In the middle of the day, the sky will suddenly plunge into darkness. Though it may sound apocalyptic, this event is simply astronomy in action. On April 8, 2024, Earth will experience a total solar eclipse. This phenomenon happens when the moon passes between the sun and Earth, completely blocking the face of the sun. Arkansas and Missouri are situated in the path of totality, premier viewing locations for this spectacular solar sight.

River of Life Farm dark sky
River of Life Farm

Next year’s total solar eclipse mirrors the timeline and path of the 2017 solar eclipse. Trish Erzfeld, director of Perry County Heritage Tourism in Missouri, remembers that moment. “We were in the path but didn’t quite know how to maximize it,” she says. “Now that we have that experience under our belt, we have a game plan and want to make sure that others do, too.

“Preparing for the great influx of solar eclipse enthusiasts can be a real win-win for the community,” she says. “We’ve been thoughtful about creating a destination for tour groups to come witness this extraordinary event while also showcasing museums and cultural sites as activities to engage visitors.”

Arkansas and its residents are excited to be part of the 2024 Great North American Eclipse, says Kim Williams, project manager for the 2024 eclipse for Arkansas Tourism. “This will be the first in The Natural State since 1918, with the next one expected in 2045,” Williams says. “So, we’re planning great events and activities. Nearly two-thirds of the state is within the path of totality, but the entire state will be hosting activities. It will be an amazing time to visit Arkansas.”

Understanding the Umbra

The moon’s umbra, or shadow, is responsible for what viewers will experience. Tour providers can curate a unique offering for travelers by zeroing in on scientific sites and events to provide travelers with insight about what they are witnessing.

In Missouri, a four-day Solar Fest is in the works in Perry County. The itinerary includes mobile planetariums and a 5K glow run. “Solar Fest Day will feature science-based exhibitors in our community who will help visitors make connections,” Erzfeld says. A twilight parade, spaces for stargazing, and a food carnival will ensure that visitors are entertained while they learn about the marvel they will behold.

Arkansas dark sky
Arkansas dark sky
Credit: Arkansas Tourism

“Arkansas is a ‘natural’ for year-round stargazing,” Williams says. “Many of the Arkansas state parks offer special events centered on the heavens. Our lakes and rivers are a wonderful and peaceful place to gaze at the constellations. Groups and astronomical societies around the state offer events throughout the year, taking advantage of Arkansas’ beautiful night skies.”

The Dr. Edmond E. Griffin Planetarium, located on the University of Central Arkansas campus, is a domed theater where the sky is the limit when it comes to innovative programs about outer space. The simulated sky creates a 3D virtual reality environment. Visitors can fly to stars and planets in the Milky Way and galaxies beyond. The planetarium, located on the campus in Conway, Arkansas, plays host to an informative lecture series.

Accommodating groups for shows, stargazing events, and scientific discovery, the Reynolds Science Center Planetarium at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia is another terrific venue. A state-of-the-art projector casts stars, planets, and galaxies overhead. Stunning visual effects and surround sound transport viewers across the confines of time and space, from a light-speed trip to view the mysterious black holes to the ancient stars of the Egyptian Pharaohs.

“The biggest decision is where you want to be during the celestial show,” Williams adds. “Whether you want to enjoy the event with a big crowd, alone in the outdoors, or on one of Arkansas’ great lakes, rivers, or streams, it’s all in ‘The Natural State,’ our nickname.”

Come for the Eclipse, Stay for the Experiences

As the eclipse will occur in less than five minutes, tour operators must balance those moments with a menu of other experiences. “For tour groups wanting to do a hub-and-spoke tour, St. Louis is a great origination point,” says Katie Blake, public relations specialist at the Missouri Division of Tourism.

“From there, they can reach the line of totality in just under two hours or place themselves elsewhere in the path of totality in as little as one hour.” Groups can create a robust itinerary that takes in inspiring Missouri attractions such as the National Stars and Stripes Museum and Library, the National Shrine of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal, or the Lutheran Heritage Center & Museum.

“For active groups, this area is great for exploration,” Blake says.“Between [exploring] the Ozark National Scenic Riverways, hiking in the many state parks, or wildlife watching at Mingo National Wildlife Refuge near Puxico, there are plenty of outdoor activities to keep groups entertained.”

Situated about 100 miles from St. Louis and 150 miles from Memphis, Tennessee, Cape Girardeau, Missouri, makes an ideal stop for multicity itineraries. The mighty Mississippi River runs through the city and boasts a vibrant riverfront of sights, sounds, and tastes. “Visitors can appreciate the total eclipse from the Mississippi riverfront,” suggests Brenda Newbern, executive director of the Cape Girardeau Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Nothing is going to stop the view of the sky, and viewers have the potential of the reflection in the river.”

With amenities like hotels and boutiques as well as a global food scene, Cape Girardeau offers plenty of attractions to engage visitors beyond gazing at the eclipse. The area is packed with history as well. In 1861, Union troops constructed a ring of forts around Cape Girardeau. With its earthwork walls, Fort D remains intact and welcomes visitors to learn more about infantry, artillery, engineering, medicine, and recreation during the Civil War.

“We can help with everything from step-on guides and group experiences like pottery and forging to art galleries and historic sites,” Newbern says. “We can make this a one-stop shop.”

Marketing tour experiences that envelop the eclipse event will be key to attracting groups. “Nobody in group travel loves anything better than a plan,” Erzfeld says. “And sites can capitalize on eclipse enthusiasm by promoting their amenities and experiences as a part of those itineraries.” Doing so will inspire visitors to not just look up at the sky but also to discover regional attractions.

Article by Michael McLaughlin

Main Image: Credit: Jongsun Lee/Unsplash