How to Ensure the Total Experience During the Total Eclipse

Edith Han and Katherine RivardNPF Blog
Visitors to Arches National Park looking at the sun through solar viewers and solar eclipse glasses

The 2017 solar eclipse is slated to become perhaps the most watched solar eclipse in history. The National Park System has prepared for months, with parks across the country hosting learning and viewing events. However, despite the hubbub surrounding the occurrence, many still have a few questions about this astrological phenomenon. Whether you’re a first-time eclipse viewer or an experienced astronomer looking to brush up on some tips before August 21, 2017, this information is for you:

What is a solar eclipse?

In the simplest terms, an eclipse of the sun – a solar eclipse – occurs when the moon comes between the Earth and the sun, blocking sunlight and casting a shadow onto the earth.  There are three kinds of solar eclipses:

Graphic showing how a solar eclipse occurs when the moon lines up between the sun and the earth
  • Total solar eclipse: Occurs when observers see the moon completely covering the sun. During a total eclipse, the sky darkens as if it were night. How does this happen? Though the diameter of the sun is around 400 times greater than the diameter of the moon, the moon is about 400 times closer than the sun, making both celestial objects appear to be the same size.
  • Partial solar eclipse: When the sun, moon, and earth don’t quite line up, the moon only partially covers the sun, as if someone has taken a bite out of the sun. Depending on the eclipse magnitude, folks observing a partial eclipse may see anything from a sliver of the sun’s disk being covered, to seeing a crescent moon as bright as, well, the sun.
  • Annular solar eclipse: This happens when the moon passes between the sun and the Earth and is farthest away from the earth. The moon, therefore, appears smaller than the sun, leaving a sunlit ring around the moon.

What makes this eclipse so special?

Though between two and five solar eclipses occur every year, each one is visible to only a small area of the world. This will be the first total solar eclipse in the continental U.S. since 1979, and the first coast-to-coast total solar eclipse in 99 years! So, unless you’re a regular international-traveling eclipse-chaser, this one’s your best bet!

You can even help by becoming a citizen scientists during this special event! NASA has invited eclipse viewers around the country to participate in a nationwide science experiment by collecting and reporting cloud and air temperature data.

Where do I need to be?

Total eclipse with a white corona
M. Druckmüller/NASA

No matter where you are in the U.S., you will be able to see a partial eclipse. However, the total eclipse will only be visible along the “path of totality.” This path stretches from the Carolinas, through Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Montanan, Wyoming, Idaho, through Lincoln Beach, Oregon.

The longest period of time for the sun to be blocked will be two minutes and 40 seconds – near Carbondale, Illinois.

Twenty-one of our parks will be in the line of totality, including sites like Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve, and Scotts Bluff National Monument.

What other information is key?


Eye safety is critical, and warnings should be taken seriously.  NEVER look directly at the sun without protective gear unless it’s during the short period of totality; and no, this doesn’t mean wearing your average sunglasses. The only safe way to look directly at the sun that is not in total eclipse is through special certified eclipse glasses and solar viewers.

Park ranger looking through solar eclipse glasses at Arches National Park
Neal Herbert/NPS

When looking for eclipse glasses and solar viewers, be sure to check that they meet the ISO 12312-2 international standard for products (currently only 5 manufacturers have certified their glasses to date) to make sure you don’t cook your eyeballs with invisible ultraviolet and infrared radiation. You can purchase the eyewear online, or visit a public library – over 5,000 of which will have the glasses.


Expect delays and heavy traffic. With so many people planning to watch the event, there are bound to be traffic delays! If you’re visiting a park to view the eclipse, ensure extra travel time and a good playlist in anticipation of heavy traffic. Interstates and highways across the 14 states in the line of totality are expected to experience particularly high amounts of traffic. Be sure to pay attention when driving.


Start planning your excursion now! Hotels in prime areas for the eclipse have been booked for up to 2 years in advance! Our suggestion? Decide which park you will be visiting. Arrive with plenty of time and bring some snacks. Choose a spot to view from, then picnic and relax with family or a friend before twilight descends.

Visiting your park’s site in advance for additional information or tips is also strongly recommended. Parks will also be providing seminars and events in advance of the eclipse to prepare visitors for this extraordinary occurrence.

It's not too late to pause what you're doing and reach out to friends who live in the path of totality. Make sure to mark your calendars, order your eclipse glasses, and then go #FindYourPark with the help of this list

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