Astro Adventure: Great Eclipse Viewing in National Parks and Tiny Utah Town

by  Blane Bachelor | May 3, 2012
Grand Canyon
Grand Canyon / Susan Vineyard/iStock

An annular eclipse of the sun – the kind that results in a dramatic “ring of fire” effect, viewable in the United States for the first time in 18 years – will take place around sunset on May 20, with solar celebrations and viewing events scheduled at dozens of national parks in the western United States.

The eclipse will have the best viewing in a 200-mile-wide diagonal swath from the California-Oregon coast all the way to west Texas. The most avid astro-philes, however, should head to the tiny southern Utah town of Kanarraville. It was identified by NASA officials as one of the prime “sweet spots” for viewing the rare phenomenon, during which the moon will block most of the sun.

Located directly on the center line of the eclipse viewing path, Kanarraville is gearing up for a weekend-long celestial shindig, with lectures from astronomy experts, sky gazing tips, and astronomy exhibits galore. Beyond Kanarraville, viewing opportunities abound in the 200-mile stretch national parks in the West, with astronomers, NASA scientists, and local astronomy clubs collaborating on exhibits and viewing tips.

Grand Canyon National Park is going all out, with NASA scientists and amateur astronomers sharing their telescopes for viewing on the South Rim, plus several other prime viewing locations throughout the park equipped with telescopes and astronomy experts. Before the eclipse, NASA scientists will share the latest on its sun and moon research, and a Star Party will continue until at least 11pm.

The National Park Service has put together an excellent online resource for viewing locations in national parks, as well as safety tips. Among other parks that will have superb viewing and eclipse-specific events: Navajo National Monument, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and Bryce Canyon National Park, where the eclipse will mark the grand finale to the park’s 12th annual Astronomy Festival.

Sky gazers don’t need a telescope to see the eclipse, but they will need some optical protection, as viewing with the naked eye is extremely dangerous. Regular sunglasses won’t cut it: Pick up a pair of eclipse glasses (sold online at less than $1 each, with proceeds going to Astronomers Without Borders) or a viewing card, which will be handed out by rangers at some national parks. Crafty cosmos-lovers can also make a pinhole camera to safely view the sun.

And even if you can’t make it to a national park, you still have a good chance of seeing the eclipse in the western two-thirds of the United States. Astronomy experts advise picking a spot that has good western exposure, ideally without mountains blocking the view, checking weather reports beforehand to make sure skies are clear and having a back-up destination in mind, depending on weather. NASA also has a nifty clickable map for tracking the eclipse (but keep in mind that it’s in Universal Time).

Another option for eclipse-viewing in style? A Celebrity cruise centered on the spectacular total eclipse in the South Pacific in November. Star gazers who'd rather stay Stateside, however, can just mark the calendars for August 21, 2017, when a total eclipse with a huge viewing stretch from Oregon to North Carolina will take center stage in the sky.

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