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Backpacker Magazine – October 2011

A Piece of Quiet

America’s leading advocate of wilderness silence shows the way to Mt. Rainier National Park’s quietest corner. Plus: 9 more campsites with life-list listening.

by: Molly Loomis

Great Sand Dunes National Park (Grant Ordelheide)
Great Sand Dunes National Park (Grant Ordelheide)
Gordon Hempton in Olympic National Park (Isaac Hernandez)
Gordon Hempton in Olympic National Park (Isaac Hernandez)
Palisades Lakes Trail, Rainier National Park (Alan Bauer)
Palisades Lakes Trail, Rainier National Park (Alan Bauer)
Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Memorial Forest (Steven Mcbride)
Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Memorial Forest (Steven Mcbride)
City of Rock National Reserve (Matt Leidecker)
City of Rock National Reserve (Matt Leidecker)

Hempton stops at a creek just off the Palisades Lakes Trail, and explains how the highest sound frequencies are the first to fade, while the lower ones carry farther. Sure enough, the stream’s tone brightens as we approach, tinkling high sounds joining the initial baritone rumble. He points to rocks lodged in the water’s path, refers to them as notes, and explains how the stream will “tune” itself, or change pitch as rocks move. I nod, pretending to understand, but I’m lost somewhere between the real and the real esoteric. Clearly, I’m not the first to straddle this fine line. He reaches into his bag to fish out his equipment.

“I use these microphones to demonstrate what is possible to hear,” he says. “It’s a dichotomy of the modern world. We’re biologically prepared to listen, but we’re not hearing anything meaningful because there’s so much din in our lives.” I put on the headphones, and it’s like I’m hearing the woods for the first time. The forest swells with a symphony of subtleties like the flap and buzz of birds and insects.

My ears feel newly calibrated as we hike-listen-hike our way to Dicks Lake. We pause so often that it takes us four hours to cover the three miles to our basecamp, even though Hempton, 57, has the stamina and physique of someone half his age. He has backpacked much of his life, tackling long, challenging routes, but his discovery of sound changed all that.

“As soon as the microphone went on, I was like a five year old, ‘Why must we go so soon? Everything is so fascinating right here,’” he says.

After dinner beside the small tree-lined lake, I scurry to my tent, dodging raindrops. Lying in my sleeping bag, I recall one of Hempton’s favorite facts—that humans have eyelids, not ear lids. I listen intently to rain pattering on my tent fly—interrupted by Hempton’s snoring, the loudest sound he’s made all day.

A clear morning at dawn is typically when natural sounds travel best—the air is cool and less humid, and the world hasn’t woken up yet. This is when Hempton determines whether or not a place is quiet. How does he define it? Fifteen-minute periods without any intrusions of man-made noise. In 1984, Hempton identified 21 places in Washington with consistent noise-free intervals of 15 minutes or longer. By 2007, just three of those places were still quiet. Today, Hempton says, the average noise-free interval in wilderness areas and national parks has shriveled to less than five minutes during the daytime.

“We should ask ourselves not how much noise we’ll tolerate in our national parks, but does that noise have to be there at all? Does somebody flying from China to Los Angeles have to fly over Olympic National Park? No, they definitely do not,” says Hempton, who has calculated a detour that he claims would add less than one minute to the flight time and one dollar to the ticket price. “If you could go to and see that an airline is going to help keep our parks quiet, how could you not choose that airline?” he asks, as a mid-morning drizzle adds percussion to our soundtrack.

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Reader Rating: -


Nov 02, 2012

Guadalupe Mountains (going in the back side, NOT Pine Spring campground where there are actually boom boxes in play!) in west Texas is full of solitude, but there's a jet overhead about every 30 minutes. Very discouraging. You can get away from humans, but not their noise.

Nov 01, 2012

Want silence go to Craters of the Moon and overnight(s) a few miles into the Monument quiet and the Milky Way.

Jason W.
Oct 24, 2011

City of Rocks is a wonderful place to climb, hike & camp. But I wouldn't call it quiet- especially on weekends. Good luck trying to find a campsite, be sure and use the reservation system.

Oct 23, 2011

Just did the Escalante Route in the Grand Canyon. In the morning about every 45 minutes, 3 or 4 choppers cross the canyon hugging the no-fly zone. Didn't ruin an awesome hike, but I will admit I was annoyed. Did the trail on a Saturday, so maybe weekdays are less noisy.

Oct 23, 2011

Surprised that the Eastern Sierras didn't make this list. Once you get in past the foothills, it is almost completely free of humans, and the lower mountains (8,000-11,000 feet) block any noise from Highway 395. Once every hour or so, I notice a jet flying at 35,000 feet overhead, but never hear a peep from them.

Of course around Mt Whitney and Mammoth Mountain, this doesn't apply...

Oct 21, 2011

Great information about flight rules in Grand Canyon. I am glad you clarified this I have hiked in and crossed the canyon many times and I only saw one helicopter in all of those trips. So I was wondering if the author was referring to some other Grand Canyon.

Oct 20, 2011

Thank You Jonathan,

Very useful information.

Steve C.
Oct 20, 2011

This reminds me of the words of an old favorite song. Ken Burns used the music in his documentary on the National Parks. There is a line that goes, "This is my Father's world and to my listening ears all nature sings, around me rings the music of the spheres.

Linda Carter
Oct 20, 2011

Don't forget Haleakala National Park on Maui. Total silence, no wind, no trees rustling, no water running, complete silence all the time. Amazing place.

Oct 20, 2011

Having lived for a year and a half in the Grand Canyon working for one of the concessionaires, I'd like to clarify that 'tourist flyovers' over the Grand Canyon are prohibited over National Park lands. Tour flights and copters have to follow a path around the touristy sections of the Canyon (basically Desert View to the North Rim to a little past Hermits Rest) and they have to stay at a certain level above the Canyon. Tours typically fly over Hualapai land. NPS copters will fly into the Canyon at designated times for supplies to Phantom Ranch, not including search and rescues or medevacs. The spanse of the Canyon that stretches between Hermits to Desert View have many backcountry sites available for only $10/night/person that have NO visitors. And for a true spiritual experience, try out the Navajo lands not controlled by the NPS, available at You'd be giving to a nation that desperately needs your funding.


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