For years, the total solar eclipse of August 21—the first to be visible in the mainland United States since 1979—has been in stealth mode. With the exception of the enthusiasts who’ve been snatching up all the hotel rooms along the eclipse’s 70-mile-wide, 2,800-mile-long path from Oregon to South Carolina, nobody really knew it was coming. But in the past few months, word of this spectacular natural phenomenon has spread like wildfire, and communities across the country that will be graced by the moon’s shadow are on high alert, anticipating millions of visitors.
But this ain’t no nerds-only field trip. In addition to astronomy enthusiasts, the eclipse will draw all kinds, from the curious to the bemused to the any-excuse-for-a-party crowds. There’ll be families, busloads of schoolkids, retirees, young thrill-seekers, and spontaneous road-trippers. If you’re just waking up now to the prospect of being a FOMO poster child, don’t panic. You can still make this happen. And we can tell you how.
If you do, your reward will be a legitimately otherworldly moment. “It’s absolutely unlike any other experience you’ve ever had,” says Fred Espenak, a retired NASA astrophysicist and the preeminent authority on eclipses and eclipse prediction. (Really: People call him Mr. Eclipse.) He describes it best: “It’s the closest thing to a surreal experience, with the sun vanishing from the midday sky. You’re suddenly plunged into an eerie twilight—you can see sunrise colors at the horizon, the black disc of the moon with the sun’s corona around it. It looks like a sci-fi movie, and it hits you quickly. Your hair stands on end and you get goosebumps on your arm, along with a feeling in the pit of your stomach telling you that something is dreadfully wrong. It just shouldn’t look like this. It never gets old.” C’mon, how can you turn down that pitch?
So, logistics. The fact is that most of the nation is within a half-day’s drive of the path of totality, and in spite of the hotel shortage you can camp, crash with friends or family, or just make your car your home for a night or two. The question, then, is where should you go? Make no mistake: Officials in local, state, and national government offices are preparing for massive influxes of people in certain popular observing regions, with many authorities even using the opportunity as a way to test mass-evacuation disaster scenarios. But while there is plenty of concern about traffic crushes or small towns running out of gas and food, much of this is worst-case-scenario speculation.
The reality is that nobody actually knows how many people will turn up. Both South Carolina and Oregon—the geographic bookends of the eclipse—are preparing for population surges of 1 million each, and even little towns like Idaho Falls, Idaho, and Jackson, Wyoming, have been told to expect hundreds of thousands of visitors. (The latter particularly so given its proximity to Grand Teton National Park, considered one of the most beautiful spots to view the eclipse.) Then you have Nashville, Tennessee, which is the only city that sits entirely inside the path of totality, outside of which observers will only see far less impressive partial eclipses, and St. Louis, which straddles the line between partial and total. Those cities will have built-in populations jockeying for the best observing areas—and moving out to find clear skies if clouds become a problem.
Michael Zeiler, a cartographer and eclipse chaser who’s created a variety of maps around the event, has analyzed likely traffic patterns to determine who will most likely be observing where. Using census and road network data, including average speeds and road capacities, he created a “driveshed” map to ballpark likely visitation patterns. “I estimated the chance of an average person making a drive of 200 miles to see the eclipse to be between 0.5 percent and 2 percent for the Denver population, for instance,” he says. “For locations further away, of course, the chance of driving to the path of totality diminishes. This is my basic formula. My result was that I expect between 1.85 million and 7.4 million people will make the trip.”
He notes that weather patterns will shift people from one location to another, certain eclipse festivals will be people magnets, and scenic locations will pull in larger numbers. The very worst spot on eclipse morning, he estimates, will be where I-95 meets the eclipse path, near Santee, South Carolina, because that is the closest destination for 75 million Americans, from Maine to Florida. Other potential hotspots: Salem and Madras, Oregon; Idaho Falls, Idaho; Jackson and Glendo, Wyoming; Grand Island, Nebraska; St. Joseph, Missouri; the area south of St. Louis; Carbondale, Illinois; Hopkinsville, Kentucky; the area north of Nashville, Tennessee; Great Smoky Mountains National Park, in North Carolina; and Columbia and Santee, South Carolina.
So one solid strategy is simply to head where these places aren’t. But even then, prepare for every possibility. Plan to be in place at least three hours before the eclipse, show up the day before if you can, have a backup destination in mind if weather or traffic deter you from your primary target. NOAA’s eclipse weather site will start posting forecasts on August 15, but you should also check with local meteorologists along the path of totality for predictions—especially in Oregon, Idaho, and Wyoming, which are dealing with smoke from nearby wildfires.
Beyond that, fuel up your car at every opportunity, have food and supplies in your vehicle for at least two days, and assume that cell phone service will be overwhelmed and disrupted wherever you go. (Bring a paper map, or save an offline one in your phone!)
If you do end up squarely in the path of totality, and with clear skies to boot, buckle up for an amazing experience. Espenak advises first-timers to prep beforehand about what to expect (he created a guide) and, of course, to have eclipse glasses for the partial phases of the eclipse. (Go here for astronomer-vetted places to buy ones that aren’t a scam that’ll burn your eyes out.) Take photos like a pro, if you must.
During the two to three minutes of totality (longer for NASA!) you can take the glasses off. Use binoculars to see the event up close, or just savor the spectacle with your naked eye. “This isn’t just for science geeks,” Espenak says. “It’s the most spectacular astronomical phenomenon, and the closest any of us will get to going into space. You’ll be telling your children and grandchildren about it.”