3 Months. 5 States. 3,200 Miles. Endless Adventure.
The eclipse is coming! The eclipse is coming! As I pack the last of my gear, fill my water tank, and prepare to hit the road I feel like I’m about to Paul Revere my way across the Southeast telling people about the total solar eclipse coming on August 21, 2017. Did you know there was a total solar eclipse coming?
On Monday, August 21, 2017 the entire country will turn toward the sky to witness the first Total Solar Eclipse in decades. Everyone in the United States will be able to witness at least a partial eclipse but those within a narrow 70-mile wide path between Government Point, Oregon and Charleston, South Carolina will be able to witness a total eclipse.
For the past three months I have been working tirelessly on the gargantuan Travel Guide to the 2017 Total Solar Eclipse Across the Southeast. This guide lists dozens of amazing destinations to visit to watch the total solar eclipse but also to spend the weekend before. The eclipse is on a Monday, many school systems are closed that day, and special viewing party events are springing up everywhere so this is the perfect excuse for a three day getaway.
After spending three months working with state and local tourism officials, national park rangers, countless emails and phone calls, I am now ready to put my own guide to use. On Sunday, May 21 I leave for Charleston, South Carolina to begin the Southeast Eclipse Tour. This epic road trip will take three months to complete as I travel to all the destinations across five states in my guide, capturing amazing photos and videos, and researching where to eat, sleep, and play before watching the total solar eclipse.
This page, along with the social media below, will be a hub for all my adventures and discoveries on this road trip. Bookmark this page, share it with your friends and family, and come back frequently to read a daily log of stories, photos, and videos of everything I find to see and do on this road trip. Enjoy!
Table of Contents
As the journey has continued the daily logs have gotten longer and the load time ridiculous. For that reason I have moved all previous states into archives. If you visited a link that simply took you to the top of this page you need to click the link below to visit the correct archive. Please read on and enjoy!
Day 44: Goodbye North Carolina, Hello Tennessee
I felt a pang of sadness today as I finally left the Cherohala Skyway behind and realized I was also leaving the Appalachian Mountains behind. I’m not sure if I’ll see these mountains much more this year and that is a very strange feeling for me.
I started the day at the Indian Boundary campground looking at clear blue skies for the first time in days. Figures. I headed up the Skyway one last time but only a few miles to the Turkey Creek Overlook. It was absolutely gorgeous, but I had other places to be and a long drive to get there. I left the Skyway for the last time.
The drive into Cleveland could have been much quicker and easier if it weren’t for Rule #2 of road trips: no interstates. I took the scenic route through small towns like Etowah and Ocoee on the way into Cleveland, arriving just a little bit after noon. There I met Melissa and Mary Tom, two ladies with the chamber of commerce who would be my guide and constant companions for the next few days.
They already had a great time planned out for me. We stopped at Adventures Unlimited so I could learn about their solar eclipse rafting event and have lunch at the great Rio Mexican Restaurant. I learned about how this outdoor adventure attraction could be a one-stop destination for a weekend of fun with whitewater rafting, tubing, kayaking, a full campground, a few cabins, and the restaurant on location. At least I could see myself spending an entire weekend right here.
Today was supposed to be the outdoor adventure day. Of course part of that adventure was supposed to be rafting the Ocoee but after injuring myself a week ago there won’t be any rafting in the foreseeable future. Instead I got the grand tour of the Ocoee Scenic Byway, a few of the rapids, the Ocoee Dam area, and finally my introduction to the Ocoee Whitewater Center.
The day ended with a windy drive through the countryside to Reliance to visit another whitewater rafting outfitter and an historic church, then making a quick pit stop at Morris Vineyard. They will be having a very exciting event on the day of the solar eclipse and a beautiful location on the vineyard to host it. Why does it seem like all these vineyards have such amazing views of the mountains?
This was the end of my very long day and I’m struggling to get all this written now. Tomorrow will be focused on the Cherokee heritage of the area, a topic I am very excited to cover and fully explore. But first I need sleep. Lots and lots of sleep.
Day 45: Cherokee Heritage in the Ocoee Region of Tennessee
Today was such a great and exciting day that ended in so much pain again. But that’s okay because I had a great time right up until the very end!
The day started off with a tour around Red Clay State Park. This park was one of the focal sites of the Trail of Tears and has a deep connection with the Cherokee Nation and eventual removal. The park manager gave me a little tour around the property, pointing out the two most significant points of interest at the park: the eternal flame memorial and the Blue Hole.
I spent a little too much time here, especially after learning there is an effort to create a national Trail of Tears scenic byway across the country tracing the several routes of the Cherokee Removal. That gave me such a wonderful idea and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. But I gotta finish this road trip first!
Melissa drove me back into downtown where we got lunch at Jenkin’s Deli. That was one of the most completely satisfying meals I’ve ever had. Everything from the sweet tea to the homemade ranch dressing, the fried pickles to the chicken salad, everything was just amazing!
While fighting off a food coma Melissa took me on a tour along scenic highway 11 to nearby Charleston to visit the Hiwassee Heritage Center. This small visitor center is a great place for anyone to begin exploring the Cherokee Heritage of Tennessee’s Ocoee Region. They have lots of information, maps, and brochures to get you started and they’re working on a second phase expansion now. We explore the little towns of Charleston and Calhoun for a bit before heading back to my hotel.
This is where the plans went off the rail. I was supposed to type up some notes and download photos and then head downtown for a Friday night festival. However by the time I reached my room I realized my knee was throbbing and stiff. I had done too much walking throughout the day, and I had slipped earlier at Red Clay State Park. I put some ice on my knee and took some Tylenol but the pain didn’t go away for nearly two hours.
Once it did I took a chance on a great sunset photo and headed out to Morris Vineyard. I thought all the conditions were just right for a stunning sunset, but instead it was rather lackluster and boring. I still captured a few good photos, but with my knee still hurting decided to just head back to the hotel room and try again tomorrow.
Day 46: The Ocoee River, Chilhowie Mountain, and Lots of Rain
Today was another of those days that challenged me to no end. It started off with a throbbing knee, a knee that kept me awake most of the night, and delayed my start to the day. I spent the morning in the hotel room with a bag of ice on my knee and working on photos, videos, and travel stories from this road trip.
When I finally left I hit Highway 74 along the Ocoee Scenic Byway. It’s the same route I was introduced to just a couple days ago but this time I had the opportunity to stop at each and every overlook and wait for the right photographic opportunity.
It was all going great until I arrived at the Ocoee Whitewater Center just ahead of an epic thunderstorm. I sat in the van for the next hour as it poured down the rain. Rafters continued along the river, safely protected in the rubber boats, but I don’t have a rain cover for my telephoto lenses that I needed for the photos. So I sat back for awhile, did some work on the iPad, and watched the rain come down.
Eventually it cleared up enough for a few photos but it was getting late now. I decided to head back toward Cleveland and see if I could catch some of these rafters on the river along the way.
Then I made the long climb up Oswald Dome Road on Chilhowee Mountain. The paved two lane road has three scenic overlooks above the lake and nearby landscape. Each has a stunning, unique view that was just breathtaking. Of course it was still cloudy but I could see the sunlight poking out from behind somewhere in the distance. It was time to play my favorite game of patience.
About 30 minutes later the sun finally beamed out from behind the passing storm clouds, creating a dramatic lighting effect on the landscape below. I quickly captured some photos at each of the three overlooks before the lightning changed too much. It was a great end to a short day.
It was time to leave Cleveland and the Ocoee Region, but I wasn’t ready to head out just yet. After the short day yesterday marred by rain I decided I needed just a little more time and a few loose ends to tie up.
I made a quick stop at Adventures Unlimited to scope out the campus. They have a very nice campground, I’ve already enjoy the food at the Mexican restaurant, and I toured the adventure side of the attraction. This really is a nice place where I think you could spend an entire weekend without ever having to leave. But of course I still want you to leave just a little!
I then headed out to the Ocoee Whitewater Center again. This time the skies were gorgeous and the river full of rafters. I captured lots of great photos, took a long walk around the rapids area, and got everything I didn’t get yesterday. After this I was pretty satisfied with everything.
I came back through downtown Cleveland just to capture a few photos. The downtown area is nice with lots of great local shops and eateries. Most nights of the week it’s kinda vibrant, but on a Sunday morning in this traditionally Southern town it was quiet and devoid of pedestrians. That actually made it a great time to capture a few photos.
I hopped on Highway 11 and finally left Cleveland behind. I drove through several small towns like Charleston, Calhoun, and Athens before arriving at my bunk site for the night in Madisonville. I’ve been through here a few times and spent a night here last fall during the Appalachian Fall Tour. Funny how I’ve come back again to a Walmart in a small town like this.
I’ve been looking forward to this day for quite awhile now: my return to Fort Loudon State Park and another drive along the scenic Foothills Parkway!
I wanted to return to the state park mostly so I could capture some photos of the recreation of the British fort. When I was here last fall the mountains were on fire and created a thick haze across the Little Tennessee River. I had no idea you could see the Great Smoky Mountains from this fort! I was happy to capture some fresh photos to help tell the story of this park. Oh, and what a story it is! This fort was the only time in history a British fort was taken over by Cherokee Indians, and it was my 12th great grandfather Chief Oconostota you did it!
After leaving the state park I took the scenic route toward Chilhowee to get on the Foothills Parkway. Okay I need to rant for just a moment. I had pulled into a small gravel parking area along the highway beside the lake to capture a few photos. When I pulled out I looked both ways. No traffic. There was a curve about a thousand feet to the left. By the time I had fully pulled onto the highway a small convertible car flew past me in the left lane beeping its horn at me. I swear that car was not there when I looked and immediately pulled out onto the highway. That’s when I realized the speed limit was 55mph, I was doing 55mph, and that car was flying ahead of me like a cat with it’s tail on fire. When I got to the entrance of the Foothills Parkway I found that same red car sitting there like he was waiting for me. Sure enough as soon as I passed him he pulled out behind me. I guess he needed to make a point again that I was taking up his precious road. As we began the long climb up the Parkway, with 35mph speed limit, on a double yellow line, he decided to pass me again. I never saw him again after that but I suspect some day we’ll find him at the bottom of a ravine somewhere.
Okay rant over. The Foothills Parkway is actually maintained by the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The southern portion is open between Chilhowee and Walland; a northern section is already open and the middle section is finally under construction again. The Parkway features several pulls offs and scenic overlooks, but the most popular is Look Rock; an older fire observation tower on a hill that is now accessible after a moderate 15-20 minute hike.
I spent most of the day up here but eventually rolled into Townsend in the late afternoon. I checked in at the Visitor Center just to see what was going on in the area and made some plans to do a cavern tour and horseback riding tomorrow. But by the time I finished chatting with everyone the sun was getting low so I decided to head back up the Foothills Parkway to a scenic overlook I had found earlier so I could capture a sunset photo. It was a pretty good sunset; nice colors, peaceful, warm. Could’ve been better if this guy hadn’t pulled up with his girlfriend on Skype so they could watch the sunset “together”. They talked the entire time, and she was on speakerphone. I didn’t need to know what she was saying.
With the day complete I headed back down into Townsend for my night sleeping at an undisclosed location. Sorry, I’m not telling you where I slept this time just cause I don’t want it to set a precedent. Someone gave me a break and I’m very grateful for that. Now for a good night’s sleep to get ready for tomorrow!
Today was thrilling and exciting, but not entirely the day I had planned. It started off gently enough making my coffee and breakfast at a river side park at the edge of town where I worked for about two hours. Sounds good, right?
My first big stop of the day was at Tuckaleechee Caverns. This family owned attraction is one of the more interesting in the area that will require some research to see if it is as outstanding as I think it is. The owner’s son, Ben, took me on a private tour through the cavern so I could capture photos of places like The Big Room and Silver Falls, a 210′ cascading waterfall deep under the the surface. I had a thrilling time on the tour, learning about the history of the cavern’s discovery, and capturing photos.
But of course I had to go and injure myself again. Everything was done and I was happy with the results of the photography so I packed up all the gear. A tour group was coming through so I quickly picked up my camera bag and slung it over my shoulder. At that moment something inside my wrist snapped and I felt a dull pain course down my arm. I didn’t think anything of it at first but by the time I reached the entrance of the caverns my wrist was throbbing.
At the moment I have it wrapped in a bandage and a dull pain is throbbing from around my palm to my wrist. I can’t bend or twist my wrist and I certainly can’t lift the weight of the camera. This made the rest of the day interesting.
My next stop was a general tour through Townsend. The town is very spread out and the street is wide so it takes a bit to get to everything. But every time I reached for my camera my wrist throbbed even more.
I took a tour of the Little River Railroad and Lumber Company Museum. This free museum is small but packed with lots of information about the origins of Townsend and the original logging industry in the Great Smoky Mountains. They also have a locomotive on display in front of the museum and a nice gift shop to explore.
I took a break for awhile in the middle of the day to let my wrist relax, but it didn’t really do any good. It was already getting late so I decided to bite through the pain and keep working. I visited the Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center and took a tour through the historical buildings outside and some of the Cherokee artifacts discovered when widening the highway through Townsend several years ago.
I made a little stop at Smoky Mountain River Rat to learn more about their solar eclipse event, and the fantastic Solar Social event after the eclipse, and watch people head off down the river through town. I wanted to go tubing myself but they would not allow it so long as I am wearing this knee brace. I guess it was a good thing I was hiding the injured wrist as well. These injuries are starting to get frustrating.
It was getting near the end of the day and I wasn’t staying in Townsend another night, so I decided to get on the road. It took me about half an hour to reach Maryville and find my Walmart where I’ll spend the next three nights. Taking the next two days off, which I had already scheduled, so I can get some work done on the computer but also give my wrist and knee a chance to recover.
Ah. Finally. A day off. I’ve needed this for a long time now. And I don’t mean an “Injured Day Off” but a real day off to clean the van, do some maintenance and repair work, and go watch a movie.
Decided awhile back that I needed to have two days a week off, and then I didn’t give myself two days a week off. I could get used to this. Life can’t always be about travel for a travel writer and photographer; sometimes it has to be about sitting at the computer and putting together everything I have experienced for others to enjoy. That’s what I’m doing today.
Finally time to get back on the road again. These past two days have been amazing and a much needed break, but I’ve still got a long way to go!
My travel route for the day was a bit screwy. The places I would have reached last in a linear route would be closed by the time I got there, so I had to drive the furthest distance first and work my back a bit. Strange, but it’s just the way things turned out.
My first stop of the day was at Sweetwater Valley Farms. I wanted to visit this farm to see if they were having a solar eclipse event (they are) and to learn more about their motto: Cheese. Cows. Wows! Yeah that’s pretty amazing. I took a guided tour of the farm, learned about the history and operation, and also learned they deliver 90% of their daily milk production to nearby Mayfield Dairy Farm. Future plans are already in motion!
After finishing the tour of the farm and sampling some of their cheeses (they had a really spicy one I loved) I thought it would be good to pair it with a winery. The Tennessee Valley Winery is just fifteen minutes from the farm and the two had already gotten together to create a pairing list for their cheese and wines. Yeah this is gonna be a good story to tell later.
I finally got into Loudon and passed through on my way to Lenoir City on the banks of the Tennessee River. Just as soon as I arrived at the Tellico Dam Recreation Area an epic summer thunderstorm rolled through. I did my usual thing: found a pretty spot with a great view to park the van and took a nap while the storm lasted. I’m telling you storms just knock me right out.
When the storm passed the skies cleared and it was a beautiful, albeit muggy, summer day. I spent some time walking around Lenoir City Park looking for great solar eclipse angles and then headed over to Calhoun’s at the Marina. I had no idea there was a Calhoun’s here! I was so excited. I grabbed an outdoor table, listened to live music from Hillbilly Jedi, and enjoyed a fantastic meal.
With the day winding down and the potential for a great sunset on the way I headed back over to the Tellico Dam Recreation Area to capture a photo. It was a pretty decent sunset across the Little Tennessee River and I got a few good photos. I chatted with a woman who was there capturing photos of her own before packing up my gear and heading out.
Today was great for exploring this area of Tennessee, and tomorrow will be even better. But for now I gotta sleep before I get delirious and start typing strange covfefe.
Today started out in torrential rain, but fortunately it didn’t last. I had already made my morning plans so the rain actually just gave me an excuse to take my time!
My first stop along the road today was the visitor center at Mayfield Dairy Farms in Athens, Tennessee. The visitor center offers a guided tour of the production facility where visitors can see milk and ice cream being packaged and ready to ship. But not on the weekends (this was a Saturday). There is no production on weekends so all I got to see were videos at each stage of production. But I still got a free ice cream cone at the end! And then I had to do a little Christmas shopping at the gift shop.
By the time I got out nearly two hours later the rain had stopped and the clouds were breaking up. I hit the road for an hour-long drive through the country toward the Cherokee Removal Memorial Park. This had been on my list since spending three days in Cleveland, but I’m just now getting to it along the route I had decided to drive.
The Cherokee Memorial Removal Park was a profoundly sad place to visit. A sign greeting all visitors read “This park is dedicated to those that died and that that cried on the Trail of Tears.” I mean holy wow. What a dedication. I explored the park, chatted with the nice lady at the visitor center, and took a short hike to a scenic overlook at the top of a hill. I read through the thousands of names memorialized on giant stone slabs. I couldn’t help but imagine the crying children who didn’t understand what was happening, the frustrated parents just wanting to protect their young, and the hardworking men and women who had finally realized they had just lost their homes and everything they had ever worked for in their life.
Thankfully I had a long drive to the next stop. I needed some time to unwind after all this. I ran into another storm in a small town called Dayton so I decided to get a late lunch/early dinner and wait out the rain. The road climbed up and over a plateau which I thought was pretty cool cause I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. The road climbed about a thousand feet and then suddenly leveled off for a few miles before descending on the other side.
Eventually I reached my final destination of the day at Fall Creek Falls State Park. I’ve been here before, years ago, so I was excited to return. But I was disappointed to find the majestic Fall Creek Falls was down to just a mere trickle right now. It’s a dam-controlled waterfall so I guess they’re keeping all the water for the lake right now. I found an historic building, walked around the lake for awhile, and then hopped on the one-lane, one-way nature loop trail for a sunset photo.
Once the sun went down I had a short drive into Sparta where I am spending the night. It was an interesting drive in the dark on unfamiliar roads with all the curves and construction. I wonder what they were doing to the road out there? I’ll never know now because tomorrow I keep heading out on the road trip.
Got up this morning and did a little bit of backtracking to reach Rock Island State Park. I’d never heard of this park before and never been here. I love these kinds of days. In fact for the rest of this road trip I will be going places I have never been before. Now THAT is a road trip!
Rock Island State Park was unbelievably beautiful and exciting. There is so much to do there! I could spend a lot of time there in their very nice wooded campground. The first scenic overlook I found was at the Great Falls which were roaring because the TVA dam has a gate open. That is also why the trail leading to the bottom was closed. Probably for the best; my knee is still not 100% and I would have been too tempted to hike down to the bottom.
I stopped off at the visitor center and chatted with a nice ranger for awhile. He told me all about the TVA repair work and open gate. He also gave me a few places to be sure to visit in the park. So my next stop was down by the water at the “end” of the park. Here there is a very nice beach stretching along the calm water of the river. Amazing how turbulent the water was just upstream but here it is wide and deep enough to be calm.
My final stop was a tip from a local. I left the park proper, got back on the highway, took a few turns and found myself across the river from the park. Here I found a TVA overlook at Twin Falls. This was one of the most impressive, beautiful, awe inspiring waterfalls I have ever seen. I haven’t figured out the source yet because the waterfall is actually part of the high bank of the river and comes in at a 90-degree angle to the river. I found a cliff overlooking the falls for some photos, then sat back for awhile and watched some kayakers playing in the water.
My next stop of the day was Burgess Falls State Park. Seems like waterfalls are back on the agenda again. But this one would lead to disappointment and frustration. There were some warnings at the park about the trail to the bottom of the big fall and middle overlook being closed. But it was the “strenuous” warning that gave me pause. I packed all my gear and brought out the trekking poles but I just can’t risk it on this knee. It is so dammed frustrating that I have to keep skipping opportunities like this because I fell out of a raft two weeks ago.
I took some notes and chatted with some locals about the best places in the park and ways to have a good time. It’s a very small park with only a parking lot, a large shelter with restrooms, and the trails along the water. But this one will have to go on the bucket list for a return trip.
With this disappointment I made the final long drive through the countryside into Cookeville and found my Walmart for the night. I actually went to a different Wally World a little further on the edge of town. And just as I was writing this a police officer stopped by to say hello. Strangely enough this is the FIRST police officer to check on me since I started this road trip. I mean I know Walmart is private property and I’m not sure police have jurisdiction, but it’s nice to see the local police take an interest in patrolling what is arguably the most common retail area in any town. We chatted for a bit, he told me some local horror stories for reasons completely unknown to me, and then he moved on.
And with that, I shall now sleep. Tomorrow I spend the day exploring this local town I’ve never visited before.
When I woke up this morning I had a very ominous weather alert on my phone: the summer’s first heat wave is moving into the area, expect head index around 110-degrees. Say what? Sure enough today was a killer hot and humid day. I think I drank my body weight in liters of water. This might change plans just a little bit.
Despite the heat wave I started my day off with a trip to Cane Creek Park. This small park just outside town has a large lake with a few pedal boats and kayaks for rent. There is a nice trail around the lake and a disc golf course (I still haven’t played a round and I don’t think my knee would let me right now). I captured a few photos around the lake area and made sure it would be a good view for the total solar eclipse then moved on with my day.
I took a nice long drive out to Cummins Falls State Park hoping to get away from the heat. I didn’t. I also didn’t have a chance to hike to the waterfall. Once again my knee is just saying no. Cummins Falls is one of Tennessee’s newest state parks built with land donated by a local resident. The park’s only feature is the waterfall along with a few short hiking trails and a large parking lot. There is no camping here, but that is exactly why some other locals decided to open Old Mill Campground across from the entrance to the park. Right now they only have a few tent sites ready to go but they have plans for RV sites with full hookups by next year. They also have a very nice store with a small deli, ice cream, camping supplies, and groceries.
I figured I needed to return to town and see what else there was to do around the area. I wanted to explore the downtown area but it was just so hot and muggy. I headed over to Dogwood Park and found a great place to watch the total solar eclipse. But I didn’t last long in that heat so I left the downtown area behind.
Someone had told me about DelMonaco Winery & Vineyard in nearby Baxter. It was getting late so I figured I had better visit them before they closed for the day. Sure enough I arrived just forty-five minutes before closing. I had a great time chatting with the ladies there, sampling their smooth wines, and walking around the vineyard. It’s such a beautiful place and the Greek-style architecture is something neat to see!
The day was winding down. Sunset was approaching but there was nowhere to go for a photo. It was 98 degrees. All I really wanted to do was sit in the van with the air conditioning running. I got some work done on the computer and I feel bad that I didn’t explore more around Cookeville. But everything I want to write about is outdoorsy stuff that is just rather difficult right now. This just gives me an excuse to come back some day.