Mount Washington in New Hampshire, the highest peak in the Northeast, is known for its incredible beauty. Traveling to its summit offers the chance to see spectacular views. Once there, you will feel you reached the top of the world. On clear days, when the atmosphere is relatively dry and free of haze, you can see as far as 130 miles away. But the beauty of the mountain is deceiving. It is a dangerous mountain, even deadly. You need to know the facts before you climb Mt. Washington, especially if you decide to conquer it on foot.
My memories of Mt. Washington go back to my three-day hiking trip in 1990. In those days of no internet, planning a trip was quite different. You knew just the basic information about your destination and hoped for the best. That should never be the case with this mountain. Luckily, my hike turned out fine.
11 Things to Know Before You Climb Mt. Washington
Since then I climbed Mt. Washington twice, both times by vehicle. It is very important to come prepared. Here are 11 things you need to know before you decide to conquer the mountain, on foot or otherwise. (If you want to take the easy way, try riding the Mt. Washington Cog Railway.)
Mt. Washington, 6288 ft high, is located in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains of New Hampshire. While nearly the whole mountain is in the White Mountain National Forest, an area of 60.3 acres surrounding and including the summit is occupied by Mount Washington State Park.
The mountain is notorious for its unpredictable weather any time of year. In 1934, the Mount Washington Observatory recorded a wind speed of 231 miles per hour (372 km/h), the world record for most of the 20th century, and still, a record for measured wind speeds not involved with a tropical cyclone.
In December of 2017, the mountain’s summit, known for its brutal and fast-changing winter weather, hit its record low temperature of minus 34 degrees F. The summit is covered by fog an average 300 day of the year, but on a clear day, you can see five states and Canada.
The summit is above the tree line, in the alpine zone. Plants are growing close to the ground. They adapted to the poor soil, freezing temperatures and harsh winds. Stay on designated trails to protect them!
Ways to climb Mt. Washington
4. Auto Road
There is a reason why so many cars in the Northeast have a bumper sticker that says, “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington.” It is because getting to the top is an accomplishment.
Located 25 minutes north of North Conway on scenic NH Route 16 in Pinkham Notch, the Mt. Washington Auto Road invites you to a one of kind nerve-wracking adventure. You will have to pay a fee to enter it.
With an average grade of 12%, a single mile of hard-packed gravel road around mid-mountain, this drive is not for the faint of heart. Confidence in your driving skills and a good vehicle is a must. Be aware of constantly changing weather!
If you take it slowly, you will truly enjoy one of the most spectacular drives in the Northeast. There are places to pull over allowing visitors to experience beautiful scenery and dramatic cloud formations. On the way down, make sure to cool down on your breaks!
5. Guided van tour
Available seasonally May through October, these tours are a great option for those who prefer to climb Mount Washington without taking chances by driving themselves. Guided Tours, driven by experienced guides, offer a unique opportunity to learn the true nature and history of Mt. Washington and the Auto Road.
6. Cog Railway
The Mt. Washington Cog Railway, also known as the Cog, is the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway. This scenic ride starts in Brenton Woods, NH and lets you travel up, up and up with a peace of mind. It takes 3 hours round trip. The train departs daily May through November. Reservations are highly recommended!
The Cog is the second steepest rack railway in the world with an average grade of over 25% and a maximum grade of 37.41%. The railway is approximately 3 miles (4.8 km) long.
During the winter months, you can climb a part of Mt. Washington on board of SnowCoach. Driven by 4 tracks rather than wheels, the 12-passenger SnowCoach transports guests up to treeline, at approximately 4,200 feet for a one of a kind winter adventure.
8. Climbing Mt. Washington on foot
The summit has been a destination for hikers since the mid-19th Century. Mount Washington is doable for an average hiker, but that means you need to be a true hiker!
Boulder loop trail and Lions Head are popular full-day hikes. You should check into the Pinkham Notch AMC center the night before or early on the morning you summit.
Even on a clear sunny day, the temperature could drop 20 degrees on the summit. If you encounter fog clouds or rain you will need extra clothes. You will need a lot of water and lots of food just in case.
People climb to the summit even during winter. I personally know a few of them. Nuts!
9. At the summit
At the top of the of the mountain, you will find The Sherman Adams Visitor Center, a cafeteria, restrooms, gift shops, the Mount Washington Observatory and its museum. The historic Tip-Top House is located adjacent to the summit building.
The views are spectacular… if you are lucky! Do not get discouraged if the weather is less than perfect. Wait! With the ever-changing winds, the clouds could open up just for you! Take a short hike to get a feel for the trails.
10. Hiking Presidential Range
Mt. Washington is the highest point of the Appalachian Trail. If you have no more experience than day hiking, you don’t belong on Presidential Range. People die there, most often from exposure. That is when your body fails to protect itself from the extreme elements. Weather can change there in a matter of minutes.
My personal experience on Mt. Washington
The hike I took in 1990 did not start as planned. We spent the night before at Dolly Cop Campground hoping to get a good night sleep and start very early in the morning the next day. That did not happen.
Out of nowhere came the wind so furious that no one could sleep through it. It felt like our cheap tent was going to be picked up and thrown on the ground somewhere else. Then there was noise, almost like an animal howling. It all lasted for the entire night.
When the wind finally calmed down, we took a few hours of sleep and to stay on schedule we gave up on climbing the mountain and concentrated just on hiking the Presidential Range. We took a hiker shuttle to the top and then the fun began. I remember exactly how I felt when spotted the sign: “The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure, even in the summer…” I had no idea!
Luckily, the weather cooperated but it was not a walk in the woods. In many parts, the trail was just loose sharp rocks very difficult to maneuver without breaking your leg. We spend two nights in hikers huts and one-night camping in the woods.
Going down the mountain was very difficult, and I was not even 30 then! After negotiating piles after piles of rocks my legs were exhausted. When I finally gave them a rest at the first nearby hotel, I was not able to get up and walk! I did not belong on that trail for sure.
Still, when I look back, we were not completely clueless. We invested in very expensive sleeping bags, had the right hiking boots, had enough food and water, extra clothes etc. But the tent we had is not something you take for this hike.
11. Things to do in the area
Plan to visit White Mountains around Mt. Washington for at least a week-long vacation. If you love outdoors Kancamagus Highway, Franconia Notch State Park, Flume Gorge, Echo Lake State Park and Diana’s Baths should be on your list of attractions. The area is a nature lovers’ paradise.