Family Eclipse Vacation – Totality Worth It

Three geeky families joined forces and experienced an eclipse-inspired road trip vacation to Tennessee.
Three geeky families joined forces and experienced an eclipse-inspired road trip vacation to Tennessee.

Planning

For months, our family had planned an eclipse vacation traveling from New Jersey to Tennessee to get a view of the solar eclipse within the path of totality (where the moon completely eclipses the sun). Two other New Jersey families, our close friends, took the trip as well. Since it was more than a ten-hour drive, we all decided to take a full week and make a whole event out of it. We had purchased our eclipse glasses way ahead of time and were settled into a rented cabin in the hills of Sevierville, Tennessee, the day before the eclipse. From our cabin, we would have to drive about 90 minutes to get to a place to view the eclipse at its best.

Finding a Place to Watch

We had planned on watching from Fort Loudoun State Park, but as interest in the eclipse spread, the park booked up. So we ended up viewing the eclipse from the nearby Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, in Vonore, Tennessee. The museum was under renovations, but after receiving many calls from people wanting to view the eclipse from their property, they planned an event. They had solar eclipse glasses for the first 1,000 visitors, plenty of parking and porta-johns, and even brought in some live music and had food concessions available. Kudos to the museum for how well the staff and volunteers ran things.

The staff and volunteers at the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum were well prepared for the eclipse crowds.
The staff and volunteers at the Sequoyah Birthplace Museum were well prepared for the eclipse crowds.

Viewing the Eclipse

Traffic that morning was much heavier than normal; it seems many people had traveled to the area for the eclipse. Still, we managed to get to the site and set up about 45 minutes before the eclipse was scheduled to start. We had a tarp and tent poles to provide some shade, food and water, sunscreen, and games to occupy the kids while we waited for the eclipse to start.

The kids killed time waiting for the eclipse playing chess and Zombie Dice.
The kids killed time waiting for the eclipse playing chess and Zombie Dice.

A little after 1:00 PM local time, the disk of the moon began to encroach upon the sun. We had explained to all of our kids the importance of viewing the eclipse safely, and we are proud that even the very youngest of them did a good job keeping their glasses on to see the eclipse and only viewing it for short periods before taking a break.

Viewing the solar eclipse through the safety of protective eye-wear.
Viewing the solar eclipse through the safety of protective eye-wear.
Even the youngest family member (3 years old) understood the importance of wearing her eye protection.
Even the youngest family member (3 years old) understood the importance of wearing her eye protection.

My friends commented to me how weird the light seemed to them. It reminded my wife of the light from a compact fluorescent bulb, like the color temperature was all wrong. With the eclipse glasses on, I noticed the sun’s reflections off the windshields of the many cars parked at the museum’s field showed up as the only bright points at ground level.

Kevin, a local geologist, happened to be parked next to us. He threw together a quick pinhole viewer out of a cardboard box, and got decent results. The image below was taken after totality, as the moon began passing beyond the sun.

View of the eclipse a little past totality, via a simple cardboard box with a pin hole poked in the top.
View of the eclipse a little past totality, via a simple cardboard box with a pin hole poked in the top.

Photographing the Totality

I’m definitely an amateur photographer at best, but I had researched and planned out what I wanted to capture. I was unable to get a solar filter for the lens of my camera, so I had to be content to taking shots during the brief two and a half minutes of totality. I had a tripod already set up with my Canon PowerShot SX50 HS camera mounted on it. I had made my own remote shutter switch so I could take longer exposures without shaking the camera. I thought I was ready. The reality is that photographing the eclipse is very challenging.

I should have been zoomed in closer, but it was difficult to aim the camera at maximum zoom. In my case I would have had to adjust the tripod, and I was concerned I would miss the brief window for capturing the totality, so I started shooting.

I took the first couple of shots in aperture priority mode, which lets you specify the aperture (I set mine at 8.0 f-stops and the ISO sensor sensitivity to 200); these ended up being the only usable shots. I switched to full manual mode and leaving the aperture at F/8.0 and the ISO at 200, I tried taking a series of “bracketed” shots with shutter speeds from 1/2000 seconds (very fast) to 1/200 seconds (kinda fast). I had hoped to get even longer exposures, but before I knew it the sun began peeking out from behind the moon’s disk, and it was time to put the lens cover back on.

The time went so fast I am glad I remembered to actually look up and view the totality with my own bare eyes. The picture below does not do justice to what I saw.

2017 eclipse in totality viewed from Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, TN.
2017 eclipse in totality viewed from Sequoyah Birthplace Museum, TN.

We all agreed that all the travel and effort to get here was worth it. We are already talking about the next full solar eclipse in April 2024.

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