Great American Eclipse draws tourists to path of totality

This photo from March shows a total solar eclipse in Indonesia. Hotel rooms already are largely sold-out in Nebraska and other states along the path of the Aug. 21 solar eclipse.

Associated Press file photo

The calls started three years ago. People from Arizona, Colorado and Vermont asking if Jerry Karel had beds available at his tiny hotel in downtown Ravenna for Aug. 21, 2017.

Still, Karel figured the total solar eclipse that will cross Nebraska that day would attract at most a few hundred people to the city of 1,700 — a decent crowd, but not much compared with a well-attended county fair.

Then the Grand View Inn's fifth and final room went to a man from Japan, who decided to visit a whole year in advance to scout a viewing spot along the eclipse's path of totality, which cuts just south of town.

"It amazed me," Karel recalled. 

The visit drew the attention of a photographer from the Ravenna News, and became a "pivotal moment" in the central Nebraska city's preparation for what has grown into an international event, says Gena McPherson, director of the Ravenna Area Chamber of Commerce.

One month from now, the eclipse's 70 mile-wide path of totality — where the moon's shadow lasts longest — will cross over more than 250 Nebraska communities between Alliance and Falls City, many of which are planning an entire weekend of events.

Hotels along the path are booked solid, as are all campsites available for reservation at state parks and recreation areas. In many communities, local landowners have opened up ground for tents.

Anyone still looking for an air-conditioned room should expect to drive at least an hour away.

One website, GreatAmericanEclipse.com, predicts Nebraska could see anywhere from 117,000 to 466,000 visitors along the path that day.

Gage County alone is preparing for 60,000, in part because of its proximity to Lincoln and Omaha, and also for events planned at Homestead National Monument of America, which include a visit by Bill Nye "the Science Guy." Elsewhere in Nebraska, towns smaller than Ravenna are expecting as many as 15,000 guests. 

"It is a massive shot in the dark. Nobody really has an exact number," said Alex Duryea, ecotourism consultant for the Nebraska Tourism Commission. "It all depends on the weather, and the cloud cover specifically. ... We really won't know that until probably the week before."

In Alliance, home to Carhenge, all hotels and established campgrounds were claimed as of last August.

Coupled with its location along the path of totality, Carhenge's quirky connection to the solar-aligned Stonehenge monument in England should make it one of the state's biggest draws.

"Alliance hit the geographic jackpot," said Kevin Howard, director of the Alliance Visitors Bureau.

"We could have 15,000 (people)," he said. However, "If it's cloudy in Alliance on eclipse day, nobody's going to be here. ... If it's cloudy in Stapleton and clear in Alliance, all the people from Stapleton are going to be in Alliance."

Expect traffic delays, particularly if weather is touch-and-go.

Roads officials have no plans to adjust traffic flow on highways along the path, and are only closing roadways where requested for community events, said Jeni Lautenschlager, spokeswoman for the Nebraska Department of Transportation.

To help with traffic flow, the Nebraska State Patrol plans to have extra troopers available across the state, as well as aircraft providing guidance from above. And several communities have enlisted help from neighboring law enforcement departments outside the eclipse path.

One perk of the path is that it brings the total eclipse right over many of Nebraska's largest cities, which are better equipped to handle the influx of visitors. 

But because it falls along much of Interstate 80 and Nebraska 2, those shoulders and medians — not to mention the roadways themselves — might seem like prime viewing spots for some travelers. That's not allowed.

"I think our big message is just asking people not to stop on the interstate and along the big highways," said Cody Thomas, spokesman for the State Patrol. 

Back in Ravenna, Karel has raised his expectations. He doesn't know whether to expect 7,000 visitors or 27,000.

Karel tells the history of his hotel, a single-story storefront built in 1954 that once housed a Chevy dealership.

Once his rooms filled up for Aug. 21, he started renting the yard out back to people with tents. Now that space is gone too.

The phone rings, but Karel doesn't answer.

"I'm sure he's probably wanting a room for the eclipse, and I don't have any."

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @zachami.

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