In 2017, Katie Raney packed up her car and drove some nine hundred miles from her home in Lockhart to Loup City, Nebraska, to see a total solar eclipse. Like thousands of Americans, she journeyed into the path of totality not knowing exactly what to expect. “I drove all the way out there by myself because I had never seen a total eclipse before,” she remembers. After watching the moon erase the midday sun from the August sky, there was no doubt in Raney’s mind that she’d made the right decision. “It was totally worth it,” she says.
Now she’s eagerly anticipating the next total eclipse, which will shroud a swath of Texas in darkness on April 8, 2024. While many Texans were lucky enough to witness the crescent-shaped shadows scattered under the eerie glare of the annular eclipse on October 14, that experience wasn’t even in the same ballpark, says Raney. The difference, if you’ll excuse the pun, is night and day. “I can’t even describe to you how different a total eclipse is from any partial you’ve seen,” she says. “It’s like the difference between seeing a picture of a hamburger and eating a hamburger.”
Fortunately for Raney, a field interpretation coordinator for Texas State Parks, she won’t have to drive far to enter the path of the April eclipse, which will cut a 115-mile-wide band across the state, from Del Rio to Texarkana. Anyone positioned at the center of that band will see the moon blot out the sun for around four and a half minutes. Whether you’re standing beneath towering East Texas pines, floating in a North Texas lake, or hiking down a Hill Country ridge, you’re likely to feel the temperature drop suddenly. Planets or bright stars may become visible in the darkened sky. Plants and animals, confusing the eclipse for sunset, will exhibit unusual behavior. Songbirds may stop singing, crickets may start chirping, and flowers may begin to close.
Raney and her colleagues at the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department will host events at parks across the state to help visitors understand and enjoy the celestial phenomenon. Watching the eclipse at a park is an enticing twofer: watch the spectacle while surrounded by natural beauty—and pay a reasonable price to camp or stay in a cabin. Many hotels and short-term rentals anywhere near the path of totality have long been booked, and those still available are going for eye-popping prices. “State parks can often be an affordable place to stay,” Raney says. “We don’t raise our rates for natural phenomena like the rest of the tourism world.”
Space will be limited in parks, but there’s still time to nab a spot. If you want to camp in one of the 31 state parks from which the total solar eclipse will be visible—stretching from Kickapoo Cavern in the southwest to Atlanta State Park in the northeast—you can reserve your spot online or by phone five months ahead of time. For those planning to beat the throngs of day trippers and reserve a campsite or cabin for the night of April 7, that means November 7 is the date to book. If you can only make it for the day, you’ll still be able to reserve day passes in March, one month before the totality. Most of these reservations can be made online, but if you want a shot at accessing Enchanted Rock State Natural Area, you’ll have to make your reservation by phone on November 7, at 8 a.m. (There are a number of park-specific limitations and caveats to the reservation rules, so if you have any questions, visit TPWD’s website, or call their reservation line at 512-389-8900, and they’ll gladly walk you through it.)
Though many will be inclined to arrive just in time for the eclipse, then pack up and leave shortly after the spectacle has passed, Raney recommends a more leisurely approach. “We’re encouraging folks to come early and stay late,” she says. Doing so will help you not only avoid traffic jams, but also make the most of your visit. April is among the best months of the year to visit a state park in Texas. Wildflowers will be abundant, weather will be relatively mild, and you’ll have access to some of the best hiking, biking, swimming, and relaxing that the state has to offer.
When it comes to picking the right park, Raney suggests considering how you want to experience the eclipse. “Some people want to go up high, so for example, going to the top of Enchanted Rock, or to Old Baldy at Garner State Park, you get that sunset feel where it’s literally around the whole horizon.” Others will want to be on the water, so paddling out onto Lake Whitney, or Lake Tawakoni, or wading through the South Llano River will be a good option. For those looking to be around other people, which Raney says can be a “really interesting, collective experience,” she recommends some of the parks with higher capacity, such as Cedar Hill State Park, outside Dallas. And for those who want exactly the opposite—to get away from other people—Raney suggests somewhere more remote with limited capacity like Kickapoo Cavern or Lost Maples. If you are planning to stick around the park for a day or two, consider how you want to spend the rest of your time. Climbers will be drawn to the pink granite at Enchanted Rock, while hikers will want to explore the miles and miles of trails at Hill Country State Natural Area or Dinosaur Valley State Park.
Raney says you really can’t go wrong wherever you choose to watch the eclipse. Most parks will have a designated viewing area equipped with solar telescopes, as well as planned activities, such as craft projects for kids. But keep in mind that the closer you are to the center line of the eclipse’s path, the longer you’ll get to experience it. At McKinney Falls, which sits right on the edge of the narrow band, visitors will be able to witness a brief total eclipse at the lower falls, but only a partial eclipse at the upper falls.
If you’re planning on looking directly at the eclipse, be sure to pack protective eyewear (a limited supply of eclipse glasses will be for sale at select parks). And be prepared for traffic. In addition to throngs of Texans, there will be thousands of out-of-state visitors hoping to catch a glimpse of the otherworldly phenomenon. Fill up on gas before traveling into a more remote region in the path of totality, and bring plenty of food and water.
Wherever you wind up, be sure to take a second to appreciate the scale of what you’re seeing. “A total eclipse is something that everybody should see once in their life, and this is our only opportunity to see one in Texas in a state park for the next twenty-some-odd years,” Raney says. Hopefully, by the next total eclipse in 2044, current efforts to expand the park system will have materialized, and we’ll have even more parkland from which to enjoy the remarkable phenomenon. For now, Raney recommends doing whatever you can to catch a glimpse of the totality. “It’s really unlike anything else you’ll see.”