USA TODAY NETWORKKaren Chavez, Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times Published 9:35 p.m. ET Aug. 2, 2017 | Updated 9:40 p.m. ET Aug. 2, 2017


ASHEVILLE, N.C. — If you’re a fan of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park or the Blue Ridge Parkway, you might be wanting to watch the upcoming solar eclipse surrounded by their beauty.

So where are the best spots to spread out your picnic blanket on Aug. 21 as the U.S. experiences the first total eclipse of the sun to go coast to coast since 1918?

Let’s break it down.

The Clingmans Dome observation tower rises above the surrounding spruce-fir forest into the starry autumn sky in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Photo: Adam Lau, Knoxville News Sentinel)
Great Smoky Mountains National Park

The Great Smoky Mountains is the most visited national park, with 11 million visitors last year, according to the National Park Service.

The total solar eclipse will wash over the westernmost side of the park, where there are plenty of pull-offs, campsites and picnic areas from which to watch the show.

“It’s hard to estimate how many people may come to the park to experience the eclipse, but we understand that many people want to be in a natural area free of artificial lights and sounds when totality happens,” said park spokeswoman Dana Soehn.

The darkness will last from a few seconds to more than 2½ minutes, depending on how close you are to the center line. The park has created an interactive map to help you find a site close to the center line where you’re most likely to see a dazzling display of stars and planets accented by the corona of the sun.

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The big daddy of viewing areas in the Smokies — Clingmans Dome — will hold a spectacular all-day viewing event. The ticketed affair at the park’s highest point, at 6,644 feet, has long been sold out.

But don’t despair. There are many other places to picnic in the southwestern part of the park that will experience totality, including front-country areas Cades Cove and Oconaluftee.

The vast meadow at Cades Cove, on the Tennessee side of the Smokies is one of the most popular destinations in the park. There the park will host a free, informal program at Cable Mill, a spot that will experience total darkness for 2 minutes, 5 seconds. Once parking is full, though, access to Cades Cove area will be closed to traffic.

A deer grazes along the Cades Cove Loop Road in the
A deer grazes along the Cades Cove Loop Road in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. (Photo: Adam Brimer, Knoxville News Sentinel)
Oconaluftee Visitor Center, with its adjacent field at Mountain Farm on the North Carolina side, will experience totality for 1 minute, 3 seconds. There will also be a free program there.

Clingmans Dome Road will be the only park road closed during the solar eclipse, but park visitors should be prepared for high traffic on all roads, Soehn said. Vehicles won’t be allowed to stop in the roadway and must be parked in designated parking areas. If roads become congested or cause a safety concern, rangers may temporarily close them, she said.

As for camping, backcountry sites that lie within the path of totality are 83% booked. Front-country sites that require reservations that lie within the path of totality are fully booked, including Cades Cove, Elkmont and Smokemont. Front-country campsites outside of the path of totality still have availability and can be reserved through recreation.gov.

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The Great Smoky Mountains Association is selling an Outdoor Recreation Regional Eclipse map at smokiesinformation.org to help plan your day.

Outside the park, towns from Cherokee to Robbinsville, Andrews, Sylva, Sapphire, Rosman and Brevard — all in the path of totality — will hold special viewing parties and festivities.

Blue Ridge Parkway

The Blue Ridge Parkway stretches 469 miles from Virginia’s Shenandoah Mountains to the Great Smokies in Cherokee, N.C. The parkway is one of the most visited sites in the National Park Service — last year 15.2 million people experienced its breathtaking vistas.

The Blue Ridge Parkway has posted a list of all the overlooks, visitor centers and picnic areas that will have either total or partial solar eclipse viewing. Always important: It includes bathroom locations.

“We’re working with law enforcement rangers and adjacent communities to prepare for big crowds. We will have staff and volunteers to host viewing sites, portable toilets, people with information and eyes and ears that will be helping with crowds,” said parkway spokeswoman Leesa Brandon.

Want to have a picnic during the total solar eclipse
Want to have a picnic during the total solar eclipse Aug. 21? Bring lots of food and water and get to your spot early. (Photo: Karen Chávez/KChavez@CITIZEN-TIMES.com)
“Our intent is to accommodate as many people as possible. If the grass is dry, we can park more people off the road, but those are decisions we’ll have to make close to the day.”

Two of of the most popular spots on the North Carolina side of the parkway include the Parkway Visitor Center at Milepost 384 in Asheville, and the Craggy Dome Overlook and Craggy Gardens Visitor center at Milepost 364.

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The Craggy Dome trail has 52 parking spaces and the Craggy visitor center has 43. If you get there at the crack of dawn you might snag a space and a nice patch of grass on which to spread out a picnic. But — and it’s a big but — these areas will each receive just 98.7% total eclipse.

Some other beautiful spots are Devils Courthouse, Milepost 423, which will have 68 seconds of totality, and the Haywood/Jackson county line at Milepost 431, with 60 seconds of totality.

Waterrock Knob in the Plott Balsams will experience
Waterrock Knob in the Plott Balsams will experience 44 seconds of solar eclipse totality Aug. 21. (Photo: Karen Chávez/KChavez@CITIZEN-TIMES.com)
Perhaps one of the most strikingly beautiful spots to stop and look toward the heavens is Waterrock Knob. About a 45-minute drive from Asheville, via U.S. 19/74 west to the parkway entrance at Balsam, the area is dotted with trails, including a new section of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail, that sit at a lofty 6,000-feet elevation.

The area has some picnic tables, but also lots of grass to sit upon and chew a sandwich. This is also expected to be one of the most crowded spots on Aug. 21, so expect traffic and a long day.

While the moment of totality will hit about 2:30 p.m. ET across the mountains, the moon will slowly start to cover the sun at about 1 p.m. and leave the sun at about 4 p.m.

“I wouldn’t wait until 2 p.m. on Aug. 21 to head out to the parkway. Bring food, water and plenty of activities,” Brandon said. “Come prepared. If you’re planning to spend the day on the parkway, make a list of your top choices. If one is full, go to the next. Twenty years from now it will be a very memorable thing to have been on the parkway that day.”

Follow Karen Chavez on Twitter: @KarenChavezACT

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