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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)

Death Valley National Park
Let your ears ring in Nevada’s Funeral Mountains.

Proof that the best things in life are never easy? Hiking into Death Valley’s Red Amphitheater area in the Funeral Range. There are no trails, it is brutally hot for much of the year, and backpackers must carry in all of their water. But the silence is absolute. Rangers say that the air can be so still that the predominate sound is your own heartbeat. Drive to the end of Hole in the Wall Road (4WD required) and hike up the obvious drainage. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure-area ripe for exploration. A ring of 7,000-foot peaks encircle the drainage. Situated in Death Valley’s eastern sector, this area escapes the bulk of the military overflights which boom through the rest of the park. However, if you’re lucky, you may hear grasshoppers, crickets, bees, or tarantula hawks flying through the air. Bigger birds include Merlin, peregrine, and prairie falcons.
>> Map Death Valley National Park ($12,
>> Info (760) 786-3200;

Great Sand Dunes National Park
and Preserve Camp in the country’s biggest sandbox.
Sand dampens sound waves—some recording studios even use it. So it’s safe to say that any peep in this 30-square-mile dune field doesn’t stand a chance. There are no trails either—hike more than 1.5 miles into it, and you can camp anywhere. Target Star Dune, the tallest dune in North America at nearly 1,000 feet high, and listen as the sand vibrates beneath your boots, alternately sighing, whistling, grunting, groaning, and barking. Then head north out of the dunes to link the Sand Ramp and Sand Creek Trails. Go north up the Sand Creek drainage to alpine terrain housing the turquoise waters of Sand Creek Lakes (13 miles). Listen for the bugles of the resident elk herd.
>> Map Sangre de Cristo Mountains ($12,
>> Info (719) 378-6399;

Susquehannock State Forest 
Find deep silence in the state’s largest roadless area.

North-central Pennsylvania is a world away from Pittsburgh and Philly: It’s home to the state’s largest roadless area and darkest skies. It’s perfect then, that the Susquehannock Trail System, an 85-mile loop, is right in the middle of its deepest reaches. Start from East Fork Road, near the hamlet of Cross Fork and hike five miles to The Pool, a deep 30-foot diameter pond (a local astronomy group’s favorite tent site). Camp, or continue three miles gaining 1,100 feet to a plateau covered in mountain laurel. Then drop 800 feet to the waters of Cross Forks. Keep your ears alert for the slap of beaver tails in dammed areas. Shuttle, retrace your steps, or finish the whole circuit to join the 1,000-plus strong Circuit Hiker Club.
>> Map Guide to the Susquehannock Trail System ($8, see Info)
>> Info (814) 435-2966;

Isle Royale National Park
Mingle with moose in one of the country’s quietest parks.

This rugged island is one of our least-frequented national parks. Add to that its location 75 miles from the mainland—in Lake Superior, the largest of the Great Lakes—and it’s no wonder that this 571,790-acre park is also one of the five quietest, according to the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. Leave the chug of the ferry to access the 40-mile Greenstone Ridge Trail, which runs the length of the island’s craggy backbone. Spend your trail days listening to the soft rustling of white spruce, balsam fir, and, on the island’s western end, maple, aspen, and birch. Pass your evenings on the shore of small inland lakes, with water lapping around your toes. Lucky listening: The splash of a moose’s hooves as it snacks on vegetation in the shallows or as it thunders away from hungry wolves.
>> Map Isle Royale National Park ($12,
>> Info (906) 482-0984;

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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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