days
hours
minutes
until the total solar eclipse.

Experiencing the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse in Cades Cove

By Jason Barnette | Travel writer and photographer with 15+ years of road tripping experience

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I stared at the sky where the Sun should have been, but all I could see was a black hole in its place. I laughed out loud. How else was I supposed to react to something so strange?

When I first learned about the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse that would sweep across the country from Oregon to South Carolina, I knew this was the perfect excuse for a road trip. I planned to travel the Path of Totality from South Carolina to Kentucky and write about places to see the eclipse.

I hit the road in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 25. I traveled back roads and side roads but never interstate highways. I visited small towns and big cities, state parks, and national park sites, and made more than one spontaneous detour.

On August 3, I arrived in Paducah, Kentucky. I spent a few days exploring the beautiful river town. And then, my trip was finished.

Now, it was time to choose a viewing location.

I’d kept notes on parks, festivals, and viewing parties during the 10-week road trip. I was torn between several destinations. But in the end, I chose to go someplace familiar. Someplace remote and peaceful.

Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

Nobody knew what to expect from travelers for the total solar eclipse. Estimates of travelers ranged from 12 to 30 million. The only real metric for measuring the expected surge in travelers was lodging: hotel rooms, cabins, and campgrounds were booked.

Considering that, I figured Cades Cove would be a great place to experience the event. It was at the end of a loop road surrounded by mountains. It was remote on a good day. All I needed to do was arrive early enough to find a place for myself.

I called the Sugarlands Visitor Center. A gate leading into Cades Cove was closed every night. I wanted to know what time it would open that morning. 6 a.m., a nice lady told me.

I spent the night before the eclipse at a hotel in Cardiff, Tennessee, a small town about 40 miles west of Knoxville. It was far enough away from the national park and city to have an available room at a reasonable price.

I left the hotel at 5 a.m. on the morning of the eclipse. I breezed through Maryville and Townsend. I turned onto the two-lane road in the national park. I watched the Garmin GPS as it counted down the miles to the Cades Cove entrance.

2.5 miles from the entrance, I stopped behind a long line of parked vehicles. Some people had already been there for hours. I turned off the engine, exited the car, and met my temporary neighbors in the middle of the highway.

I had expected traffic getting into Cades Cove. But it was well past 6 a.m. The gate should have been open. Something had gone wrong.

A flatbed tow truck with bright flashing yellow lights passed the parked cars, traveling in the empty opposite lane of the road. I thought that maybe someone had wrecked their car. But twenty minutes later, the empty flatbed truck returned in the other direction.

Finally, we had an answer when a lady returned from her roundtrip hike. The rangers were opening the gate at 8 a.m.

Ten minutes later, the sound of car engines revving to life traveled down the road like an approaching fire engine siren. We finally began inching along. Slightly after 9 a.m., I pulled into a parking spot on the side of the one-lane road in Cades Cove.

A total solar eclipse is not a quick event. Although totality lasted mere minutes, the entire event lasted hours from the start to the end of the partial eclipse.

Fortunately, I was surrounded by a few friendly neighbors in the peaceful field. We chatted about eclipse myths and wondered what our first total solar eclipse experience would be like. Kids played in the grass while the adults lounged in comfy chairs.

About an hour before totality, we collectively held our breath as a single cloud appeared in the sky. For a few minutes, it covered the Sun. But it disappeared just as quickly as it appeared, leaving us basking in the dimming sunlight.

Things started to change once the partial eclipse was about 50% complete. It was noticeably cooler. I had been sweating under the direct sunlight on the humid summer day. But now it felt more like an autumn day.

At about 75%, it was noticeably darker. The shadow of the tree was fainter. With the solar eclipse glasses safely covering my eyes, I glared into the dimming sunlight. At 90%, I couldn’t look away. The sliver of daylight was getting thinner by the second. It was like time was suddenly faster.

The Solar Eclipse Timer app on my smartphone began an audible countdown. “Shh! His phone is counting down!” someone nearby shouted. Five. Four. It was almost chilly now. Three. Two. It was getting so dark.

One.

I removed my solar eclipse glasses. It was like someone draped a heavy towel over a lamp. It was dark, but not a dusk kind of dark. The air was silent. I smiled. I loved doing this in Cades Cove.

I snapped a few photos with my camera. But then, I decided it was better to experience the total solar eclipse than to capture photos and videos. Someone else could do that. I wanted to enjoy every moment of this experience.

I stared at the sky where the Sun should have been, but all I could see was a black hole in its place.

I laughed out loud. How else was I supposed to react to something so strange? The Sun was gone, but it wasn’t pitch black. It felt like a cold autumn day, but the leaves were green. I settled into my chair and watched the event play like a fantastic summer sunset.

My phone vibrated and started another countdown. The totality was entirely too short. I reached for the solar eclipse glasses, preparing to wear them again. Just as the countdown concluded, I slipped the plastic-framed glasses onto my face and saw the sliver of sunlight appear.

Experiencing my first total solar eclipse was eerie. It seemed unnatural even though it was an entirely natural event. It was almost indescribable.

It was something everyone should experience at least once in their lifetime.

Just like a fading sunset, people immediately began packing. I was in no hurry. I knew the inevitable traffic jam that was about to clog the highways across America. Within minutes, I had the entire field to myself.

I waited three hours before leaving. I didn’t even make it out of Cades Cove before coming to a complete stop for the first time. It took another three hours to travel through Townsend to Sevierville. What normally would have taken me two hours to drive took six. But I had expected this.

I pulled out my phone while stuck in a single line of cars trudging along a two-lane highway. I started searching for future total solar eclipses. This was something I had to see again. I found something shocking.

Another total solar eclipse will cross the country in 2024. That gives me seven years to prepare. And seven years to write a better travel guide.

One Response

  1. We were in Cades Cove too. We stayed in Townsend and had the same traffic problems. We parked the car and hired bikes. It was my first eclipse. I found it a magical experience.

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