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Destination: United States : The Silent Treatment : 10 Quiet--and Unbelievably Scenic--Places Across America That Soothe the Weary and Renew the Spirit

March 13, 1994|JAMES T. YENCKEL | WASHINGTON POST

The name is ominous, but Death Valley really is a beautiful, mountain-ringed realm of multicolored rocks, a curiously rumpled terrain, geological oddities, magnificent panoramas--and, not the least of its attractions, a quiet both awesome and wonderfully relaxing. Far from fearsome, the parkland is a comforting retreat for weary travelers in search of repose and contemplation.

Tourist brochures hype adventure, but sometimes excitement isn't what you are looking for. A destination wrapped in an aura of peace and quiet can sometimes hold more allure. As a frequent traveler, I've chanced on a number of offbeat places in the United States that seem uncommonly peaceful, and I've put together a list of 10 favorites--all of them essentially outdoor escapes--that gently massage your psyche and send you home with spirit refreshed.

NORTHERN LAKES, NEW HAMPSHIRE

The northern tip of New Hampshire, where it nudges up against the Canadian border, is a forested wilderness of deep lakes, rushing streams and maybe more wandering moose than there are people. On U.S. 3, which heads north from Pittsburgh, visitors are advised to slow down and keep a watch out for moose. The local folks call it "moose cruising," and it passes for big excitement in this part of the country.

This is a rugged land, still possessing a raw, frontier look--home, as one guidebook author writes, of chain saws and pickup trucks. Good country for moose. Every other house, it seems, has a sign posted advertising maple syrup for sale. A relatively empty corner of the state, it draws outdoor enthusiasts in search of hiking, fishing, swimming and canoeing.

But the most impressive feature of northern New Hampshire is the string of lakes formed by the Connecticut River. U.S. 3 touches each of four southern lakes, snaking through a wooded corridor formed by Connecticut Lakes State Forest.

One afternoon we picnicked at a lone roadside table set splendidly on a rocky, pine-shaded peninsula jutting into Second Connecticut Lake. Water circled us on three sides, a perfect picnic spot, and when we finally left it was reluctantly. Go in the summer to enjoy the lakes and in the fall for the foliage. Lodging is in rustic-looking but comfortable lodges at lakeside. For more information, contact the New Hampshire Office of Travel and Tourism, P.O. Box 1856, Concord, N.H. 03302-1856; tel. (603) 271-2666.

VIRGINIA HIGHLANDS

Tucked into the lightly populated corner of southwestern Virginia, the Mt. Rogers National Recreation Area is a sprawling, 115,000-acre mountain preserve encompassing the state's loftiest and most remote real estate. Countless rushing streams spill out of these hills, and their densely forested slopes and open valleys are laced by miles of hiking, mountain-biking and horseback-riding trails. Still relatively undiscovered, the parkland seldom fills its campsites, even in midsummer. I went in late spring a year ago, and sometimes felt I had the place to myself.

Unusual characteristics of these Virginia mountains are the open areas called "balds" splashed across their slopes. These rocky, treeless expanses in the midst of the forest resemble the Big Sky landscapes of Montana and Wyoming. Go any season. Most overnight visitors camp, but other lodging is in motels and B&Bs. For more information, contact the Virginia Department of Tourism, 1021 E. Cary St., Richmond, Va. 23219 (tel. 800-847-4882), or 1629 K St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20006; tel. (202) 659-5523 and (800) 934-9184 for B&B reservations.

KENTUCKY GHOSTS

In the crumpled landscape of southeastern Kentucky, I stumbled in 1991 on the ghost of an abandoned coal-mining town called Blue Heron, all but hidden deep in the rocky gorge of the Big South Fork River. Now a part of a national parkland--called the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area--the old community tells a haunting story of a harsh life only partially redeemed by the splendor of the surrounding countryside.

Much of the park, set in the rugged Cumberland Plateau, is a reclaimed wilderness. Kentucky 742, one of the few roads entering the park, winds past superb overlooks and then drops in series of breathtaking swirls to the bottom of the gorge at Blue Heron.

In its heyday 50 years ago, the town was home to 300 miners and their families. But all that remains now is a giant coal tipple, which towers like a skyscraper on stilts. Elsewhere, open-air "ghost" structures have been erected to outline the shapes of former houses, the school, company store and the miners' bathhouse, where they washed off the coal dust. Go any season. Lodging is in motels, nearby state park lodges and B&Bs. For more information, contact the Kentucky Department of Travel, Capital Plaza Tower, 500 Mero St., 22nd Floor, Frankfort, Ky. 40601-1968; (800) 225-8747.

MISSOURI OZARKS

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