Common Tread

Ride to darkness: Four motorcycle trips to the total eclipse

Jul 17, 2017

On Monday, August 21, something will happen across the United States, from coast to coast, that hasn’t happened in 26 years.

Naturally, I think that is a great opportunity to take a long weekend and go for a ride.

What am I talking about? A rare total eclipse of the sun that, weather permitting, will be spectacular. The total eclipse will begin in Oregon at sunrise, meaning the sun will rise while actually in eclipse, an even rarer sight to see. Then the shadow of the moon will race across the country to South Carolina.

Here's a great resource for tracking the exact time of the eclipse at locations across the United States. It also has tips about eye safety. You shouldn't look at the sun without special protective glasses except during the total eclipse.

What’s the big deal about two minutes of darkness during the day? Well, for one thing, it’s a relatively uncommon celestial event. You don’t get many chances to see a total eclipse without traveling long distances. I can tell you firsthand that it’s worth experiencing.

My 1991 photo of the total eclipse, taken without the benefit of any special camera equipment. You'll have to take my word for it that it was an experience I'm glad I didn't miss. Photo by Lance Oliver.
In 1991, I was in Costa Rica during a total eclipse. I went well out of my way to find a good viewing spot high in the mountains, where the odds of clear skies were as good as I could make them. It was an impressive experience. As midday went dark, the birds started twittering the way they do at nightfall. Despite knowing better, despite having planned the excursion for weeks, for a second I thought, “Damn, it’s going to be a hassle getting home from way out here in the dark.” Then I laughed at myself, because the dark was only going to last seconds, not an entire night.

Of course the only way to make a rare celestial event more interesting is to work in a good motorcycle ride on the way. I’m not saying these are the only good options, but here are four great sites to combine a good ride and a rare occurrence.

Rowena Curves
If you're riding to the Oregon coast to be the first in the United States to see the eclipse, find a reason to visit the Columbia River Gorge on the way. Photo by Lance Oliver.
Newport, Oregon

If you want to be the first to see the eclipse, this is where you need to be. And the Oregon coast always makes a good riding destination. If you’re coming from the south, the coast provides dramatic scenery. Coming from the east and north, the Columbia River Gorge is one of the most spectacular places I’ve ridden. Just be sure to get there in time for the dawn — and pray for no fog or rain.

Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming

Maybe the most spectacular natural setting for this most impressive solar event is Grand Teton National Park. The southern tip of the park, which is itself just south of Yellowstone National Park, will be in the very center of the eclipse’s path. These parks can get crowded in the summer, and it will probably be worse during the eclipse, but once you get away from the small towns and the prime attractions in the parks, you can usually escape traffic. Come in from the north and you can cross off that popular motorcycle-road bucket-list entry, Beartooth Pass.

Western Kentucky
Eastern Kentucky provides more mountainous roads, but western Kentucky still offers lots of back road riding to get to a viewing spot for the eclipse. Photo by Lance Oliver.
Land Between the Lakes, Kentucky

Western Kentucky doesn’t have the steep and tangled Appalachian roads of the eastern part of the state, but it’s still far from flat and boring. The Land Between the Lakes is a natural area that draws boaters and fishermen, but it can provide a relaxing motorcycle cruise, too. Get in the right spot and you’ll have 2:40 of total eclipse.

Great Smoky Mountain National Park, North Carolina

The possibilities are endless. The infamous Tail of the Dragon will be squarely in the path of the eclipse (you probably don’t want to ride it during the 2:27 it will be in total eclipse). Maybe venture up toward Clingmans Dome, the second-highest point east of the Mississippi River, and known for its high, clear views. Work in a visit to the Wheels through Time Museum in nearby Maggie Valley.

Wheels Through Time Museum
The Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, is at the end of the area that will see a total eclipse. Photo by Panhead Jim.

For me, my most memorable motorcycle trips have been ones that included not just a good ride, but also an end goal, a reason to go on top of the experience of the ride itself. This sounds like a good one. Start planning now, is my advice.