In just about one year from now, on April 8, 2024, one of nature’s grandest spectacles—a total solar eclipse—will be visible from a slice of North America stretching from Mexico to eastern Canada. If you want to make the most of this dramatic event, you’ll need to plan ahead.
A total solar eclipse happens when the moon lies exactly between the sun and the Earth, casting its shadow on a small patch of the Earth’s surface. Those who make their way to the “path of totality” will see the moon gradually slide in front of the sun, reducing it to a thin crescent and then finally blotting the sun out altogether—for a few brief but spectacular minutes. During totality, the sun’s wispy outer atmosphere, known as the corona, becomes visible, while the landscape down below turns nearly as dark as night.
I saw my first eclipse 32 years ago. The path of totality crossed Hawaii and Mexico but missed the contiguous 48 states, so I flew to Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula to witness it. The eclipse played hide-and-seek with the clouds that day, but it was stunning nonetheless—and I was hooked. Since then, I’ve been privileged to have seen four more eclipses, including one that was visible from Easter Island in 2010—a truly memorable event.
On August 21, 2017, what some dubbed the “Great American Eclipse” crossed the United States, giving many Americans the chance to see their first solar eclipse—and now millions more are likely hooked. Meanwhile, countless people who missed out in 2017 heard from their friends just how awe-inspiring that event was, and have pledged not to miss out in 2024.
The 2017 eclipse was a cross-country affair, with a path of totality that stretched across the U.S. from the Pacific to the Atlantic. As exciting as that was, however, the 2024 eclipse will in some ways be even better. For starters, it will last almost two minutes longer. Along most of the eclipse path, people can experience more than four minutes of totality, compared to a maximum of around two and a half minutes back in 2017. More people are also likely to see it this time. In 2017, some 12 million people lived within the path of totality, while millions more traveled into the path for the event. This time, nearly 32 million people live within the path, which will run from southwest to northeast, encompassing cities like Dallas, Little Rock, Indianapolis, Cleveland and Buffalo—with San Antonio, Austin, Cincinnati and the Canadian city of Montreal lying just at the edge of the 120-mile-wide eclipse path. With many millions more living within a few hours’ drive, next April’s event may be one of the most watched celestial events in history.
To get the most out of witnessing the eclipse, follow these four steps I’ve gleaned from experience and from talking to the experts.
Where should I travel to watch the solar eclipse?
During an eclipse, with the Earth rotating and both the Earth and moon moving in their orbits, the moon’s shadow does not stay put; instead, it sweeps out that long, narrow path of totality. If you live outside the path, you’ll see a partial eclipse—but the difference between partial and total is literally the difference between night and day. That means your No. 1 objective for next April 8 is to get into the path of totality. Luckily, plenty of resources are available to help you: The Great American Eclipse website lists exact start and end times for the eclipse for cities along the path, and you can find detailed state-by-state maps of the eclipse path at the National Eclipse site. You can also find an interactive map of the entire eclipse path at Eclipse2024.org.
Don’t wait too long to book accommodations; many hotels and Airbnbs along the path are filling up, and, unfortunately, it appears price gouging is already happening—as it did in 2017. In a pinch, you can always rent a room outside the path, then drive into the path on the morning of the eclipse. Still, arriving a day early, if you can, is the way to go. “You don’t want to be that guy in the station wagon, with the kids in the back, stuck in traffic while the eclipse is happening,” says Gary Seronik, a consulting editor with Sky & Telescope magazine. And staying overnight after the eclipse is a good idea—the worst traffic always seems to be right after the end of totality. Eclipse day will be a Monday, so consider making a long weekend out of it. Adds Michael Zeiler, co-developer of the Great American Eclipse website: “Try to be reasonably self-sufficient. Bring your own food, bring your own water and keep the gas tank filled up. Maybe take a sleeping bag just in case.”
What weather should I try to avoid during the solar eclipse?
While 2017’s eclipse happened in late summer, the 2024 eclipse is a springtime affair— which means, unfortunately, a strong possibility of clouds. Roughly put, the weather prospects are best in Mexico and get progressively iffy as one heads along the path toward Canada. “In the U.S., your best bet is definitely Texas—as close as you can get to the Mexican border,” says Seronik. Central Texas is still pretty good, he says, with about a 50-50 chance of clear skies at that time of year. “Then the prospects just get progressively worse as you go northeast.”
But keep a positive outlook: Chasing an eclipse is a gamble, but it’s also an adventure. “I’m not going to worry about the weather,” says Trish Erzfeld, chair of the Missouri Eclipse Task Force. Whatever the sky conditions, the landscape will still darken dramatically during totality. Even if it’s overcast, the sights and sounds of a solar eclipse are fascinating, including all manner of odd animal behaviors. Says Erzfeld: “We’re encouraging people to listen to the cows, the horses, the birds, the crickets. Horses will head for the barn when the light starts dimming. Even if you’re clouded out, even if it rains, you’re still going to have a really unique experience.”
What equipment do I need to watch the solar eclipse?
If the weather’s clear, the drama will begin about an hour before totality as the moon takes a bigger and bigger “bite” out of the sun—but note, to observe the partial phases safely you must use glass or Mylar eclipse viewers from a reliable manufacturer. See the American Astronomical Society’s guide to learn which viewers can be trusted. With your eclipse viewers, you can enjoy the partial phases of the eclipse, which proceed at a leisurely pace—though I guarantee the last few minutes before totality will fly by. But also take a moment to look at the scene unfolding around you: A few minutes before totality, look for subtle changes in the landscape, as colors become muted and shadows sharpen. Eventually, the moon will cover the sun completely. Suddenly, it will be as dark as night—or at least a deep twilight. The planet Venus, along with a few other bright planets and stars, will become visible. And an amazing sight, visible only during a total eclipse, will grab your attention: The sun’s outer atmosphere, the corona, will come into view, appearing like a feathery ring of light surrounding what seems like a hole in the sky, where the sun used to be.
“Nothing can really prepare you for your first total solar eclipse,” says Zeiler. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen before. It’s the most beautiful sight you will ever see in the sky.”
During totality, you can put away the eclipse viewers and look at the eclipse directly; as long as the sun is completely covered by the moon, you’re OK. You can even use binoculars. Just remember: As soon as totality ends, put the binoculars away and grab those eclipse viewers again.
The best way to photograph the solar eclipse
The advice you’ll hear again and again from veteran eclipse chasers is to sit back, relax and live in the moment: Those few minutes of totality will pass quickly, and the last thing you want to be doing is fussing over your camera equipment. I regret how much time I spent fiddling with my various cameras in 2017; I thought I could do it all—take still photos and video using multiple cameras, while, I imagined, leaving time to soak it up visually. In the end, there was precious little time left to just look up.
But let’s face it: We live in a very photo-centric world, and you’ll certainly be tempted to capture the celestial spectacle for posterity—and likely for social media. Although smartphone cameras have their limitations, they can still serve you well during an eclipse, says Zeiler. “Your smartphone won’t give you great close-up views of the eclipse—but it will capture how the sky darkens, as well as people’s reactions,” he says. Zeiler suggests setting your smartphone camera to video mode and hitting the record button a couple of minutes before totality. Leave the phone resting on a chair or against a wall, aimed at you and your companions. To include both the ground and the eclipse at the same time, you may have to rotate your phone into portrait rather than landscape orientation, as the sun will be quite high in the sky. In the end, you may find that the audio track from your video is your best souvenir. For evidence that eclipse-watchers go wild during totality, check out my video from my first solar eclipse back in 1991.
If you do feel the urge to give your DSLR and telephoto lens a workout, I strongly recommend using a remote control or, even better, an intervalometer so you’re not constantly tending to the camera during those precious moments of totality. You’ll want a sturdy tripod, of course. And if your camera allows for it, try auto-bracketing as well, so with one push of the shutter button you get multiple images of varying exposure times—increasing the odds that one of them will be that winning shot. Of course, you’ll want to get to know your camera’s capabilities well ahead of time—you don’t want to spend totality reading the fine print in your manual. And be safe: never aim a telephoto lens at the sun except during the total phase of the eclipse. The concentrated sunlight could damage your camera’s sensor, and if you happen to look through the viewfinder, it could damage your eyes as well.
And remember, those stunning close-up photos of the totally eclipsed sun that you see in magazines were taken by professionals with more experience and more expensive gear than the average camera buff. “If it’s your first one, the main thing is to try not to do too much,” says Seronik. “I would say, keep it simple: Put the camera away and just experience it.”