We almost didn’t go. We almost decided it would be easier, safer, and more convenient to just stay in Virginia and see the 82.1% coverage. I still remember when I changed my mind.
I’d just read a report about the satellite Juno sending back information and images from its first orbit around Jupiter; it reawakened me to my lifelong fascination with astronomy. Why was I allowing myself to settle? Greg and I talked through several long-weekend options for seeing the total eclipse in Tennessee and North Carolina. Then I saw that Great Smoky Mountain National Park was one of two national parks that would be getting total coverage from the eclipse. It was decided: we’d get to witness this incredible natural phenomenon and visit one of the nearby National Parks we hadn’t made it to yet!
A ticketed event was happening in the parking lot at Clingman’s Dome, and traffic was supposed to be madness, so we camped in the park and hiked up the mountain from our campground. Our initial plan was to bypass it and head to Andrew’s Bald, another two miles. But by the time we got to Clingman’s, we figured we should settle in.
It was very cloudy, enough to have us worried. We scoped out our spot up the path from the parking lot just in time to cook our lunch and see the first part of the moon making her way between the earth and the sun. The ranger we spoke with said the forecast was “mostly cloudy with a chance of rain”. But miraculously, just as the eclipse began around 1:00pm, the clouds began moving. We all kept trying to gauge which direction they were going, to see if they’d open up long enough for us to at least experience viewing totality (as if that were something we could control). It really was incredible to see them continually part as totality approached; a sort of parting of the red sea moment for all the witnesses who had traveled so far to be part of this experience.
I later learned that there was a 5% chance of sun that day, which made me feel even more fortunate.
The entire experience was incredible and tangible. Greg and I had so many strong emotions come to the surface as the sun prepared to disappear for 90 seconds. The most noticeable was a combination of deep anticipation, excitement, peace, unsettled nerves, and gratitude. All afternoon we’d been watching the bees slowly abandon the flowers, seeing the light shift dramatically both where we were sitting and amongst the literally smoky mountains in the distance, and feeling the temperature drop. As the sun became more and more a sliver in the sky, I found myself feeling so nervous! And I kept feeling like I had to express my emotions – I told Greg at least 3 times how weird it seemed that I felt nervous.
The moment of totality was surreal. After watching the last bit of the sun disappear behind the moon, my vision through the eclipse glasses went completely black; I knew it was time to remove them for the moment we’d all been waiting for.
Taking off the glasses and seeing the suns corona envelop the moon was like removing some of the barriers to myself I didn’t know were there. It felt like I was so open, so in awe, so elated, touched, and raw; I kept exclaiming “Oh my gosh, this is seriously the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen!” I couldn’t help myself – again my emotions were so intense they had to be expressed. Apparently I was in good company as we could hear the faint cheers of everyone else from the parking lot down below.
After Greg took a few photos, we just stood there together, in complete and utter awe. 90 seconds has never felt so fast! Once the first bit of the sun peaked back out I felt a strange mix of sadness and gratitude; I knew that special moment had now passed and I was so appreciative that I was able to be part of it. And the eclipse wasn’t even over yet! We still had another hour and a half until the sun was back to its full power. Only a few others stayed through the whole experience; by the time we got back down to the parking lot it was almost abandoned.
During the hike back, I couldn’t shake this feeling of deep gratitude and knowing that once we got down off the mountain, a shift was on its way (more on that this week – stay tuned)!
Moving forward, we are resolved to experience as many eclipses as possible. We’re already planning for the next one in April 2024. Let us know if you want to join!
If you’d like to hear more about the rest of our hike, read on below the photos.
The light got so crazy; it was like dusk with afternoon shadows! Besides totality, I think the shift in lighting was the most fascinating and breathtaking. Especially the 360 degree sunset/sunrise!
We left our condo at about 10am on Friday, August 18 to drive down to North Carolina. After stopping for a few rest area breaks and an awesome casual dinner at Baba Nahm in Asheville, we parked at the Deep Creek trail head in Great Smoky Mountain National Park around 8:15pm. This would be night hiking adventure number 2 for us this year (the first being our Virginia Triple Crown excursion).
After about 30 minutes of heavy dusk hiking, we turned on the headlamp and video light and kept an eye out for campground 60. All sorts of nocturnal wildlife like frogs that stayed frozen in the middle of the trail (unless you accidentally grazed them with your foot and freak out) and bats (that flew just a few feet in front of us and even between us on several occasions) came out to greet us. Unbeknownst to us, we passed our campground shortly after we crossed a bridge over deep creek. We thought the post with the number 60 and an arrow drawn on it were just telling us that the campsite was farther along the trail – we learned later the campsite was actually right there. Whoops!
Fast forward about 3 miles and 2 hours later, we stumbled upon a group of guys trying to start a fire to our left, right before our lights grazed over another small post with the number “59” emblazoned on it. If it weren’t for those guys, we may very well have passed that campsite, too. We were grateful to discover that there was still room and quickly set up our tent, hung a bear bag for our food (since we couldn’t find the cable system the park provides in the dark), and went to sleep.
Mile total for Friday: 6
On Saturday morning, we woke up refreshed and grateful. Even though the extra miles made Friday night longer than anticipated, that also meant Saturday would be infinitely easier. We took our time enjoying the creek by our tent, eating breakfast, and hiking to campsite 55. We arrived at the next campsite right around lunch time and were greeted by the strewn about belongings of at least 2 other hikers. We set up our tent, got settled, and took a day pack on another short jaunt farther up deep creek trail to explore, since we’d be heading a different way Sunday morning.
When we arrived back at camp that evening, we met the other campers–all from New Jersey. One of them had a pair of Vibram FiveFingers airing out near his tent and we immediately knew we’d get along just fine. Our instinct was right, as we we were planning on taking the same route for the eclipse experience. We ended up hiking the next three days with Rithwik.
Mile total for Saturday: 5.5
Sunday morning, we woke up, packed up camp, and headed off toward campsite 61 with Rithwik. He was originally registered at campsite 62, but we decided that if there was room, we’d sneak him into 61 with us (since it was about a mile closer to the trailhead for Monday). The first three miles of the day presented a steady and aggressive incline broken up by food, water, and breathing breaks. Once we arrived at the trailhead, it was quickly followed by an equally aggressive and rocky mile downhill. After three miles of uphill, we didn’t mind the downhill, even though it did a number on our already tired feet. We got to the campsite in middle of the afternoon, which gave us lots of time to go wade in the gloriously cold creek water, build a fire, enjoy some hot tea, and just relax. And it’s a good thing, too, because we had sorely underestimated the distance for Monday’s hike.
Mile total for Sunday: 4.5
Monday morning, the day of the eclipse! I woke up to the sound of some of the other campers, who were going the same direction as us, leaving around 5am. We hadn’t planned on leaving until about 8:30, so I took another small nap before our crew officially woke up around 7am. Thankfully, we left camp right around the time we wanted to and made it back up the steep hill to the trail intersection more quickly than anticipated. It’s amazing what fresh energy and a lighter pack can do! Poor Greg didn’t have much less weight in his pack though, because he was still carrying all of his camera equipment, including the 70-200 lens and his tripod.
At first, we thought it was only going to be about 3 miles to our destination; boy were we misguided! It was about 5 miles to get to the main road and then another mile and change up the pavement to get to our destination. Originally, we’d planned to go to a spot called Andrews Bald; but since that would have been an additional 4 miles (2 each way), we decided to stay at Clingman’s Dome.
We were all pretty wiped by the time we found our spot for the eclipse, but once we ate and took a minute to marinate on what we were about to witness, the energy returned almost instantly. Following the eclipse, we went back down to the parking lot and saw everyone packing up the stages, buses, and food. Rithwik smelled the BBQ and said he knew exactly what he was doing for dinner! Rithwick bought his sandwich while Greg asked if we could filter some water out of their beverage cooler (go hiker trash!). After Greg took a bit of Rithwik’s BBQ pork sandwich, though, we decided we absolutely had to order one without a bun – just give us the good stuff! Well, the owner called the woman serving us over and, from what we could decipher of the hand gesture, told her to give us quite a bit. Minutes later, she returned with a half a gallon-sized Ziploc bag full of pulled pork. I hadn’t seen Greg and Rithwik that giddy for the whole trip. Based on his squeal of delight, I think Rithwik may have been even more excited about the pork than the eclipse.
After enjoying as much pork as our stomachs would allow, we started our journey back. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that hiking downhill is easier. Sure it’s faster, and less strenuous on the cardiovascular system, but man is it hard on your feet and joints! We probably hiked a bit faster than we should have an were completely exhausted and throbbing when we arrived back at camp. And funny story, one of the other campers actually saw us on his way back to the trailhead while hitching a ride in a ranger vehicle, but they couldn’t stop because they were full. I guess we should have asked back up at the parking lot. Oh well!
Mile total for Monday: 13(ish)
Tuesday morning was the big hike out. We hiked that daunting incline to get back to the trail intersection from camp one last time and said goodbye without any sadness. Now it was time for the Noland Divide trail back to our car. Rithwik was originally planning on taking different way back, but decided to stick with us.
Those last several miles were daunting. We tried to take several breaks so we didn’t completely exhaust ourselves, but we were all very ready to be back to civilization. We arrived back to the parking lot around 5:30pm; right around the time we had hoped. We took some photos, washed up in the real bathrooms (with running water!), and said goodbye. But we’ve already decided that we’re going to be planning another hike with our new friend soon!
Mile total for Tuesday: 9
It was a beautiful, grueling trip full of creek baths, chigger bites (I hate those things!), and friendship. I learned a lot about myself on that 38 miles of trail; hiking really is a dynamic challenge physically, mentally, and emotionally.
I can’t wait for the next adventure!