Ring of Fire over the Valley of the Gods

October 2023  |  Valley of the Gods, Utah

A few days ago we made the last minute decision to drive over to southern Utah to witness the annular totality of the October 14, 2023 solar eclipse. I had seen on the eclipse maps that the path of totality would pass right through Cedar Mesa and the Valley of the Gods, and I figured it would be worth it to make the 4 hour drive to see the "Ring of Fire" (versus just staying home in the San Juans where I could have still seen a nice 85% "Crescent of Fire").

I suspected it would be busy out there, but when we arrived at the Valley of the Gods the day before the eclipse I was still a bit shocked at what a madhouse it was! People were camped everywhere, and when I say everywhere I mean every possible campsite and any little pullout whatsoever was packed with cars, RVs, tents, you name it. And inevitably a few bozos even drove right off the road into the undisturbed desert. We finally found a spot where we could back our truck off the road into a rocky wash, which was a relief since we didn't want to have to camp far away and drive through the circus the next morning. All throughout the night more people kept driving in; I have no idea where they ended up in the dark.

I didn't have enough time to scout out exactly where I wanted to shoot the eclipse, but I knew that I wanted to shoot a wider landscape scene rather than a close up telephoto shot, and I also knew that I didn't want to be hanging out with the crowds of photographers shooting from the obvious road spots (I tend to have a psychological allergic reaction to situations like that). So on the morning of the eclipse we woke up and started walking by sunrise so that I'd have a good three hours to wander around and find my spot before the eclipse totality at about 10:30. After what ended up being a lovely morning hike through several miles of scenic washes, I found a decent spot with a prominent spire that was lined up with where the eclipse totality would be. (I use The Photographer's Ephemeris for planning, and PhotoPills in the field to line up astronomical photos like this). There were a few other people out there that had a similar idea, but it was much more peaceful and quiet than it would have been back along the congested and dusty road!

We had enough spare time to make some coffee, eat some breakfast, and relax for a bit, then the eclipse started happening! It seemed to take a long time for moon to move in front of the sun, but the fuller the eclipse became, the faster it grew towards totality. I took a few practice shots which was a good thing since I realized I would definitely need to use my 10-stop neutral density filter, and I would also definitely need to be in manual exposure mode in order to get quick enough exposures to not totally blow out the sun. So I was as prepared as I could be for the eclipse totality!

As the moon covered more and more of the sun, the temperature got cooler and cooler, and we both had to put our down jackets back on! The light also became dimmer on the landscape, though it never got twilight-dark like it does during a total eclipse.

Finally the eclipse shifted from a thin crescent shape into annular totality as the moon moved exactly in front of the sun, leaving a perfect circle of sun in the sky - the "Ring of Fire" that we all came to see! While I was busy trying to photograph the scene and the eclipse, I also made sure to look at it myself with solar glasses. What a surreal sight to see a perfect orange circle up in the sky! My brain didn't really know how to react; I had the peculiar sensation that it was a graphic design or font type in the sky, or that it was some sort of glitch in the Matrix!

The October 2023 solar eclipse

The October 2023 solar eclipse "Ring of Fire" annular totality over the Valley of the Gods in Bears Ears National Monument. During an annular eclipse the moon is farther away from the Earth so when it passes in front of the Sun, its size in the sky is slightly smaller than the Sun's, leaving a visible circle called the "Ring of Fire".

The sky didn't actually get this dark in real life (unless you looked through solar glasses), but a gradient blend like this was the only way I could combine the extreme exposure range to show the whole scene. That said, I would say that the final image gives a decent expression of how it felt being there, putting the solar glasses on and off. Once the eclipse got going the light did get noticeably dimmer, and the temperature got colder and I had to put my jacket back on.

The annular totality only lasted a few minutes; it was mind bending to see a perfect circle up in the sky, like we were living in a simulation for a moment there.

Ring of Fire annular totality of October 2023 solar eclipse.
Here's a closer crop of the eclipse in the above photo. The sunstar pattern is an artifact of the lens aperture blades. When looking at the eclipse through solar glasses the Ring of Fire was just a perfect orange circle.

I had to move very quickly to capture just one round of exposures during the annular totality; it only lasted for a few minutes, if that. Once the totality was over and the eclipse was crescent-shaped again, I stopped taking more photos and just enjoyed watching it with the solar glasses. And once the crescent shape of the eclipse was mostly gone, we could see the dust cloud along the road again as the first wave of traffic departed (like people who leave football games early to beat the crowds!).

View through solar glasses during the 2023 annular eclipse.
Here's a more real life view of the eclipse experience, looking through solar glasses (during the crescent phase about 10 minutes after the annular totality was over). As you can see, the solar glosses are so dark that everything is pure black except for the sun. The sky had brightened a bit compared to during the totality.

After the eclipse was over, we walked back to the truck and drove right back home to Ridgway, thus setting our personal record for the quickest desert camping trip we've ever done! All in all I was glad that we motivated to drive out to see the perfect "Ring of Fire" - I will never forget that sight!

Posted in Canyons & Deserts and tagged Cedar Mesa, Utah.