I've found the perfect car for chasing down solar eclipses
You need a highly capable vehicle if you're going to keep up with the Moon
Eric Adams is an automotive, aerospace, and technology journalist/photographer for titles including Wired, Gear Patrol, Popular Science, Men's Health and DriveTribe.
When chasing total solar eclipses – my chief avocation – mobility is key. I learned this in 2012 in Australia, when coastal clouds forced my family and I to dash inland to a sunnier spot. I re-learned it in 2015, when I had to drive all over the Faroe Islands looking for a hole in the clouds. I re-re-learned in 2017, when traffic to our preferred spot forced a detour up the side of a mountain in Wyoming.
The point is, when your adventure involves securing a clear patch of sky to watch the Moon glide gracefully across the face of the Sun for mere seconds, you have to be prepared to actually race around at even the last minute, should clouds, traffic, or other calamity threaten your view. This is true even when the conditions in your target viewing area are the best in the world.
This was the case last month for my fourth total eclipse, in the Atacama Desert north of Santiago, Chile. I was due to watch the July 2 event high on a mountaintop observatory operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy.
The conditions promised to be pristine – the Atacama is, after all, the driest climate on earth, hence the presence of dozens of world-class observatories – yet the lessons of the three previous experiences weighed heavily on my mind. After all, it was winter down there, and the possibility of clouds did exist, however remote. Also, the area was due to be overrun by hundreds of thousands of enthusiasts, so there was a very real chance that traffic could scuttle my plans.
So when I was offered the chance to take an AURA bus from the city of La Serena up to the observatory, I demurred, opting instead to secure a vehicle of my own, just in case. When it came time to choose that vehicle, I knew one thing: I’d need it to be able to conquer trails, if necessary.
I haven’t had to do this yet, but I’ve had to do everything else. Therefore it’s only logical that on one of these expeditions, I might need to scramble up a trail or across fields, or even just quickly and safely navigate unsteady terrain. I rang up Jeep and asked if they had a Wrangler in Santiago that I could borrow for the event. They did.
My colleague Javier Mota – a buddy who was planning to go skiing in Chile at the same time, until I told him about this – arrived in Santiago on June 29, and I followed the next day, collecting the white Wrangler for our trip. The six-hour drive up the coast to La Serena went fine, though the roads were indeed worryingly crowded for such a remote area. The Wrangler available down there is still the previous-generation model (JK), so it didn’t have quite the same enhancements as the new JL version, but the only thing that mattered, really, was the tires, wheels, suspension, and transmission.
I knew I’d made the right choice when we set off early in the morning on July 2 for the eclipse, an event that can be life-changing for many who observe one, so dramatic and otherworldly is the experience. I’d chosen my ride wisely not because the skies were full of clouds – it was crystal clear – but because I wanted to reach a spot high on a separate mountain near our destination, in order to photograph the sunrise amid the mountains of the desert.
We ended up racing up a twisty dirt road that would’ve likely sent any rental car sliding into oblivion.
The Jeep’s stability on low-friction surfaces proved predictably significant, allowing us to essentially take the hill at whatever speed we needed to. There was a little bit of bounce any time we hit a ridge, but that’s to be expected, and it never threatened real instability.
I got my shot on top of the hill, and we had to race back down to meet our convoy to the nearby observatory peak. This road, all 30-odd miles of it, posed a different challenge – washboarding. This is the ripple effect that develops over time in dirt roads as more and more cars pass over. It can be dangerous at higher speeds, because your tires are only in contact with the surface for a fraction of the time.
Going up at relatively slow speeds with the convoy, I noticed the pronounced instability even then.
When I tested it out with a few high-speed surges – in case I needed to bug out from the top of the mountain at the last second – the Wrangler managed it well, thanks to the all-wheel-drive system and the hard-working suspension. It would be a precarious descent in some places with the washboarding and the absence of guardrails, but I felt confident that I knew how hard I could push it should the need arise.
Fortunately, it didn’t. The skies stayed clear and crisp throughout the afternoon, and we got our two-minutes of totality. The sun went dark as the mon perfectly eclipsed its surface and the suddenly visible solar atmosphere – the corona – sprang to life with dazzling clarity.
It was the sharpest, most detailed and spectacular one I’d seen, thanks to the high altitude and the dry atmosphere. No, I didn’t end up needing the Jeep’s capabilities to bail us out at the last second, but I’m awfully glad I had it just in case.
The mere thought of missing this due to clouds or traffic or who know what else sent shivers down my spine, and it reminded me of what such vehicles are truly for. They aren’t just about fun. They’re also about being right there when you need them the most—even if it’s once in a blue moon.