A lot of us seek out national parks to absorb that careful balance of natural sounds and breathtaking quiet. And even though the parks get more popular every year, we can usually find our silent spot — at least until a jet comes roaring overhead or an engine hums in the distance. But we might have to get used to it: America's flagship national parks are getting louder and louder, according to the Park Service's "natural sounds" office.
Yes, the National Park Service actually has a "natural sounds" office, based in Ft. Collins, CO, dedicated to preserving the natural noises of a park — like howling wolves, roaring waterfalls, and even music from sanctioned events. They've discovered intrusive noises are among the things that annoy national park visitors most, and noise becomes a central concern for issues like helicopter tours over the Grand Canyon or snowmobiles in Yellowstone.
"When people think of national parks, they think of the scenery, the wildlife and the historical icons they hold," Bill Wade, the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees council chairman, said in a statement. "Many also think of a place they can 'get away from it all' and that includes escaping ruckus of everyday life."
Extraneous noise also interferes with wildlife, making it harder for animals to hear predators and generally raising their stress levels. The Coalition of National Park Service Retirees maintains a list of particularly threatened parks, which include Mojave National Preserve (where an airport has been proposed 40 miles beyond the borders), Mount Rushmore (which sustains heavy motorcycle traffic and potential air tours), and the Everglades (where boat sounds echo broadly across the swampy waters).
Luckily, some national parks still remain oases of silence: Great Basin, Isle Royale, North Cascades, and Big Hole National Battlefield in Montana rank among the quietest, according to the NPS natural sounds department.
"When there's no aircraft overhead, they are among the quietest places in the continental U.S.," said Kurt Fristrup, a scientist in the Park Service's "natural sounds" office in Fort Collins, Colo.
BACKPACKER's Mark Jenkins recently searched for the most remote spot in the lower 48 and found it within Yellowstone, one of the busiest national parks. Check out September's issue to learn if he ever found any peace and quiet.
— Ted Alvarez