The Big Blackout: National Parks For Viewing the Solar Eclipse

The 2017 solar eclipse is just weeks away from sweeping across the nation.

An earlier article, Mark Your Calendars: North American Solar Eclipse 2017, introduced this amazing celestial phenomenon that occurs on August 21, 2017.

Congaree National Park provides a sanctuary for plants and animals, a research site for scientists, and a place for you to walk and relax in a tranquil wilderness setting amidst giant hardwoods and towering pines. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Congaree National Park provides a sanctuary for plants and animals, a research site for scientists, and a place for you to walk and relax in a tranquil wilderness setting amidst giant hardwoods and towering pines. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Many are flocking to the few big cities on the phenomenon’s path of totality, but why spend loads on flights and hotels just to stare at an urban sky when you could spend a few nights under the stars instead? Since August is a perfect time of year for camping, consider traveling in an RV to a national park within the path of totality.

If you want to camp out for the big event—or just enjoy a short hike while the sun is hidden from sight—here are some national parks where everything should align just right.

Congaree National Park, South Carolina

Congaree National Park boasts amazing hardwood forests and gorgeous hikes. Unfortunately, that dense tree cover means there are very few optimal viewing sites within the park. But if you register for one of their guided eclipse hikes, a ranger will get you to a prime eclipse spot just in time for the big blackout. If you can’t manage to snag one, consider enjoying a vacation in the park before visiting a nearby town to view the eclipse.

Activities at Congaree National Park include hiking, primitive camping, bird watching, picnicing, canoeing, and kayaking. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Activities at Congaree National Park include hiking, primitive camping, bird watching, picnicing, canoeing, and kayaking. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Columbia is just 30 minutes away. Charlotte, North Carolina and Charleston, South Carolina are each a two hour drive.

Totality should start around 2:41 pm.

There are two designated campgrounds for tents only (reservation required) and backcountry camping is allowed with a permit.

In addition to the aforementioned guided hikes, staff will assist at several designated viewing areas.

Blue Ridge Parkway, North Carolina

Wherever you go for the eclipse, you’re probably going to need to do some driving. So why not make that the whole point? Blue Ridge Parkway is a designated All-American Road—an official scenic byway—that runs 469 miles. It’s the longest linear park in the country, and it links the Shenandoah National Park and the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Spanning 469 miles through 29 counties, the Blue Ridge Parkway takes travelers along the Appalachian Mountains through Virginia and North Carolina providing a unique view of foliage and history. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Spanning 469 miles through 29 counties, the Blue Ridge Parkway takes travelers along the Appalachian Mountains through Virginia and North Carolina providing a unique view of foliage and history. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course, you can’t expect complete totality along the whole road (how cool would that be) but about 100 miles of it should have a good view. On the parkway, overlooks from Milepost 417 to 469 will provide viewing opportunities for the eclipse, though not all of these areas will be in the path of totality. In addition, areas of the parkway as far north as Roanoke, Virginia will experience at least 90 percent totality. The percentage of totality will continue to decline the further north you travel along the parkway.

Make sure you’ve got plenty of fuel—you might get stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic for much of the day.

Scenic overlooks coupled with abundant hiking trails, picnic areas, campsites, and recreational activities makes the Blue Ridge Parkway an ideal road trip. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Scenic overlooks coupled with abundant hiking trails, picnic areas, campsites, and recreational activities makes the Blue Ridge Parkway an ideal road trip. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

You’ll see a total (or quite near total) eclipse at outlooks from milepost 357 to 468. Luckily for out-of-towners, Asheville, North Carolina has exits between mileposts 382 and 393. To get more totality, head south.

The time of the eclipse varies—this is a long road—but the best stretch of totality is 76 seconds. That’s expected at Courthouse Valley (mile 423.5) at 2:37 pm.

There are three official campgrounds on or close to the path of totality, and another five farther north. Backcountry camping requires a permit.

The designated lookouts will all have staff on hand to help you enjoy your eclipse viewing. And several North Carolina towns along the route has eclipse activities planned.

The Mountain Farm Museum and Oconaluftee Visitor Center are located at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on U.S. Highway 441 / Newfound Gap Road near Cherokee, North Carolina. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Mountain Farm Museum and Oconaluftee Visitor Center are located at the entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park on U.S. Highway 441 / Newfound Gap Road near Cherokee, North Carolina. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina and Tennessee

Maybe you’d rather enjoy the scenic byway before all the eclipse tourists descend? In that case, you can make your way to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park will have eclipse-centric events going on in three locations.

Totality will sweep through the western portion of the park starting at about 2:33 pm. Some locations will experience totality for around two and a half minutes.

There are many campgrounds, including some near the designated eclipse event locations. Some require reservations. Backcountry camping requires a permit.

Cades Cove and Oconaluftee will both have informal, staff-guided eclipse viewing activities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Cades Cove and Oconaluftee will both have informal, staff-guided eclipse viewing activities. © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The big, ticketed science bonanza (not an official name) at Clingmans Dome is sold out, but cancellations may put some last-minute tickets online. Cades Cove and Oconaluftee will both have informal, staff-guided eclipse viewing activities. You may have to get to these locations on foot due to congestion.

Worth Pondering…

The moon shuts off the beams of the sun as it passes across it, and darkens so much of the earth as the breadth of the blue-eyed moon amounts to.

—Empedocles (Greek, 493-433 BC) Fragment (ca. 450 BC)

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