Unlike the total solar eclipse in 2017, when visitors were expected across Oregon, tourism officials are expecting crowds this year to be concentrated in one part of the state: Klamath County.
That’s due not only to the path of the eclipse, which will be visible for all Oregonians but at its best in a 90-mile-wide band across the southwest corner of the state, but also because of the probability for good weather. Jim Todd, space science director for the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, said that although that band includes the south-central Oregon coast and the Willamette Valley, the Klamath Basin is expected to have the best chances of clear skies when the eclipse begins, just after 8 a.m. Oct. 14.
Depending on who you ask, crowd estimates in Klamath County range from 15,000 to 70,000 people, with most going to Crater Lake National Park, the city of Klamath Falls and Eclipse Fest, a multi-day festival just outside town. That could be a big deal for the rural county, which has an estimated population of 70,212 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
It’s left officials, emergency personnel and residents wondering not just how many people will arrive, but how to manage them all.
“This has the potential to be a really significant, once-in-a-lifetime event in our county,” Klamath County Commissioner Kelley Minty said. “At the end of the day, we don’t totally know what to expect.”
Local tourism agencies have been trying to figure that out, tracking where crowds might go to witness the astronomical event. At the top of the list is Crater Lake National Park, which will be directly in the path of the eclipse. In June, Outside Magazine named the park one of the best places in the country to see the event.
Crater Lake Superintendent Craig Ackerman said he’s been feeling more trepidatious than excited for the eclipse, as the park tries to prepare for a surge of visitors at what is normally the end of its busy season.
“The park is available, it’s a public place and certainly the public is entitled to use it – that’s what it’s there for,” he said. “The real issue is that since it’s in October, many of our available personnel resources will be gone for the season.”
Park campgrounds will already be closed for the season, as will many other amenities. Crater Lake Lodge, which will stay open through Oct. 15, has long been booked up. One visitor center should be open, Ackerman said, and the park hopes to keep the sole gas pump open as well.
Rim Drive, the scenic road that circumnavigates the lake, is expected to be open, though it could close if snow, which usually begins by the end of October, arrives early. If the road is open, the second entrance station on the north side of the park will be open as well. However, the National Park Service warned that lines of traffic to get into the park could still reach up to two hours long.
“The issue that I have most concern about is disappointing people because they will run into a bottleneck getting into the park at either end,” Ackerman said.
Just outside the park, on a 175-acre parcel of private land, organizers are working to set up Eclipse Fest, a multi-day event with camping, food, vendors and a concert by ‘90s pop-rock band Smash Mouth. The event is run by Impressions Design & Marketing, a Klamath Falls company that has previously put on multi-day Ninja Warrior events. Sara Irvine, owner of Impressions, said Eclipse Fest is on track to host an estimated 5,000 people.
Aside from hammering out the logistics for an event of that size, Irvine said she’s been focused on a pair of last-minute hiccups: securing final permitting from Klamath County, and informing people that Smash Mouth is still playing despite the recent death of former front man Steve Harwell, who left the band in 2021.
The permitting issue will be settled following a Sept. 20 public hearing, though Irvine said she wasn’t concerned that it would derail the event. Her understanding is that the hearing is meant to give voice to worried neighbors, she said, whom she is open to working with.
“It’s not like the event is not going to happen,” Irvine said. “We just need to go and be good listeners and make good accommodations.”
Minty declined to offer predictions about how her fellow county commissioners would vote, but said she would like to see everything go smoothly. “My deep hope is that we can permit this event,” she said.
Eclipse Fest is not the only big event taking place in Klamath County. Another, Eclipse Into Nature, will be hosted at Running Y Resort in Klamath Falls, where organizers expect between 1,200 and 2,500 people for an eclipse watch party, and up to 120 people for a ticketed event the night before.
Jason Murray, general manager of Running Y Resort, said Eclipse Into Nature will be focused on education, with a NASA livestream and representatives on hand from the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry as well as the Oregon Institute of Technology. With live music, food vendors and games, it also promises to be a lively, family-friendly affair.
As each of the three destinations prepares to play host to crowds of people, local emergency officials are coming together to share resources and information, preparing for the worst.
A Multi-Agency Coordination Group, comprised of more than a dozen local, state, federal and tribal agencies in Klamath County, is honing its game plan for the big event. Minty, who is a member of the group, said the primary concerns are emergency services, traffic jams, and the question of where people will go to watch the eclipse. There’s also the unknowable factors: weather, human behavior and how many people will actually make the trek out to Klamath County on Oct. 14.
“We are anticipating upwards of 60,000 to 70,000 people coming through our community or spending time in our community,” Minty said. “We’re preparing for the maximum people and the maximum amount of effort we need to put in.”
It echoes the worst-case-scenario planning for the 2017 eclipse, when state officials estimated 1 million people would come to Oregon. While many places did see big crowds, the anticipated traffic jams and swarms of people never materialized. Many small town businesses that had anticipated a windfall were left frustrated.
It’s worth noting that, unlike a total solar eclipse, the only benefit to being in the center path of an annular solar eclipse is to experience the so-called “ring of fire” when the moon is positioned perfectly in front of the sun. The sun’s atmosphere, or corona, will not be visible this time around. It also means everybody viewing the eclipse needs to wear special glasses the entire time to protect their vision.
Many of those preparing in Klamath County have said they’ve looked to 2017 as a road map for 2023, but that’s led to a large discrepancy in crowd estimates.
Local tourism agency Discover Klamath said it expects 15,000 to 20,000 people for the eclipse, less than a third of what the county estimates. But even that would be a lot. Virtually all local lodging is expected to be booked up by the start of October, the agency said in an email, leaving any spillover crowds to either camp at Eclipse Fest or find someplace nearby.
Bob Hackett, executive director of Travel Southern Oregon, said a lot hinges on making sure people have good places to watch the eclipse and stay the night. The fear is that people might trespass on private land, clog up rural areas or get in trouble exploring some of the more rustic environments.
Those potential problems are viewed not only as safety issues but marketing problems. This, after all, is a big opportunity for Klamath County to advertise itself as a Pacific Northwest travel destination – eclipse or not.
“The worst-case scenario would be if people got frustrated,” Hackett said. “We just don’t want people to be disappointed or not have a good time here.”