Massive overcrowding expected in Oregon mountains during solar eclipse

NEWS UPDATE: Willamette National Forest announced on August 7 that the Pacific Crest Trail and most of the rest of Mt. Jefferson will be closed during the eclipse because of the Whitewater Fire. Read the announcement. We’re sorry, but you’ll want to go elsewhere for the eclipse.

A full solar eclipse—when the moon crosses in front of the sun—is a rare sight. Being in exactly the right spot to view it could be a once in a lifetime opportunity.

This summer, hundreds of thousands of people will be heading to the mountains of mid-Oregon to stare at the sky, hoping to see this phenomenon. Many of them will be aiming for their favorite public lands so that on Monday morning, Aug. 21 at around 10 a.m., they’ll have a rare vantage point when the sky darkens.

Rob Lorez watches a solar eclipse in Arches National Park in 2012. Photo by Andrew Kuhn of the National Park Service.

Rob Lorez watches a solar eclipse in Arches National Park in 2012. Photo by Andrew Kuhn of the National Park Service.

It’s going to be magical. It also poses serious problems.

Huge crowds have the potential to do a lot of damage very quickly. They trample vegetation. They break branches and clear bushes to pitch tents. They camp right next to the trail. They do thoughtless things: graffiti and vandalism, building structures, hacking down live trees. They make campfires outside established fire rings. The tragedy of the commons rears its ugly head, and people begin to feel less responsible for damaging public lands.

There will be too many people on the PCT

The eclipse zone travels from west to east all the way across Oregon and several other states. It’s projected that millions of people will travel to a narrow strip of Oregon to view the eclipse. They’re likely to cluster in beautiful natural areas along the coast and in the Cascades.

A group watches the 2008 solar eclipse in China. Photo by Kevin Hale (CC BY-SA 2.0)

A group watches the 2008 solar eclipse in China. Photo by Kevin Hale (CC BY-SA 2.0)

The Pacific Crest Trail, being world-famous and intersecting for nearly 100 miles the zone of totality and being near the top of the mountains, will be a magnet for hikers, Oregonians and people from all over the West and the world. And let’s not forget that even in a normal year, August is a crowded time on the PCT in Oregon because of the surge of long-distance hikers and weekend backpackers.

It will be hard to get to and from the PCT

Hotels and campgrounds—anything reservable—is already reserved. Authorities are predicting overflowing trailhead parking areas for days leading up to the eclipse.  It could be difficult to get to the PCT without parking far away. Don’t be tempted to park illegally because there will be enforcement. Agencies are planning to have all hands on deck.

Parking lots will be beyond full and there will be extensive enforcement. Photo by Jim Peaco/NPS

Parking lots will be beyond full and there will be extensive enforcement. Photo by Jim Peaco/NPS

Traffic will be bad on days around the event. On eclipse day, gridlock is predicted along highways in the totality zone, including Highway 20 (Santiam Pass). This can seriously affect people trying to start a hike, end a hike, or resupply. Long-distance hikers hoping to resupply in Sisters or Bend immediately around the event should reconsider those plans. It’s probably better to skip resupplying or mail a box to Big Lake Youth Camp.

Consider watching the Oregon eclipse from these places

  1. Go to an eclipse viewing event. There are dozens of events, with parking, bathrooms and fun times. View a list.
  2. Pick a city. Head to one of Oregon’s wonderful small towns or little cities. There is a map here. They’re durable. In the 2-1/2 minutes that the eclipse passes overhead, you won’t leave a trace.
  3. Head east! Most of central and eastern Oregon is public land. The farther east you go, the fewer people there are. Pick a place without a famous name and go there. Look at a map. Find somewhere along a secondary road, without a name. Please stay on roads and trails to avoid doing damage.
Solar eclipses are incredible sights. Photo by Takeshi Kuboki (CC BY 2.0)

Solar eclipses are incredible sights. Photo by Takeshi Kuboki (CC BY 2.0)

Six ways to protect the landscape if you’re planning to be on the PCT despite the crowds

  1. Do a day-hike instead of a backpacking trip. There just aren’t enough tent spots. And your impact is greatest when you’re pitching tents, washing dishes, pooping and the like. Aim for a little-known trailhead or road crossing where you can park legally and safely. Start very early in the morning, we recommend before 5 a.m., hike a bit, and enjoy the day. But be prepared: bring extra food and warm clothing, though. You may have a tough time driving home if the expected traffic gridlock materializes.
  2. If camping, expect crowds and be good neighbors. In existing tent sites, the soils already are bare and compacted. Let’s get as many people in those barren spots as possible without expanding the sites. Welcome close neighbors. It’s better that they camp right next to you in the already-impacted area, than having them clear more room around the edges. It only takes a few nights of tent occupation in a new spot before the soil becomes bare long-term. Let’s get through this eclipse without causing permanent damage to the land.
  3. Get out of sight of the trail. Many people will find campsites full and be tempted to clear new spots right by the trail. Yikes! Imagine the PCT as a path between nearly continuous rows of tents. The wilderness should not look like a festival. The damage would last a long time. Instead, use your map and GPS and go cross-country. Well away from the trail, find a naturally durable spot, such as something gravelly and without vegetation, something you don’t have to clear or build.
  4. Commit zero vegetation damage. Don’t build a new fire ring and don’t create a new campsite. Don’t break a branch to make room for your tent. Walk in the middle of the trails – don’t walk on the edge of them.
  5. Avoid campfires. There will be far too many people and this one event would use a year’s worth of fallen sticks. Agency land managers are also concerned about their ability to respond to a wildfire. It may be impossible to evacuate large numbers of people in the event of a wildfire, many of which are started by carelessly tended campfires.
  6. Do all the little things. Carry out every speck of trash – even other people’s trash. Wash your dishes and bodies away from water sources. Carry out toilet paper and bury your poop far, far away from campsites and trails.
  7. Talk to people about how they can limit their impact. Put on your volunteer ranger hat. You’re empowered to educate others about protecting these really special and fragile places. You’re heading to the PCT because of a collision of fantastic nature: a spectacular mountain range and a spectacular eclipse. The wildlife, vistas, mountains and water sources are still pristine only because people stand up for them. Many of your fellow hikers and horseback riders who are out enjoying the eclipse will be beginners. Please educate them on best Leave No Trace practices.

A final word of caution

if you expect to observe the eclipse, please be sure to protect your eyes. You’ll likely want to order special purpose “eclipse glasses,” which are inexpensive, simple to use, and—to the joy of PCT hikers—will cause no appreciable increase in pack weight.

Thanks to Pete “Sheepdog” Tucker and Dana Hendricks for helping with this article.

Author: Jack "Found" Haskel

As the Trail Information Manager, Jack works to connect people to the PCT. He's involved with a wide variety of projects that help the trail, the trail's users and the community that surrounds the experience. He has thru-hiked (Pacific Crest Trail in 2006; Colorado Trail in 2008; Continental Divide Trail in 2010) and is an obsessed weekend warrior.