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Grand Teton National Park trip report, August 18 to 22, 2017

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Offline Jonathan Sadow

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Grand Teton National Park trip report, August 18 to 22, 2017
« on: October 03, 2017, 02:02:31 AM »
A couple of years ago, I checked out the path of the total solar eclipse to occur on August 21, 2017, and found that the predicted path of totality would pass through Grand Teton National Park.  Immediately, I knew where I'd be to view the eclipse.  I'd been to the park just recently, but I knew there was still much to be seen there, plus I could work in a visit to neighboring Yellowstone National Park, which I hadn't visited in 15 years.

First, I needed to make the appropriate backcountry reservation for the time of the eclipse.  Reservations for backcountry sites in Grand Teton National Park always open for the year at 9 A.M. Central Time on the first Wednesday of the year.  So it was that on January 4, 2017 at 9:00:00 A.M. precisely that I clicked on the button on the website to reserve a site in the South Fork of Cascade Canyon zone for August 20 and 21.  After a few seconds, the page refreshed showing that all available sites were taken for those dates.  It seems like I wasn't the only person who had the idea to view the eclipse from the vantage point of just below Grand Teton.  In February, I tried doing the same thing for Teton Canyon Campground in the Bridger-Teton National Forest, with the same result: all reservable sites were taken within ten seconds of becoming available.  I'd have to take my chances with the two-thirds of sites in the park that are held for walk-in reservations.  This meant I'd have to get to the park several days before the eclipse so as to have a chance at getting the site I wanted.  Thus I left on August 16 to drive to Wyoming, and I made it to the park on the 18th.

The path of totality went basically through the center of Wyoming from northwest to southeast, and the Wyoming Department of Transportation had posted helpful signs making drivers aware of this with at least three days warning:

17818001 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Arriving on the afternoon of Friday the 18th, I immediately went to the Craig Thomas Discovery & Visitor Center to check if the backcountry sites I was interested in were available.  I quickly discovered that, not only were the sites I wanted entirely booked through the day of the eclipse, so was every backcountry site in the park, and had been since the day before.  Because walk-in reservations in GRTE, like those in Big Bend National Park, can be made no more than one day before the start of the stay, this meant that every walk-in backcountry site in the park would have to have been occupied by the same parties for at least three nights before the day of the eclipse.  So much for Plan A;  now it was time for Plan B.

I could still dayhike to the base of Grand Teton on the morning of the eclipse.  However, that would require me to leave the Jenny Lake trailhead probably around 6 A.M. so as to have a reasonable chance to get to where I wanted to be in time for the eclipse to start.  The only way I could do that would be to camp next to the trailhead at the Jenny Lake Campground.  Staying elsewhere and driving there would be very chancy at best;  trailhead parking is forbidden before 6, and the park was expecting is busiest day ever and anticpated crowded roads early in the morning.  Furthermore, the Park Service had helpfully scheduled the Jenny Lake area to be re-built this year, meaning there were even fewer parking spots at the trailhead than usual due to construction.  There were a lot of variables that would be out of my control on the morning of the 21st, and it's not like I could hit some pause button and make the eclipse wait on me.  If I could camp at Jenny Lake Campground, then I could simply walk to the trailhead and to my destination.  With that in mind, I went to the campground and walked around to see if anyone was leaving the next day.  If so, I'd have to get there really early;  the campgrond occupancy board in the visitor center stated that the 49-site Jenny Lake Campground had filled that morning at 6:51 A.M.!  In the end, it didn't matter;  I found the campground host, who told me that everyone scheduled to leave the next day had renewed, and he didn't anticipate anyone leaving before the eclipse.

I was down to Plan C: find some campground to stay in and view the eclipse from there.  At least I had been clever enough to reserve a cabin at Colter Bay Village for that night.  I decided the best plan of action now would be to try to get a spot in Colter Bay Campground for Saturday, Sunday, and Monday nights.  The park had set up several official eclipse viewing sites, and one of these was at Colter Bay Marina, only about half a mile from the campground entrance, so I could just walk there on the morning of the eclipse and not have to worry about driving anywhere.  So it was that I got up bright and early Saturday morning and drove the short distance to the campground entrance, where I discovered that there were 20 vehicles in front of me even though it was only 6:45 A.M..  Two and a half hours later, I got a campsite, and by luck it was one of the closest ones to the entrance, so I had only a short walk to the facilities at Colter Bay Village.  I spent the rest of the day setting up camp and getting various supplies.  Before I went to sleep that night, I walked over to the campground entrance and saw two vehicles parked there, waiting for the campground to open at 8 the next morning.  All 335 sites would be full for the next two nights.

I had one more day before the eclipse, and I decided to use it to hike to Surprise and Amphitheater Lakes, two lakes formed by water filling cirques left over from the last ice age that sit below Grand and Middle Teton.  I had read that this was a popular hike, and that was true - not only was the trailhead parking lot full, but the closest place I could find to park was a half-mile down the entrance road.  Still, the extra mile added to my hike was worth it.  The view of Jackson Hole from the trail was magnificent,...

17820001 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

... and so was the view of Bradley and Taggart Lakes:

17820002 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

After nearly five miles and 3,000 feet of elevation gain, one encounters first Surprise Lake (so-called because you turn a corner and suddenly it's in front of you):...

17820004 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

... and then a little further on Amphitheater Lake:

17820007 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

You can see why it's called Amphitheater Lake: the cliffs surrounding it make it look like you're at the bottom of an amphitheater.  Near the center of the image you can see Grand Teton just peeking out over the cliffs with Mount Owen to its right.

The next day was eclipse day.  Upon waking up at about 6:15, the first thing I noticed was the sound of heavy traffic coming from the park road a few hundred yards away.  By the time the eclipse was beginning, around 10:15, Colter Bay Village's parking lot was completely full:

17821002 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

At least the viewing area had a picturesque backdrop:

17821004 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

As the eclipse progressed, I projected the image of the Sun through my binocculars.  You can see the Moon partially obscuring the Sun:

17821007 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

About 15 minutes before totality, the sky was becoming noticeably dimmer, and one could observe the interesting phenomenon of tree leaves acting as pinhole cameras, the light filtering through them showing the image of the Sun now almost completely obscured by the Moon:

17821008 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

With a minute to go before totality, it was really starting to get dark.  I took an image of the Sun, and if you look carefully you can see flaring from the camera lens which shows the Sun very nearly covered by the Moon:

17821009 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

With my relatively cheap point & shoot camera, I knew I couldn't get any quality shots of the Sun when second contact was made, so I instead shot video of the final few seconds before totality to give an idea of the atmosphere (as it were) of the area as the light faded:

17821011Trim by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Totality lasted 1 minute and 45 seconds at Colter Bay, and I spent most of it trying to get a photograph of the eclipsed Sun.  The autofocus was unco-operative at high magnifications, and I didn't want to waste time trying to focus manually, so I eventually wound up using a low magnification and got one not-terrible image.  I've reproduced it here at full size and cropped it:

17821013+ by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

After the eclipse was over, I spent the rest of the day hiking on the Lakeshore Trail along Jackson Lake.  A Common Merganser paddled around the marina, seemingly unperturbed by the presence of boats and people:

17821016 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Magnificent views of the Tetons were afforded across the bay:

17821020 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

There was a bit of haze caused by smoke from forest fires in Idaho and Washington, but it was nothing like what I had encountrered in my visit two years before.  On Tuesday the 22nd I packed up my campsite, but before I left the park I hiked out to Hermitage Point and back.  The Tetons form a scenic backdrop to Heron Pond:

17822006 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

With water nearby, it was no surprise that ospreys were common.  I could hear one calling near the trail and finally located it near the top of a tree:

17822009 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

Hermitage Point provides a magnificent panorama of the entire Jackson Lake area:

17822015 by Jonathan Sadow, on Flickr

After returning to the trailhead, I headed north toward Yellowstone National Park.  While I didn't get the viewing site and photo opportunity for the eclipse that I wanted, it was still worth the trip to cross this item off my bucket list.  With the experience gained from this time, I'll be prepared for the next total solar eclipse at Grand Teton when it happens in 2397.



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