America's Most Inspiring Places to Listen

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When was the last time you listened to the true sounds of silence? Not the absence of all noise, but the tune of Mother Nature in her purest commune with the earth? If you think that all sounds a bit hippy dippy, think again. In modern life we are constantly assaulted by unnatural noises and according to Gordon Hempton, who is known as the Sound Tracker for his efforts to record and preserve natural sounds, we are losing the ability to listen to nature.

Hempton's gold standard for a noise-free environment is a period of 15 minutes or longer between intrusions and transportation. In particular, the spaces avoid overflights by commercial aircraft, the number one noise polluter according to Hempton. "Modern life is a barrage of intrusions," he says, "and listening is essential for maintaining a sense of place in our lives." Scroll below to see (and hear!) Hempton's picks for the 10 most inspiring places to listen to silence in America. You'll never guess which park he calls the country's "last great quiet place."


10. Everglades National Park, Florida

Home to alligators, panthers, black bears and an extremely rich collection of birds, Everglades National Park offers incredible wildlife viewing opportunities for even the most casual day-tripper. The chorus that rises from the park's dense population of frogs, toads and bellowing alligators makes for an impressive acoustical backdrop to the spectacle of the River of Grass (also listen for songbirds, such as the eastern meadowlark).

SILENCE UNDER SIEGE: Air traffic from Miami and Fort Lauderdale, South Florida's busiest airports, is a major intrusion. Road noise is another problem in the park, but boat babble is particularly bothersome as sound carries further over water than land.

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9. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina/Tennessee

The beautiful melodies of small birds, including the winter wren and the wood thrush, are among the most magical listening experiences at Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The park's hardwood forests and temperate zones are extremely bio diverse, and waterfalls create a soothing soundtrack for wildlife viewing as well.

SILENCE UNDER SIEGE: The park's proximity to major population centers in surrounding North Carolina and Tennessee make true silence extremely elusive. Near continual noise from commercial jets during daylight hours and the sound of traffic from nearby roads pulse through much of the park.

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8. Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park and Haleakala National Park, Hawaii

Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park and Haleakala National Park host volcanic craters in high-elevation landscapes-settings far removed from unnatural noise. These hiker-accessible areas are among the most silent terrestrial places on the planet, with extremely low decibel readings. Natural sounds to listen for include the call of the nēnē (a goose that is the state bird oh Hawai'i) and rare native birds in the fern forests as well as the sound of Pacific Ocean swells pounding cliffs made of igneous rock.

SILENCE UNDER SIEGE: Jetliner traffic is frequent over Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park, but an increasing number of helicopter tours are a more omnipresent threat to the silence.

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7. Cape Cod National Seashore, Massachusetts

The layered sand dunes and broad expanses of sandy beach that define Cape Cod National Seashore make it one of the best places on the East Coast to hear the sound of surf on sand--an acoustic effect that's very different from the sound of waves over pebbled shore. Hempton also suggests walking back from the water's edge into the dunes and listening to the wind blowing through the dune grass and the sound of the crickets as the ocean beats away.

SILENCE UNDER SIEGE: The dunes provide good insulation against road noise, but commercial flights occasionally intrude on the silence.

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6. Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota

Named for the traders that paddled their birch bark canoes through the region on their journeys north to Canada, Voyageurs National Park is a glacier-carved lake scape that's still best explored by boat. Sounds to listen for include the eerie yodels of loons and the howling of wolves. "They're two entirely different voices, both of them calling cards for true wilderness in the lake region," Hempton says.

SILENCE UNDER SIEGE: The natural silence that largely pervades in Voyageurs National Park is sometimes interrupted by commercial aircraft.

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5. Yosemite National Park, California

The diverse music the wind makes as it blows through different trees in Yosemite National Park was first described by naturalist John Muir in the 19th century. Muir was able to navigate the valley at night simply by calculating the changing sounds the wind made as the elevation and tree species changed--the longer the needle of a pine tree, the lower the pitch. Other sounds to still listen for today include the song of the ouzel. This small bird dives into frigid streams to pluck insects from rocks. Hempton describes the ouzel's song as "a perfect Arabesque of melody." The park's myriad waterfalls also sing their own unique tunes.

SILENCE UNDER SIEGE: Noise from Yosemite Village, including dumpster service in the early hours and tourist traffic, intrude on the park's natural silence. Here, too, commercial aircraft routed by the FAA over the park are a regular noise interruption, even in the park's back country.

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4. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Mesas, canyons and buttes sculpted by climactic effects and the Colorado River have created a unique acoustical environment at Canyonlands National Park. Listen for the wind sighing through the sculpted earth here. The semi-parabolic ancient cliff dwellings of the Anasazi Indians in the park also serve to collect and amplify the sounds of the valleys they face. Also listen for the sounds of songbirds, including the canyon wren and Bewick's wren. The latter is best heard in the quiet of early morning from a listening perch in the flats below the canyon wall-position yourself as close to the wall as possible to hear a lovely reverberation of the birdsong, says Hempton. He has found that Canyonlands offers a far better listening experience than Grand Canyon National Park, where the silence is continually invaded by as many as 90,000 annual sight-seeing air tours that come from as far away as Las Vegas.

SILENCE UNDER SIEGE: Commercial aircraft routed over the park produce a sound that is deafening, particular in the late night and early morning hours when it contrasts starkly with the profound silence.

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3. Organ Pipes Cactus National Monument, Arizona

Organ Pipes Cactus National Monument in the remote Sonoran Desert is home to 26 species of cacti, as well as many unique creatures that have adapted to the harsh heat and parched conditions. The listening lure here is the delicate sound the wind makes as it blows through cactus needles. Dawn is the best time to hear the cactus wind, which Hempton says creates "such a beautiful and delicate humming sound." Spring is the prettiest time to visit, with migrating songbirds on their journeys north and desert wild flowers in bloom.

SILENCE UNDER SIEGE: This park is one of the most ideal places in the US to appreciate the uninterrupted sound of nature, though that silence can be broken by air traffic.

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2. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming/Montana/Idaho

The churning, bubbling and popping sounds resulting from geothermal activity at Yellowstone National Park make it a prime place to revere natural silence. The music of mineral springs and natural geysers erupting from the earth is best appreciated at night, says Hempton, who calls the experience a "fountain of sounds, with each spring spouting a different tune."

SILENCE UNDER SIEGE: Sizeable periods of quiet can be enjoyed here, but snowmobiles, air tours and commercial air traffic are reliable intrusions.

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1. Olympic National Park, Washington

Hempton gives Olympic National Park the seat of honor for America's finest place to enjoy the natural sounds of silence. And he's working to keep it that way. His non-profit organization, One Square Inch, is devoted to passing legislation that would designate the park a no-flight zone for civilian aircraft. The one-million-acre park is the Northern Hemisphere's best example of a temperate rainforest. Some of the planet's tallest Douglas fir and cedar trees tower over 300 feet here, "[creating] a beautiful acoustic structure similar to our finest cathedrals," says Hempton. Other sounds to listen for include the bugling echoes of Roosevelt elk and the call of the winter wren. Accordign to Hempton, one of the most incredible listening experiences a visitor can experience comes by sticking your head inside one of the huge Sitka spruce logs that wash ashore at the park. "The acoustic energy of the surf pounding on pebbled shore is enough to excite wood fibers inside nature's largest violin," he says.

SILENCE UNDER SIEGE: While Olympic National Park is the least noise-polluted park in the nation, the FAA has designated commercial jet routes over the park, according to Hempton. Still, natural quiet periods between overflight intrusions commonly approach an hour or longer.

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