On August 21, a total solar eclipse will blaze through 20 national parks and nine national trails in its path of totality across the United States, which begins in Oregon and ends in South Carolina.
And those who were lucky enough to book campsites and hotels in time will be heading into these parks to experience it in gorgeous natural splendor.
While the parks in the path have been making the most of the eclipse — planning special events and festivals, and raising awareness about their offerings — Monday will also be a major test of their ability to handle big crowds at a time when they’re already strained by record numbers of visitors. Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, for instance, anticipates August 21 will be the busiest day in the history of the park.
John Day Fossil Beds in Kimberly, Oregon, is expecting larger-than-normal crowds around the eclipse too, because Eastern Oregon has been hyped as one of the best eclipse-viewing areas in the country.
In a typical year, the Homestead National Monument of America in Beatrice, Nebraska, welcomes about 100,000 visitors. On August 21, it expects several thousand. Susan Cook, chief of interpretation resource management for the park, told Vox that getting prepared is no small feat.
“There’s lot of moving parts to this,” she said.
National parks see record high visits
The eclipse is arriving in a year when the number of people visiting national parks is at an all-time high. The entire park system saw a record 330 million visitors in 2016.
The crowds are increasing so much that some parks have considered restricting the number of visitors. Last year, Zion National Park explored limiting campgrounds and access to popular trails in an effort to reduce the strain on infrastructure, keep crowds down around the popular sites in the park, and protect the surrounding environment.
“In the last few years, this huge uptick in visitation has overwhelmed our infrastructure facilities, our trails, our backcountry, it goes on and on and on,” John Marciano, a spokesman for Zion, told the online magazine Yale Environment 360 in July. (The entire story is worth reading.)
Preparing for a historic day
On top of concerns about the cumulative impact of the growing crowds, parks are now preparing to grapple with what’s expected to be a historic surge around the total solar eclipse. The natural phenomenon happens every two years or so (as Neil deGrasse Tyson reminded us), but Americans rarely have the opportunity to experience the event close to home.
It’s not just the parks — every community in the path of totality is expecting crowds. And crowds mean traffic. An estimated 200 million people live within a day's drive of the path of totality. FiveThirtyEight mapped the worst potential bottlenecks along the 70-mile-wide strip.
National parks are particularly wary of eclipse-chasing crowds because the areas are fragile ecosystems already impacted by millions of visitors over the years.
Grand Teton public affairs officer Denise Germann says the park is encouraging visitors to carpool, bike, or hike to minimize traffic. Cell or internet service may also not be consistent or available. A remote area plus a high volume of users isn’t a great recipe for a strong signal.
Germann’s advice? “Come with your patience.”
Smaller national parks in the path of totality have also been planning for the eclipse for well over a year. Congaree National Park in Hopkins, South Carolina, says it’s been getting phone calls since last year with questions about what they’re doing for the total eclipse. The two small campgrounds inside the park were filled up on the same day reservations opened six months ago. Hotels in nearby Columbia are all booked up too.
“There is not a spot left for anyone to get,” says park ranger Jonathan Manchester.
The chance to experience a “once-in-a lifetime opportunity”
National park employees told Vox they’ll be working on eclipse day and sharing the “once-in-a-life opportunity” right alongside the visitors they’ve been waiting for.
For Homestead National Monument, Cook says, these eclipse viewers — watching with the sky and the stars — are special, because homesteaders in Nebraska were doing that too.
“They were paying attention to ‘When do we harvest?’ ‘When do we plant?’ ‘When is a storm coming?’ — and they would know that because they knew how to read the skies.”
Will you be watching the total solar eclipse? If so, tell us how it made you feel in six words, using #VoxEclipseIn6Words on Twitter.