Just How Big will the Big Day Be?

Just How Big will the Big Day Be?

Nothing quite like it has ever happened, at least not in these modern times of mass and social media. Other than China’s annual Lunar New Year celebration, there is almost nothing to compare it to. Sociologists, planners, and astrophysicists alike are scratching their heads and speculating on just how many people will jump in their vehicles and head down the road to witness the “Great American” total solar eclipse on the afternoon of August 21, 2017.

Some are even predicting the largest mass human migration in history.

Many are pointing out that 200 million people live within a day’s drive of the eclipse’s 68-mile-wide “path of totality,” while only 12 million Americans live within the path. Not to mention all of those who will travel from other countries for this very special event. Eclipse blogger and GIS guru Michael Zeiler says, “Imagine 20 Woodstock festivals occurring simultaneously across our nation.”

A little better than half of Great Smoky Mountains National Park is within the eclipse path, and August is already a busy month here with some 40,000 visitors per day. What if that number doubles, or quadruples?

Of course, the onslaught of humanity won’t be confined to the park’s roads and trails. The greatest impact will be on major roadways leading from the north and south (Cleveland, Cincinnati, Pittsburg, Lexington, Knoxville, Atlanta, Birmingham) to the eclipse path. Conservative estimates predict some 1 million people will head to Tennessee for the big day.

Travel within GSMNP on eclipse day (or even during the three-day “eclipse weekend”) will be heavy at best, likely rivalling the epic traffic backups that occur during the peak of fall colours. Clingmans Dome Road will be accessible only to those who have already secured tickets to the special event up there. Newfound Gap Road may need to be closed if traffic gridlocks there, and ditto for Cades Cove Loop and Laurel Creek roads.

On a personal note (despite all of the above) from one of the lucky folks who enjoyed the last U.S. total solar eclipse in the Northwest in 1979, I really hope you'll seize this once-or-twice-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Witnessing a total solar eclipse is a profound experience, one you should experience in a place that is special to you. For those who are flexible and plan ahead, experiencing the event surrounded by the Great Smoky Mountains will be monumental.

To succeed at eclipse viewing (unless you are lucky enough to live in the zone) you will need to:

  • Get as close to the centerline of the zone of totality as possible because the experience of being just outside the zone will be as unimpressive as watching the Super Bowl or a great concert from a half-mile away.
  • Realize that all or nearly all accommodations within the zone are already sold out. One exception is reservations for GSMNP’s backcountry campsites, which can be made no more than 30 days in advance. Therefore, if a party wishes to reserve a site for the nights of August 20 and 21 in the park, they need to be online HERE at 2 a.m. EDT July 22. Keep in mind that some trailhead access roads could be closed Monday, August 21.
  • Remember that some roads that provide access to trailheads could be very crowded or closed on Monday, August 21.
  • Park front-country campgrounds such as Deep Creek and Abrams Creek, which are not on the reservation system and are therefore first-come, first-served, also still have availability.
  • Various National Forest Service backcountry camping opportunities may also be available HERE.
  • Get your hands on a good eclipse map and come up with a clever strategy for enjoying the afternoon rather than spending it stuck on I-75.
  • Consider arriving at your destination for two days in advance.
  • Accept that clouds and rain may happen, but that the eclipse will go on. Even if you can’t directly observe the moon-sun interface, the world get dark in the middle of the afternoon, birds and other animals change their behaviours, you'll feel the temperature drop and maybe observe an odd crescent of light on the horizon.
  • Remember that the show is over for everyone at about the same time on Monday afternoon. If everyone jumps in their vehicles and heads for home at the same time, they won’t get very far very fast.
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