Annular Solar Eclipse over Devils Pocket
Annular solar eclipse over Devils Pocket, Needles District, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
The prospect of photographing a rare event that I’ve never seen before and probably will never see again is always exciting. The annular solar eclipse of October 14, 2023, was clearly going to be such an event.
A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes directly between the sun and the earth. In a total eclipse, the moon is close enough to the earth to completely cover the sun’s disc and reveal the sun’s corona. In an annular eclipse the moon again passes between the earth and the sun, but it is too far from the earth to completely cover the sun’s disc. The result is often called a “ring of fire” eclipse.
The October 14, 2023, annular solar eclipse was predicted to be visible in a narrow swath of land cutting diagonally across the United States from Eugene, Oregon, to San Antonio, Texas. The Needles District in Canyonlands National Park fell just within that zone. I began my planning by examining my collection of images from the Needles District and the satellite photos in Photo Ephemeris Web. I was looking for a place in the Needles District where I could shoot a “string of pearls” photo. I planned to choose a composition, lock down the tripod, and shoot a bracketed series of exposures every five minutes as the sun passed through the frame. The series of sun images would reveal the different phases of the eclipse, including the three-minute period when the moon would be fully inside the sun’s disc. In the Needles District, the eclipse would begin around 9:10 a.m. and end around noon. I hoped to find a place where the sun’s path would arc up and over a dramatic group of towers. Finding such a place, then getting there, proved to be much more challenging than I expected.
In March, seven months before the eclipse, I booked several nights at the 4wd campsites in the Needles District, drove from my home in Boulder to the Needles District, and gave my new 4Runner a heart-stopping baptism by fire by tackling the notoriously difficult four-wheeling on Elephant Hill, the entrance exam required to reach my first campsite at Devils Kitchen.
After much hiking with a compass in one hand and a phone app with sun positions in the other, I selected a location about a mile south of the Devils Kitchen 4wd campsites. Seven months later, my wife Cora and I returned to the same campsite. That afternoon, we double-checked the rough calculations I had made with a handheld compass in March with a tripod-mounted Brunton Pocket Transit, a highly accurate compass and inclinometer, to get an accurate sense of precisely where the sun would be in relation to a group of spectacular sandstone towers at the beginning and end of the eclipse. Convinced we had a workable plan, we returned to camp.
Early the next morning, we returned to our shooting location. I shot the background land and sky before the sun rose over the sandstone rib to the east, then shot a bracketed series of images every five minutes as the moon took progressively bigger and bigger bites out of the sun. A few clouds appeared to the west and began moving toward the sun, but they proved too thin to degrade the images. The fleeting minutes of maximum eclipse finally arrived. The air grew much cooler. I photographed every few seconds, trying to capture the moment when the moon would be closest to the sun’s center. When annularity ended, I photographed for another hour and a half as the sun slowly reemerged from behind the moon. When the eclipse ended, we walked in the now-warm sunshine back to our truck, already talking excitedly about plans to witness an even more spectacular event: the total solar eclipse that will be visible from the United States on April 8, 2024.