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Ready for a road trip? Here are eight places to see the 2017 total solar eclipse at its finest. From wide-open western skies to small towns to the eclectic, there are some great destinations for eclipse watchers.
You can only see the total solar eclipse from a location which is on the “path of totality,” a 70-mile band that crosses the United States from Oregon to South Carolina. On this path, the Sun will be completely blocked out. Otherwise, it may very well look like an ordinary day.
What’s exciting is that the path is within driving distance for millions of people. For some folks, the idea of traveling to see a sky event that’s no longer than three minutes might seem crazy. For others, it’s a great excuse for a road trip or a camping trip! The United States will be the only place where the path of totality can be seen. A total solar eclipse is one of nature’s rare phenomena. (See how rare.)
On behalf our Almanac team, I’m planning to travel to Carbondale, Illinois, which is just a few hours of driving from my home in Indiana. Having never experienced a total solar eclipse, I am quite curious!
When the Moon completely covers the Sun, will we really be plunged into darkness? Will day turn into night?
Will I see fountains of plasma exploding from the surface of the Sun?
Will I see the corona, the outer atmosphere of the Sun that you can only see from Earth during a total solar eclipse?
If the skies go dark, will it look like a hole in the sky? Will bright stars be visible in the sky?
Will birds stop chirping? Will there be change in animal behavior?
Will the temperature drop?
How will it feel, especially experiencing it with the other sky gazers around me?.
The solar eclipse makes first landfall in Oregon. Everybody in the state will see at least a 90 percent eclipse. Most of the campgrounds are now fully booked, however, there’s still so much open land in Oregon. Consider one of Oregon’s eight national forests or 50+ state parks. Most parks are having special programming such as The Cove Palisades, Silver Falls, Beverly Beach, Smith Rock and others. A beautiful national park is John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.
Wyoming is another natural outdoorsy destination if you’re planning a summer road trip. How about renting a big RV? The small Wyoming town of Casper has an altitude over 5,000 feet so the skies are usually clear. The national convention of the Astronomical League, Astrocon, will take place through August 19 so Casper will be cued up!
OK, I couldn’t resist this location. It’s called Carhenge—yep, like the Stonehenge of England. Vintage cars as set in place of those mysterious stone slabs. Carhenge is in the direct path of total solar eclipse and plans a big celebration, called “Darkness over the Prairie.” It’s free—and sounds fun. I have to add a quote from their Web site:
Rising like monoliths from ancient times on the western edge of the Sandhills of Nebraska stands a formation of vehicles from days gone by.
Is it a temple for sun worship, a healing centre, a burial site or perhaps a huge calendar? Did ancient people in hooded robes move the mighty structures from distant lands and then, using only the most primitive of tools, build this amazing structure? NOPE.
In St. Joseph, a town north of Kansas City, the duration of totality will be a magnificent 2 minutes and 39 seconds. There are five planned viewing areas including a massive, public viewing at Rosecrans Memorial Airport and many other eclipse events organized by the town of St. Joseph.
I’ll be driving to Carbondale, Illinois, and be sure to report back to you, Almanac readers! At 1:21 P.M. Central time, this college town will experience “totality” for an awesome 2 minutes and 38 seconds. The good folks at the Astronomy Club of Southern Illinois helped me navigate this event-packed weekend. NASA Edge will be broadcasting the eclipse live from the giant university stadium. The Adler Planetarium will also be on hand doing ‘edutainment’ at the stadium. Mat Kaplan from the Planetary Society will be the MC for the day. When I called to book a campsite last week, I was amazed to hear that folks were calling from all over—New Jersey, Louisiana, and even Australia.
Carbondale is calling itself the “Eclipse Crossroads of America” because the town also lies in the path of totality for the next total solar eclipse in April of 2024.
Where can you experience the longest eclipse duration? Hopkinsville is “the Point of the Greatest Eclipse” at just over 2 minutes and 41 seconds. The total eclipse starts 1:26 p.m. Central time.
Interestingly, the eclipse is happening at the same time as the town’s annual Little Green Men Festival, a quirky event inspired by a UFO incident from the 1950s. Cosmic coincidence?
The biggest city in the eclipse’s path is Nashville. Total eclipse starts at 1:30 p.m. Central time with a duration of 1 minute, 57 seconds. There will be eclipse events and activities all around “Music City,” from the zoo to Bicentennial Capitol Mall. Eighteen of Tennessee’s state parks fall in the path of totality and will host “Total Eclipse in the Park” celebrations the weekend prior and viewing celebrations on August 21. Nashville’s Adventure Science Center will host a huge public eclipse festival with music. Outdoor festival activities are free.
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Or, get away from the city! The entire western half of Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee and North Carolina will fall under the path of totality for the eclipse up to two minute and 20 seconds of totality (depending on the location within the park), starting 2:35 P.M. Eastern time. There are two viewing events—at Cades Cove and Oconaluftee—which are free but I expect they will be very popular so call ahead regarding space. There will be many other communities in the area hosting events, too. Learn more and see the eclipse path.
Columbia, South Carolina
The last stop on the Great American Eclipse tour is South Carolina. In Columbia, the state capital, the total eclipse starts at 2:45 p.m. Eastern time and lasts 2 minutes, 36 seconds. There are dozens of events planned from concerts and lectures to a special-label beer, Carolina Blackout from Benford Brewing!
If you can’t travel to an eclipse location, watch on the Web. Many web sites will offer live coverage of the eclipse. If it happens to be cloudy in your area on August 21, the Web may be your only option. Try NASA’s eclipse site and Slooh.com.
A Few Eclipse Trip Tips
Call me a worrywart, but I like to be prepared. Here are a few tips. I welcome yours, too, as this is a new adventure for most of us!
If you’re planning to travel to an eclipse site, leave plenty of travel time whether that means leaving early in the morning or possibly the night before. You don’t want to be caught in a traffic jam in the hours just before totality. Think ahead about parking. See if you can reserve a spot in advance.
Understand the crowd levels if you’re going to a city or special event. There are lots of ways to see the sky but you may not want to attend an event that’s unpleasantly crowded. If you’re unsure, perhaps call the local police who can give advice. Has some school athletic field or stadium been set aside that can accommodate crowds? If not, are they OK if you go into a cemetery?
Keep an eye on the weather forecasts. Bring an umbrella tote and definitely bring sunscreen. It’s summer!