CHEYENNE, Wyo. — A celestial phenomenon is expected to draw thousands of visitors to Wyoming this summer in an event unlike anything else seen in the state’s history.
People around the world are clearing their calendars for Aug. 21, when the moon is expected to move in front of the sun in the first total solar eclipse in more than two decades. During the few moments light is obscured, experts say day will turn to night as the stars appear and the Earth cools, with the only trace of the sun a corona behind the moon.
The event is particularly important in Wyoming because, for the first time since 1918, the narrow strip of land situated for viewing the total phase of the eclipse, called the path of totality, crosses the state’s midsection. Stretching more than 365 miles from Torrington to Jackson, residents and visitors are expected to gather as the Earth’s two most prominent celestial neighbors line up.
“I can’t think of anything quite like this,” said Chris Mickey, public relations adviser to Gov. Matt Mead.
“It encompasses such a huge area of the state. … For that two and a half minutes, it’s going to be a really different feeling in the state.”
“The way I’ve heard eclipses described are as a really incredible, spiritual feeling that you get with the sky going dark, the temperature dropping and the animals acting differently because they think it’s nighttime,” Mickey said.
“I can’t think of anything on this scale.”
While he couldn’t attach an estimated range for how many people from outside Wyoming will come on the day of and days surrounding the eclipse, Mickey said it’s likely to be in the thousands. While Wyoming sees events such as Cheyenne Frontier Days and University of Wyoming football games that bring in outsiders on a large scale, the eclipse could draw numbers in the hundreds of thousands.
“I’ve heard upward of 250,000, and some people are saying the state will double in size,” he said. “It’s just really hard to tell.”
The state’s estimated population as of July 1, 2016, was 585,501, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
More than a dozen Wyoming cities lie in the path of totality, including Casper, Jackson, Riverton, Lander, Wheatland, Douglas, Torrington and Guernsey. Mickey said lodging in those areas is filling up or already full, spilling into areas north and south. And even that doesn’t encompass day-trippers in neighboring states that might drive into the state for the early evening event and then head home afterward.
While the influx of people spending money on lodging, gas, food and more in Wyoming is a welcome opportunity,
Mickey said there’s a lot of preparation necessary to safely and comfortably accommodate the tourists. That is why he’s working on the governor’s behalf to make sure federal, state and local agencies are working together to prepare, he said.
A drop in oil, natural gas and coal prices sent the state’s economy spiraling downward the last two years, so Mickey said Wyoming agencies are hoping to seize a chance to rake in some revenue from out-of-state tourists for the event, while also planting seeds to draw people back after the eclipse.
“We’re really ready to accommodate all the visitors that are coming, and it should be a nice boost,” Mickey said. “Especially since tourism is the number two economic driver in the state, we think that we can get the visitors here to experience the eclipse, but also give them an interest to want to come back and visit the state again. … We’re really hoping that will spur a little bit more of the economic value of tourism.”
The Wyoming Department of Transportation is working on initiatives, including developing an interactive map on the Wyoming Office of Tourism website. It is also making sure rest areas are maintained, grass along major routes is mowed and litter is cleaned up for the increased traffic, said Doug McGee, WYDOT public affairs representative. In order to minimize any possible delays for travelers, he said WYDOT is also working to shut down construction projects within the path of totality for a few days leading up to and following the eclipse.
“We want to keep delays minimized as much as possible,” he said. “We’re aware this is such a great opportunity for the state, and just like every state agency, we’re hoping people will come for the eclipse and stay for so much more.”
In anticipation of visitors taking advantage of public lands, the Bureau of Land Management is looking to make sure people have the information they need up front to have a safe and enjoyable experience, said Cindy Wertz, public affairs specialist for the BLM Wyoming State Office. With a significant amount of public land in the path of totality, she said the agency wants people to know some guidelines. Preventing fires, Wertz said, is the BLM’s biggest concern.
“We want people to enjoy, respect and protect public lands, and just know the guidelines for the area they are going into,” she said.
The Wyoming Office of Homeland Security is also taking the initiative to support affected counties with whatever they might need for public safety, said Public Affairs Specialist Kelly Ruiz. She said Homeland Security and other stakeholder agencies are trying to prepare for what they can expect as much as what they cannot.
“It is definitely an unknown,” Ruiz said. “The more we meet with different counties, the more we realize things that need to be looked at.”