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Trip to the solar eclipse? Heed these lessons from 2017

Are you taking a family solar eclipse trip on Monday? We made a solar eclipse trip to Oregon in 2017. Our kids were 13, 10 and 8. It was a wonderful family experience, one we’ll always remember.

I wish we were able to take a family roadtrip to the path of totality for the 2024 solar eclipse, but we utterly failed to plan one. Our two kids who still live at home are even on spring break! So I’m kind of kicking myself for my lack of planning. To cheer myself up, I’m thinking back to our epic 2017 solar eclipse trip and sharing what we learned from traveling to the path of totality.

What did we learn from our 2017 solar eclipse trip?

2017 total eclipse of the sun

The biggest lesson I would share with you is that taking a family trip to see a total solar eclipse is 100% worthwhile! We had many reasons to consider skipping the 2017 eclipse. We didn’t plan early enough, so it was hard to find affordable lodging. Our kids first day of school for the year was scheduled on the same day as the eclipse. That meant our kids would miss at least the first day of school and they were not happy about it. And of course, all the warnings about horrible traffic gave us pause.

But none of those issues made it a bad idea to go see the eclipse with our kids. On the contrary, we’re all really happy we made that eclipse trip.

Lesson 1: Don’t get price gouged on solar eclipse lodging

As I’m writing this, the 2024 eclipse is only three days away on April 8. If you are just now planning a trip to the path of totality, this is bad news. Most lodging is booked up. Hotels, campgrounds, even parking lots are hiking up their prices. Even a Super 8 hotel room could cost you nearly $1k.

Try to find somewhere to watch the total eclipse that isn’t hiking up their prices to ridiculous levels. Reasonable people do exist out there. I know because I found a reasonable business in 2017 who didn’t want to price gouge guests for the eclipse.

eclipse donut
Eclipsicle from Portland’s Voodoo Donuts.

In 2017, I faced this same dilemma. I was trying to find a campsite for our family of 5 in Oregon along the path of totality, and I started too late. But three weeks before the eclipse, I found the Sweetbrier Train and RV Park, owned by Dustin and Keri Anderson. While the Andersons (wisely and generously) offered smaller than usual campsites in order to allow more people to view the eclipse, they charged their regular camping rates. To show our appreciation, we bought everything that RV park sold. We enjoyed snow cones, churros, coffee, cotton candy. We still wear our matching Solar Eclipse 2017 T shirts ($15-$17).

At this point, it’s quite late, but I would look for your Sweetbrier out there in the path of totality. HipCamp has a searchable map for campsites in the path of totality. Try county campgrounds and first-come, first-serve public campgrouns. Of course, if you’re going to a FCFS place, show up like, now.

Lesson 2: Prepare for the total solar eclipse like a natural disaster

eclipse glasses
Don’t wait til the day of the total eclipse to buy those eclipse glasses.

During our stay at Sweetbrier Train Park during the 2017 eclipse, the family sold out of most things: food, eclipse glasses, etc. They did a great job preparing, but it was just a lot of hungry people. Expect that local vendors may be overwhelmed, especially in rural areas. Bring extra water, extra food, and definitely bring your eclipse glasses with you. Bring toilet paper. Make a plan for how to deal with your family’s waste if PortaPotties are unavailable. Fill up your gas tank early and often.

Lesson 3: Plan to spend the night after the solar eclipse in place

Trying to drive home immediately after the eclipse was our family’s major mistake. And I didn’t plan it that way!

Back in 2017, I booked two nights at Sweetbrier Train Park: the night before the eclipse and the night after the eclipse. I knew that traffic from the path of totality in Oregon back to California was going to be insane. My plan was to pack up very early the morning after the eclipse and drive home then.

However, my husband and kids had different ideas. The kids were already missing the first day of school, and they didn’t want to miss the second day. Shortly after the eclipse wrapped up, I returned to our site to find my husband and kids taking down the tent and loading the car. I reminded them of our original plan, but my husband had made up his mind: We were driving home now.

I didn’t even argue much. I knew it was going to be a shitshow. I just reminded him of the plan I had made and why, and told him that what happened from there was on him. He later admitted that he had been very, very wrong to change the plan at the last minute.

driver in a traffic jam
Erik is already starting to regret his decision about an hour into the drive home.

Within 10 minutes of leaving our rural park, we were sitting in gridlock. After a few miles, the highway became the main street of a tiny town, and residents stood outside, staring at the traffic. I jumped out of the car there to get us some coffees, and by the time I had waited a good long time for coffee, Erik had only progressed a couple blocks to the end of town.

The drive from the RV park near Salem, Oregon, to our home in Alameda, California, should have taken about 9 hours. Our journey took about 15 hours, including a dinner stop. We left around noon, and by dinner time, we had only traveled 70 miles!

family in restaurant
We stopped for dinner with 525 miles of our journey still ahead of us.

We arrived home at about 3 a.m. I remember that driving through the Sacramento area — still in traffic! — at around midnight was excrutiating. We were so tired by then, and yet with the traffic we had 3 more hours to drive.

Our kids went to bed as soon as we walked in the door, and they really did get up four hours later and head to school. I had to hand it to them!

Lesson 3: Make sure to take a photo of your family viewing the total eclipse

family watching total eclipse
We never regretted traveling to see the 2017 eclipse despite the 13-hour drive home.

Take plenty of time to view the eclipse itself. You’ll have four minutes this time! But it’s hard to capture a good photo image of the phenomenon with an ordinary camera or phone. Instead, make sure to flip the camera and take at least one good family selfie. That will capture the memory of this moment you had together.

Lesson 4: Don’t skip the eclipse!

Despite the traffic, the kids missing school, the difficulty of finding a place to stay and everything else, I would take my family to the total eclipse of the sun again in a heartbeat. In fact, writing this, I wish I was taking them again!

The feeling of community we got, sitting in a field with hundreds of strangers, as the sky darkened and the birds began singing. Seeing the crescent shape on the ground as sun shone through the leafy trees. Sitting together as a family, feeling the wonder of a phenomenon we’d never experienced. Seeing the day seem to end, the stars come out, and dawn happen, all on fast forward. It was all so cool and so special. Looking back, it’s like a snapshot of a happy time for our family, a time when they were still young enough that we did most things together. A time before we’d ever heard of a coronavirus. Looking back, I think of the sun as a camera lens, the moon sliding in to close the aperture as it took a portrait of five of us, in matching tshirts, paper glasses on our faces, smiling at the sky.