If you ever have the chance to see a solar eclipse in totality in your lifetime, you must not miss the opportunity. There is nothing like witnessing an uncontrollable yet harmless force of nature silently disrupting and changing everything around you for a few fleeting moments before it pops right back to normal as if nothing ever happened. Don’t do it for the Instagram picture because you won’t get anything better than what I have right up there unless you’re a NatGeo photographer. Do it because nature is weird as hell.
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Thursday morning around 4 am we pulled up to Tower Rock Campground in Shawnee National Forest in hopes of snagging a campsite on the Ohio River, right in the path of totality for the Great American Eclipse. Note: putting this much effort into something called The Great American Eclipse is the most patriotic thing I’ve done all year that doesn’t involve donating to a resistance organization.
Tower Rock Campground is in the southeast area of Shawnee National Forest, with a minimum 25-minute drive to the popular areas such as Garden of the Gods and Bell Smith Springs. We called DNR a few days before showing up to find out what to expect as far as camping goes for this event, and they suggested Tower Rock as the place to check out first due to its seclusion (translation: It’s located in Hardin County and everybody is afraid of Hardin County so you’re probably going to have less of a crowd). There are no reservable campsites in the forest, it is all first come first serve. Tower Rock also happens to be free.
We landed the perfect spot in the back corner with more than enough space for our three hammocks, one large tarp (rather than our individual rain flies) and a 4-person tent we used for changing and to store extra gear at night. We also had a ~50 foot trail to a small beachfront which is where we watched the eclipse.
The unsuspectingly silty shoreline feels amazing as long as you’re cool with your feet sinking 12 inches into mud and sand that looks like poop. I was considering a full-body mud mask because I did that in Costa Rica and it was quite luxurious for the $0 price tag, but there’s something less appealing about covering your body in mud from the Ohio River as opposed to the beaches of Montezuma. Perhaps the bigger bonus here was the abundance of driftwood. A few logs and a piece of Fatwood were all we needed to start a fire.
There’s a 1/4 mile uphill trail to the actual Tower Rock, which is a nice morning hike that will leave you drenched before you know it. I am not designed for southern heat.
Since there’s no reservable camping in Shawnee and we had no idea what to expect, we packed for backwoods primitive camping in case everything was full. Once it was confirmed we’d be able to car camp and have a fantastic view, we headed to the nearest town for some fresher foods and ice.
Not an easy task in Hardin County.
Choosing Shawnee National Forest for eclipse camping was a bit of a stab in the dark on our end, but it turned out to be an excellent choice. We only explored a small portion on the eastern side of the 160-mile forest, so hopefully we’ll get back there next year to see Little Grand Canyon and other cool spots.
About 25 minutes away from Tower Rock is Bell Smith Springs, which is exactly where you want to be if you’re in Southern Illinois in August and find it difficult existing in weather that feels like a 95-degree mouth. Bell Smith Springs has about 3 miles of wooded hiking trails that lead to some nice swimming holes. There are two popular spots with deep enough water for mini cliff diving.
Lake Glendale is another nice spot if you want a chill beach day. The beach is well-maintained and worth the $5 fee.
Lake Glendale is also the new owner of my husband’s second wedding ring (the first one was donated to Wixom Lake in Michigan).
Garden of the Gods is the most popular tourist spot in the eastern part of Shawnee National Forest.
This is where everyone wanted to be for the eclipse, which immediately made me wonder how many eclipse casualties there would be across the country. You can add “every cliff” to the list of places I don’t want to be during an event that draws large crowds of people.
As always, most of the energy I spent thinking about this 5-day trip was on logistical details like how soon in advance we should arrive, preparing for backpacking in case it was crowded and we had to backwoods camp, praying to the period gods that my period wouldn’t show up early (spoiler alert: it showed up right after we did), and all the other things that circle my brain drain until we’re finally in the car.
It wasn’t until we arrived and found a spot that my thinking went from Project Manager mode to “There will be an eclipse. We are in the path of totality. This is a very rare thing for many humans to see. This is nucking futs!”
Like a dog discovering the joy of swimming.
Or the joy of a family member showing up with French toast, sausage, and real coffee.
I brought my DSLR and solar filter with me as if I would suddenly know how to photograph an eclipse, but quickly scrapped the idea of trying to get a perfect shot in exchange for some quick cell phone snaps through my eclipse glasses. As much as I love photography, I didn’t want to spend more time thinking about photos than taking in the experience.
Regardless, there are no words or images that can truly capture what it’s like seeing a full solar eclipse. The first glimpse of the moon over the sun was 1-2 hours before totality. We set up the hammock on the beach along with the company of a few other campers, checking the moon’s “progress” through our glasses every few minutes.
The environmental changes became noticeable about 10 or so minutes before totality. My first observation was the filtered haze of the sunny horizon, which slowly darkened into the colors of a sunset despite the sun being right above us in the sky. As the horizon darkened and the air chilled, the eerie silence we all fell into was filled with the sounds of cicadas and birds chirping. I bet they were confused as fuck. My husband and I started laughing with excitement as we took in the changes around us and totality inched closer through our glasses. People on the beach, people on Tower Rock, and people in boats were howling and cheering as the moon finally inched its way to the center. It was the middle of the day and yet in seconds it turned to night for 2 and a half minutes, and every single person in our vicinity was enamored with something the earth does pretty regularly. Nature is so weird. I love it.
The second the sun started to peek back out and create the “diamond ring” effect it was daylight again and business as usual for nature. So weird.
I am grateful for all the hospitality we received from the locals, who were preparing for a natural disaster as hundreds of thousands of people descended on these tiny towns for a two-minute moon show.
I am grateful for this house that stuck out in a sea of confederate flags and a winery with a sign that said “unleashed dogs will be fed to the Chinese family down the street.”
Where did you travel for the eclipse?