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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)

SEEKING SILENCE
9 more hikes where natural sounds rule


(North Carolina)
Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Memorial Forest
Trek into the white noise capital of the East.

 
If the sounds of babbling water and wind through the leaves soothe a frazzled mind, then the 13.3-mile Slickrock Trail might just be the country’s most relaxing hike. You’ll cross Slickrock Creek 12 times in the first six miles and pass three named waterfalls on your way to a breezy campsite at Naked Ground Gap, a tree-covered pass at 4,000 feet. From the Slickrock Creek trailhead at 1,060 feet, wind along the creek, heading upstream along a gentle grade. Seven miles in, listen to the crash of 30-foot Wildcat Falls and its four separate drops. At camp, perk your ears for great horned, barred, and screech owls. Hike out the way you came.
>> Map Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness and Citico Creek Wilderness ($10, fs.fed.us)
>> Info (828) 479-6431; joycekilmerslickrock.org


(Minnesota)
Boundary Waters
Canoe Area Wilderness 
Hike beneath airplane-free skies.

 
Along with the White House and Area 51, the Boundary Waters prohibits planes—even float, bush, and fire-detection flights—from flying below 4,000 feet. Result: no drone. Take the Angleworm Trail on a 14-mile short-handled lollipop loop that gradually wends 500 feet up a granite ridge, through groves of red and white pines. Angleworm, Home, and Whiskey Jack Lakes each have a symphony of loons, geese, and occasional wolves. One of our scouts even heard canis lupus devouring a kill near here. Can you handle -30°F nights? Snowshoe this route to hear whines, gurgling, and gunshot cracks as ice forms across these narrow lakes. One ranger says it sounds like whale song. Typically, this annual sonorous event occurs in December or early January. Camp on the eastern bank of Angleworm, near mile seven at a site overlooking the water.
>> Map Boundary Waters Canoe Area West ($12, natgeomaps.com)
>> Info (218)-365-7600; bwca.com


(Arizona)
Navajo National Monument
Hike through the Southwest’s best-preserved ancestral pueblo.

 
Northern Arizona’s celebrity attraction, the Grand Canyon, hogs hikers’ attention—but it is also plagued with tourist flyovers. Navajo National Monument’s 17-mile (round-trip) Keet Seel Trail is reliably empty and quiet. It’s more than two hours from Flagstaff, the nearest city larger than 10,000 people; the trailhead is literally at the end of the road (AZ 564) in Navajo Nation; and strict permitting limits access to 20 daily. From the Keet Seel trailhead, drop 1,000 feet through sandstone rubble and dunes to the canyon floor, where you’ll cross Keet Seel Creek. The only hubbub is the wind in the junipers.
>> Map Provided at orientation
>> Info (928) 672-2700; nps.gov/nava


(Idaho)
City of Rocks National Reserve
Camp in a Martian landscape with noise-canceling formations. 

 
Marooned on a high desert plain of sagebrush, just outside of Almo (population 150), City of Rocks’ granite domes and spires once served as a crucial landmark for pioneers traveling west to California. Today, the surreal surroundings are a stomping ground for rock climbers, hikers, and solitude-seekers. Spend a night in one of the City’s campsites tucked into the aspen groves, then dayhike. From Pinnacle Pass, head north cross-country, using the west side of the formation as a handrail to reach the least-visited pocket of the park. Next day, hike seven miles from Circle Creek Overlook trailhead to the Indian Grove campsite. From here, scramble 8,867-foot Graham Peak. Listen for red-tailed hawks, scurrying rabbits—and ghosts. Some hikers say they have heard train robbers hiding gold amongst the rocks.
>> Map Sawtooth National Forest Map ($10, fs.fed.us)
>> Info (208) 824-5910; nps.gov/ciro


(California)
Kings Canyon National Park
Follow the footsteps of John Muir, one of our country’s first natural-sounds enthusiasts.

 
Although Muir trod through the West’s wilderness long before the era of microphones and digital recorders, his writing captures the sounds of nature in thoughtful and captivating prose. (Hempton once spent an entire summer searching out the sounds of Muir’s writing in Yosemite’s backcountry.) But instead of battling the crowds and tour buses clogging Yosemite Valley, head to Tehipite Dome, 1.7 miles inside Kings Canyon’s western boundary, which Muir argued rivaled its famous neighbor in splendor. Start at the Sierra National Forest’s Rancheria trailhead, and as you hike the 13.5 miles to its base, see if you can hear the difference between Jeffery, fox tail, and lodgepole pine. Really. Camp creekside near Deer Meadow or Crown Creek.
>> Map Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Parks ($12, natgeomaps.com)
>> Info (559) 565-3766; nps.gov/seki





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READERS COMMENTS

Cynthia
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.

Edward
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.

Frank
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.

JCclimber
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...

Michael
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.

Lostfalls
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.

Jonathan
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 http://www.navajonationparks.org. You'd be giving to a nation that desperately needs your funding.

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