View of total solar eclipse within driving distance for Wichitans

Dan Johnson, who owns one of the largest private telescopes in Kansas, traveled to the Caribbean 19 years ago to see a total solar eclipse.
Dan Johnson, who owns one of the largest private telescopes in Kansas, traveled to the Caribbean 19 years ago to see a total solar eclipse. Courtesy photo

Millions of people are planning their 2017 summer vacations around one date: Monday, Aug. 21. That’s when all of North America will see, weather permitting, a two- to three-hour partial eclipse – when the moon passes in front of the sun, off center, blocking a portion of the sun’s disk.

Halfway through the event, anyone within a 67-mile-wide swath arcing 3,000 miles from Oregon to South Carolina will see a total solar eclipse, a phenomenon that occurs when the moon completely blocks out the body of the sun.

“A lot of people say they have seen an eclipse, but very few have seen a total solar eclipse,” said Dan Johnson, who grew up in central Kansas with a telescope in his backyard and has been a volunteer staff member for the Astronomical Society of Kansas City for the past 25 years. “A total solar eclipse is completely different and much more spectacular than a partial eclipse.”

Total solar eclipses happen once a year, according to the American Astronomical Society, but this year’s is rare because of its accessibility. Often they occur over oceans or in remote locations that only eclipse-chasers are willing to travel to. This one is coast-to-coast in the U.S., which hasn’t happened since 1918 and won’t happen again until 2045, with an estimated 12 million people living in the path of totality and millions more within a day’s drive.

Wichitans will need to drive north to see the total eclipse. The path of totality spans 14 states, including 468.4 miles through Nebraska, 41.5 miles cutting across the northeast corner of Kansas and 301.9 miles slicing Missouri diagonally. These three states benefit from having the total eclipse close to midday, when the sun will be near its highest point and offer optimal views if the skies are clear.

Communities within the path are designating prime viewing areas and planning weekend-long events leading up to that Monday’s main attraction in an attempt to organize locals’ viewing activities and to attract out-of-town visitors.

The closer to the center line of that path, the longer the total eclipse will last. The longest duration is two minutes and 42 seconds in Carbondale, Ill. In Kansas, the longest duration is two minutes and 38 seconds in Troy, while Leavenworth, near the southern edge of the path, will see the total eclipse for one minute and 32 seconds.

Johnson, an amateur astronomer, traveled to the Caribbean 19 years ago to see a total solar eclipse.

During this year’s eclipse, he plans to take his 20-inch telescope, one of the largest private telescopes in Kansas, north of Kansas City to Jowler Creek Vineyard and Winery in Platte City, Mo., where he’ll offer daytime and nighttime sky gazing during the winery’s Eclipse and Sips Festival on Saturday and Sunday before the eclipse.

On Aug. 21, he’ll help guide a bus tour taking members of the Museum at Prairiefire in Overland Park to St. Joseph, Mo. – considered one of the region’s sweet spots for viewing. In St. Joseph, the eclipse will start at 11:40:34 a.m. and end at 2:34:27 p.m. Total eclipse starts at 1:06:19 p.m. and ends two minutes and 38 seconds later.

“Experts tell us to expect anywhere from 50,000 to 500,000 visitors that day, and we will not know until the day it happens,” said Beth Carmichael, director of project development at the St. Joseph Visitors Bureau, a city of 90,000 about 50 miles north of downtown Kansas City. “St. Joseph is the fifth-largest city on the center line of the path of totality. We have one of the longest viewing durations, and we have the infrastructure that many other cities along the path do not: highways, the airport, restaurants.”

St. Joseph, approximately 215 miles from Wichita, has designated several city-approved watch locations that can handle large numbers of people, and attractions across the city have special events planned.

The biggest endorsement for St. Joe as a viewing location came when Michael E. Bakich, a senior editor for Astronomy magazine, chose the city to stage an eclipse-watching event at its Rosecrans Memorial Airport, which is expected to draw a capacity crowd of 30,000. There will be a large primitive camping and RV area, amateur and professional astronomers with high-powered, safely filtered telescopes, and commentary by Bakich broadcast on local radio. The event is free; however, there is a $20 parking fee for private vehicles and fees for camping (stjosepheclipse.com).

Other watch locations include a mall, a nature center and downtown in conjunction with the city’s 25th annual Trails West Festival. The East Hills Shopping Center will have a free planetarium, RV camping and will give viewers a chance to go inside for food, cooling off or using bathrooms. The Remington Nature Center is next to the St. Jo Casino and the Heritage Park Softball Complex, providing free parking for about 1,200, primitive camping and extended hours at the nature center and casino.

Skygazers who want to bring their own telescopes are encouraged to set up on the Riverfront Walking Trails that run about 1 mile in each direction from the Remington Nature Center.

Trails West, St. Joe’s largest festival, is being extended from three to four days of music, art, crafts and food vendors. Visitors buy a button, $8 in advance and $10 at the gate, for all four days. Headliners include Trace Adkins, Grand Funk Railroad, Here Come the Mummies and Clare Dunn.

Many of the city’s institutions are hosting celestial-themed exhibits and events throughout the weekend, including Pony Express Museum and Pony School, Glore Psychiatric Museum, Walter Cronkite Memorial, Missouri Western State University, Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art and Mount Mora Cemetery. At press time, event details continue to change; see stjomoeclipse.com for the latest.

Lodging is still available at campsites and area hotels, but most have a minimum two-night stay. The St. Joseph Visitors Bureau advises to call hotels directly because travel websites and 800 numbers are incorrectly showing all hotels as sold out.

Viewing the eclipse

Communities across the three-state area have events planned and will continue to add details as Aug. 21 nears.

Kansas: travelks.com/solareclipse

Missouri: visitmo.com/eclipse

Nebraska: neclipse17.com

Two useful websites for a national view of the eclipse are: nationaleclipse.com and https://eclipse2017.nasa.gov.