The time is fast approaching to decide on your strategy for watching the August 21 solar eclipse.
If you live or work within the path of totality, then it makes perfect sense to stay put. You don't have to fight any crowds, worry about getting stuck in traffic, or wait in line at a porta-pottie because nature always calls at the worst possible time.
Still, you may want to head north or east where the eclipse will last longer. Or find a place where the scenery is more dramatic so you can capture that elusive photo of the moon's shadow sweeping across the horizon.
This map from NASA shows the northwest-to-southeast path of the solar eclipse. The middle circle shows the area that will be in the moon's shadow at 1:21 PM.
If you do want to venture out for the eclipse, I've compiled a selection of potential destinations. Some of these are likely to be absolutely mobbed by large crowds. Other places are off the beaten path and will, hopefully, offer the chance to view the eclipse away from the thundering herds. I can't make any guarantees, though.
Note: The eclipse duration times given below are based on the interactive map published by Xavier M. Jubier. His calculations reveal the exact amount of time that the moon will fully cover the sun, correcting for irregularities in the moon's surface (mountains, craters, and such).
Those places with the longest durations will be the most enticing, as every second is precious. On the other hand, the view from the edge of the path of totality can be striking as well.
Maximum Duration: Panther Den
The point with the maximum duration is just off Panther Den Road in Union County, Illinois (coordinates are 37.56786, -89.10279). The exact spot is a private field, but is very close to a pair of wineries (Blue Sky and Orlandini). In this vicinity, the moon will blot out the sun for 2 minutes and 41.6 seconds.
Nearby is the Panther Den, a fantastic assemblage of rock formations. Although the Den doesn't have a very clear view of the sky, it would be fun to watch the moon's shadow fall across the rock formations -- which are dark and spooky enough already without the sun suddenly disappearing.
Crossroads Point: Cedar Lake
We're in line for another total solar eclipse in 2024. The paths of both the 2017 and 2024 eclipses converge on Southeast Missouri and Southern Illinois, an example of very good fortune indeed.
The exact "crossroads" point is along S. Poplar Camp Road in Makanda, Illinois (according to Wikimapia the coordinates are 37.642222, -89.268333). This is the spot where the lines of greatest duration intersect.
Although this particular spot is private property, the Shawnee National Forest has acreage only a short distance away around Cedar Lake. Parking areas and trailheads are available at the end of Cove Hollow Road and Boat Dock Road on the west side of the lake, or from Rowan Road on the east side near Makanda.
Dutchman Lake north of Vienna, Illinois, sits along the centerline and will experience just over 2 minutes and 41 seconds of darkness. Open to the public as part of the Shawnee National Forest, the lake's levee and shorelines offer clear views of the sky.
Blue Spring Branch Conservation Area
Blue Spring Branch Conservation Area was established last year in Perry County, Missouri. One tract features an old farmstead with a barn and open fields adjacent to Ball Mill Resurgence. The second "Riney" tract includes a windswept hilltop with distant views toward the Mississippi River floodplain. Both areas offer clear views of the sky with an eclipse duration of around 2 minutes and 40 seconds.
Maintz Wildlife Preserve
This conservation area near Daisy in Cape Girardeau County, Missouri, is popular for sunflower fields. The sunflowers probably won't look like much come late August, but this area provides easy access to photogenic small lakes and open fields. The duration will be just over 2 minutes in this area.
The path of the total eclipse misses many of the best scenic landmarks in the Missouri Ozarks. Taum Sauk Mountain, Johnsons Shut-ins, and Black Mountain, for example, are outside of the zone.
Hughes Mountain in Washington County, however, is poised to experience 1 minute and 53 seconds of darkness. This promontory features columnar-jointed rock that is 1.4 billion years old. More importantly, the summit boasts a panoramic view in almost all directions. It is a strenuous hike to the top -- especially during the dog days of August -- but that might offer the advantage of keeping large crowds away.
Elephant Rocks State Park in Iron County, Missouri, is just barely within the zone of totality. The view from "Dumbo", the most prominent of the elephants, will only allow for 28 seconds of total darkess. But the Elephant Rocks do overlook mountains to the south that will remain outside of totality, which might offer a dramatic photo opportunity -- if you have the skill, timing, and weather to pull it off.
The axis of greatest eclipse slices right through Kaskaskia Island, that weird appendage of Illinois that sits on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River. Most of the island will experience at least 2 minutes and 40 seconds of darkness. Since the island is predominately private farmland, the tricky part will be finding a safe place to stop and view the eclipse.
The town of Grand Tower, Illinois, offers some intriguing possibilities. At the riverfront boat ramp, 2 minutes and 40 seconds of darkness will fall across the river and Tower Rock.
South of town, the levee road crosses into Grand Tower Island, a piece of Missouri that's on the wrong side of the river in a similar fashion as Kaskaskia. With a good map and GPS, you could pinpoint one of the two places where the levee road crosses the Missouri state line -- and then you'd be able to watch the eclipse from two states at the same time.
North of Grand Tower, the overlook on top of Fountain Bluff along Happy Hollow Road offers a fantastic view of the river's sharp bend around Cape Cinque Hommes (if you can find a clear spot that isn't overgrown in the summer). However, it won't be easy to reach: Happy Hollow Road is currently closed due to a landslide and may not reopen in time. An advisory on the Shawnee National Forest website does advise that foot travel is welcome as long as you can park without blocking traffic to private residences.
The courthouse and boat ramp at Thebes, Illinois, both offer clear views of the sky with the river as a scenic backdrop. But the duration here is shorter than at other towns upriver: 1 minute and 25 seconds.
Garden of the Gods
Garden of the Gods is already one of the most popular destinations in Southern Illinois, and I hesitate to think of the colossal crowd that is likely to descend on this recreation area. Capturing the eclipse and Camel Rock at the same time could be challenging, but no doubt many tripod-toters will be there to try (weather permitting). The Observation Trail will see 2 minutes and 11 seconds of totality.