I'd though to look at the corona with my binoculars - perhaps I'll remember next time, in 2024.
|Total Solar Eclipse 2017|
I had no definite plan for when the eclipse was over. Some of our group had planned to take off right after totality and not stay for the final phases. Others planned to stay at the campsite the rest of the day and leave tomorrow. I had packed up everything except my cameras before the eclipse in case I needed to drive out from under a cloud. As cars began to stream out of the petroglyph area, I suddenly decided to bail, and hopefully get ahead of some of the traffic as there were hundreds of folks in this small area. I quickly packed my cameras and said good-bye to those in camp (Gregory and Chloe had walked up to a small hill to view the eclipse, so missed them.)
I hit the road and it wasn't too bad. I drove north on the county road headed toward US-26 and Shoshoni. Bob had expressed concern it might be hard to turn left on the highway, but it wasn't too bad. The traffic moved pretty well and I could see many folks along, or near, the highway still watching the last phases of the eclipse.
Just as I got to Shoshoni the traffic came to a stop, apparently backed up from the intersection in the middle of town. The line barely moved at all. My navigation app showed the streets of this small town and I could see a way past the intersection if I could just work my way up to the next street. A UPS truck got tired of waiting and cut through a parking lot to get to that through street. That shook loose another car, then an RV, then I made a break for it, too.
I felt pretty smart as I accelerated north on US-20 toward Cody. My glee was short lived as I came upon the mother of all traffic jams. It stretched north as far as the eye could see (and then some) and we spent more time stopped than moving. No way around this one. The highway skirted the lake at Boysen State Park, but this was inviting only in desperation, as it was hot and I'm sure full. A few cars pulled off the highway at various points, but I just creeped along thankful for my air conditioner.
The scenery was probably quite nice through the canyons north of the lake, but I had to keep my attention on the vehicle in front of me. The traffic thinned as we came out of the canyon and we could get up above 5mph, and finally to near the speed limit. At Thermopolis I turned off US-20 onto WY-120 toward Cody, thankfully leaving most of the traffic behind.
There was another traffic jam as I got to Cody. The highway patrol was controlling the 'T' intersection, but it still took 15 minutes to get to the left turn at US-14. I filled the tank in town, then turned north to stay on 120 north. About 20 miles north of Cody, I turned west on WY-296, Chief Joseph Highway, that Bob had recommended. There was even less traffic here.
Chief Joseph Highway
The highway climbed though grass covered mountains where herds of cattle roamed. It was getting toward evening, so finding a campsite was on my mind. There were a few side roads, but few trees and much livestock. There were large mountains surrounding the valley though which the pavement ascended, but they were hazy due to the smoke from wildfires. For the next couple of days the views would be obscured by this haze - Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana all had fires burning. When you asked about the smoke the resident of whichever state you were in would blame the fires in the other two states.
Chief Joseph Highway crested the mountain and the highway crossed the historic Nez Perce Trail. There was a scenic overlook with views across a wide basin, but I didn't even try to take a photo due to the smoke. Disappointing. While I was stopped I consulted my Benchmark atlas. I saw that there was a campground in the valley below, as well as a couple roads off to the south that might afford dispersed camping.
After the descent, I pulled into the NFS Dead Indian Campground on the north side of the highway. It looked pretty nice as it was right along the creek. I didn't drive through once I saw there were spaces available. I thought I'd look for dispersed camping first.
Dead Indian Creek
I turned onto an unmarked dirt road, later determined to be labeled FR-2962G, on the south side of the highway. It wasn't one of the roads I'd seen on my map, but ran only 300 yards to the Dead Indian Creek Trailhead. However, the loop at the end of the road was also an informal, no-fee campground. There were no designated spaces, but there was a vault toilet and a bear-proof food storage locker. There were corrals for pack animals. There was no one around and no sign of recent use. I found a level spot just off the loop and set up.
|Campsite at Dead Indian Trailhead|
|Dead Indian Creek just below my campsite|
|Expansive view north of my campsite|
This was a beautiful place. I was camped just above rushing Dead Indian Creek, situated in a section of the valley that was small enough that the rocky mountain peaks above did not appear cloaked in smoke. It was a lovely evening. I walked around admiring the scenery. I took some photos and videos of the creek. As a newcomer in what was posted as grizzly country I even used the food storage locker for some of my more aromatic foods, such as very ripe bananas - I don't know if this was really necessary, but decided to be cautious. I heard a little traffic on the highway that night, but no one else drove into my little campground. I fell asleep listening to the cascading creek.
|Here's an experiment - the first animated gif I've added to my blog.|
If you love it or hate it, let me know in the comments.
I don't know why my watermark/caption flickers.
Tuesday, August 22
After breaking camp I continued west on Chief Joseph highway. Over the next hill I found the two side roads I'd seen on the map. I drove only a mile or so down the first, Sunlight Road, just to take a look. According to the map, the road runs at least 20 miles with the NFS Little Sunlight Campground being about half that distance. Judging by the satellite view, there are a number of branching roads and likely dispersed camping opportunities. The second (western) side road appears to be fairly short and only leads to an area of summer cabins.
I only took one photo through the Clark's Fork Canyon as it was so smokey. I had to get a picture of the Cathedral Cliffs. Here at home I tried for the first time the de-haze Photoshop presets I'd downloaded a few months ago. Wow! If I'd realized they worked so well I would have taken more photos here and throughout Idaho.
|Cathedral Cliffs. Post-processed with the de-haze preset at 75%. It wasn't this clear IRL.|
I returned to the highway and continued westerly. I can imagine this is gorgeous country, but the smoke in the air just made the surrounding mountains grey. I came to the junction of US-212, the Beartooth Highway. Bob had recommended this route to me as well. But before I turned east at the junction, I drove west to see if I could get a photo of an interestingly shaped mountain peak. I guessed that it was the bear tooth the highway was named for, but subsequent research has reveled the name to be Pilot Peak accompanied by Index Peak. I took hazy photos.
|Photo with the de-haze preset really cranked up - the peaks may not really be those colors.|
Yellowstone National Park
While at the overlook, I met a couple from South Dakota who had just driven out of Yellowstone. I said I'd like to visit Yellowstone someday, but had thought it would be just too full for a last minute trip. They said "no," that it wasn't busy at all. I asked about camping and they said many of the campgrounds had sites available. So, I suddenly changed my plans and thought I'd give Yellowstone a go. I continued west on 212 into the park. When I checked in at the entrance station, at least 3 campgrounds in the northern area of the park had sites available.
I showed my Senior Access Pass and drove in through the Lamar Valley where I took a few mediocre photos of the bison. Had to stop on a bridge across the Lamar River at one point to let a bull cross. I was so excited to have him walk within just a few feet of me sitting in my truck that I fumbled my camera and missed the shot of a lifetime. Sigh.
|Where the "buffalo" roam.|
I was headed to the campground at Mammoth Hot Springs. Wouldn't you know it? I was two cars too late to get a campsite. I asked the folks in front of me if they knew if there was still space at Indian Creek CG, as that had been another listed as having vacancies, but they said they were here because Indian Creek and all campgrounds farther south had filled up. I guess the park was not busy the day before because folks were farther south to see the eclipse, but had filled up the park this day.
I asked a park ranger at the visitor center what my options were. He said there was camping outside the north entrance to the park in the National Forest. I then asked him directions, but should have asked just how far that was, Apparently quite a ways, or I totally misunderstood where to go. I left the park via the North Entrance, US-89. I discovered for miles the terrain was barren and hot. I stopped at the market in Gardiner for coffee and kept driving.
Yellowstone River, Montana
I followed the Yellowstone River north, which is downstream in these parts. I stopped at a Montana state rest area and took a photo of the river and of an Osprey nest.
|Yellowstone River from a rest stop in Montana|
|Osprey nest way up a pole on the other side of the highway from the river.|
Adult Osprey on the left, juvenile on the right.
Seems that my memory is not what it used to be, and worse, it is so bad that I don't remember that I can't remember as I used to be able to do. I'd asked Bob at Castle Gardens for recommendations for travels after the eclipse. He'd suggested Chief Joseph and Beartooth highways, and something, something, something, and the Salmon river and Stanley, ID. Instead of marking his suggestions on a map or writing them down, I assumed I'd remember. Stuck in traffic north of Shoshoni I'd had to phone him to ask which highway to take out of Cody, but I wasn't about to bug him yet again about what route to take to the Salmon River area. It was my own fault I hadn't written it down. I remembered he showed me a cut-off somewhere, but that all I remembered.
I drove up US-89 to I-90 at Livingstone and pointed my truck west. It was going to be a long hot drive.
Trip continues in Part Two