With just three days until the total solar eclipse was set to sweep across the country I still hadn’t really decided where I wanted to plant my feet for the event. I had discovered so many amazing places between South Carolina, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky. But after months of traveling and pondering I decided to do what most people do in a situation like this: go with the familiar. That’s why I headed for Cades Cove in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Estimates for the number of travelers for the eclipse varied wildly from just a few million to 30 million for the entire weekend in addition to the 12 million who lived in the path of totality. Nobody really knew how much traffic to expect or how many visitors they would see. The only metric was lodging; hotel rooms, cabin rentals, and campgrounds were booked. Nobody knew how big the crowd would be, but they at least knew it would be big.
That’s why I finally decided on Cades Cove. It’s a dead-end, one-way loop road. There are only so many vehicles that can physically fit into the Cove so the crowds were almost certainly to be thin. Most people would flock to popular sights like the Cable Mill or one of the historic homes, so if I just stuck with a plain ‘ole open field I could very well have the place to myself.
A few days before the eclipse I called the Sugarlands Visitor Center to ask what time the gate at Cades Cove would be opened; rangers lock the road overnight. The ranger on the phone told me the gate would be opened at 6a.m. So my plan was to leave nearby Maryville at 5a.m., arrive at the gate just before it was set to open, drive the 11-mile loop road once or twice after sunrise to scout my location, and then park for the day by 7:30a.m. It was a great plan, but it didn’t exactly go like that.
At 5a.m. I left Maryville for the roughly 45-minute drive through Townsend into the national park. Traffic was light although it did pick up a bit once I got to the other side of Townsend closer to the Townsend Y. But even after turning onto Fighting Creek Road heading toward Cades Cove traffic moved smoothly albeit bumper to bumper.
My GPS slowly counted down the miles to the entrance of Cades Cove. Seven miles. Five. Three. Traffic began to slow. Then traffic came to a complete stop two and a half miles from the entrance. As I looked ahead around a bend in the road I saw nothing but brake lights. I wasn’t going anywhere.
At 6:30a.m. I parked the van in the road and shut off the engine. There was no point leaving the engine running. I stepped out of the van to chilly morning air and about a dozen other people. It was quiet. It was peaceful. But it wasn’t where I wanted to be and traffic wasn’t moving at all. As far up the road as I could see people were stepping out, walking back and forth, and no one was moving a vehicle. I chatted with my “neighbors” and pondered what could have been holding us up; the gate was supposed to be open by now.
At 7a.m. I saw what I thought was a clue to the problem: a flatbed wrecker driving in the opposite lane, lights flashing, heading toward the entrance. I figured a car must have flipped because if it had just broken down surely people would drive around it. The sun was rising now and I knew a long line of cars was probably lining up behind me out of sight along the curvy road. But half an hour later the flatbed truck passed me again heading out of the cove without a vehicle in tow. And traffic still didn’t move.
At 7:45a.m. I got a second clue: a woman who had walked the two miles to the entranced and back again was telling everyone rangers were waiting until 8a.m. to open the gate. I figured that would explain why we were all still sitting in the road but what about that phone call just a few days ago? Once we heard this news the tiny groups of newfound friends started to spread out a little as we all inched closer to our vehicles, ready to jump in like a scene out of Cannonball Run.
At 8:35a.m. I finally noticed a string of brake lights burning with life. A car moved. Then another. I bid farewell to my new friends from New Hampshire and Texas and quickly hopped into the van. A minute later traffic was flowing smoothly again and didn’t stop until I was inside Cades Cove.
This led to a bit of a problem for me. My plan to drive the loop a couple of times and scout a spot to watch the eclipse were now ruined. I imagined hundreds of cars in the line behind me so I knew I had only one chance to find the right parking spot; if I passed up a great spot it would probably be gone by the time I looped back around.
Fortunately I had done some scouting in my memory the night before. I’ve spent about 10 days total in Cades Cove over the past two years. I’ve captured a lot of photos and spent a lot of time sitting, waiting for wildlife or the sunset or better lighting. Along with my favorite photography app, The Photographer’s Ephemeris, I had already picked a potential spot for spending the day.
Sure enough just as soon as I passed one of the historic churches and came out of a small grove of trees there was the view above to the left. The total solar eclipse would happen directly over this large tree in a big, open field. And there was a perfect parking spot right beside this spot under the shade of other trees. I quickly parked the van and I was set for the day.
I came prepared to spend the day right here. I watched some movies for awhile, climbed into the back of the camper van to work on some photos on the computer, and made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for an early lunch. About an hour before the eclipse I started setting up all my photography gear.
As it would turn out I would only capture two good photos of the eclipse despite having three DSLR cameras and four GoPros. This was my first eclipse so I wasn’t sure what I was doing, but the angle of the sun at 65-degrees altitude made it very difficult to capture anything. I was just happy to have been able to capture the two photos I did during totality using my 300mm lens with a 1.7 teleconverter.
I pulled out a chair and sat back with my big lens in my lap, an ice cold root beer in one hand, my cellphone running the Solar Eclipse Timer app in the other. I chatted with the other people sitting nearby. We talked about the myths surrounding the eclipse and crazy conspiracy theories. Compared our solar safety glasses. Shared some travel stories.
Once the eclipse hit about 50% things started to change. It was noticeably cooler. I had been sweating in the full sunlight but now it felt more like a cool autumn day. At about 75% totality it was noticeably darker. The shadow of the tree was much fainter. At 90% totality I couldn’t take my eyes off the sun (while wearing my safety glasses of course). The Solar Eclipse Timer app began a countdown to totality. It was almost chilly now. It was dark, but not a dusk kind of dark. It was like draping a towel over a lamp.
My phone buzzed to let me know totality had begun. I quickly pulled the welder’s glass off my telephoto lens and captured a few photos. When I put the camera down the sight in the sky above took my breath away. Looking at what normally would be the sun and only seeing a black hole in its place was beyond amazing. It was epic. It was beautiful. I couldn’t stop laughing. I was witnessing a total solar eclipse for the first time in my life.
Once the eclipse was over everyone left. Very few people waited around for the back half of the partial eclipse to finish, and those were photographers. I already knew I didn’t have the photos I wanted so I packed up all my gear but stayed put for three more hours before trying to leave the Cove. I still ran into traffic on my way out of Cades Cove and then again just outside Townsend.
But it had been a great day. I had captured a photo of a total solar eclipse. I had seen it with my own eyes. I had a full minute to just sit back, look at it, and laugh with giddiness. A couple hours later one of my best friends texted me to say it was an epic event and said something I had already been thinking. “I have to see something like this again.” I agreed. I started researching where in the world I could see another total solar eclipse. Did you know another total solar eclipse will cross the country in just seven years?