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Planning to climb Mt. Washington in New Hampshire? You are not alone. The Mount Washington summit is visited by more than quarter of a million people from all over the world each year. Hiking to the top is the most rewarding way to enjoy the spectacular scenery of White Mountains, but there are less strenuous ways to get there. Whichever method you choose, you need to come prepared. The mountain is beautiful, but it can also be deadly. Learn all you need to know before you climb Mt. Washington, including how to get there, trails to hike it, other ways to reach the summit of Mount Washington and how to stay safe.
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, showed up and hoped for the best. That should never be the case with this mountain. I had no idea how difficult the hike was and how dangerous the weather conditions could be there. Luckily, my hike turned out fine despite a late start due to the weather.
Mt. Washington NH
Since then, I have visited Mt. Washington twice. Against all the odds, the weather cooperated both times. Still, at the summit, the conditions can change dramatically within minutes. No matter which approach you take to reach the summit, you need to keep that in mind.
Basic facts about Mt. Washington
New Hampshire is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States. It is bordered by Massachusetts to the south, Vermont to the west, Maine to the east, and the Canadian province of Quebec to the north. Mt. Washington, at an elevation of 6288 feet, is located in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains along the Great Gulf. 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 located 130 miles north from Boston and about 390 miles from New York City. Mt. Washington is the highest peak in the Northeastern United States.
Fun fact: A small township, Sargent’s Purchase, is located on Mt. Washington with 3 residents.
Mt. Washington Weather
Before you climb Mt. Washington, learn about its weather. The mountain is one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. The first day of spring often brings temperatures well below freezing, sometimes well below zero. Midsummer can bring rain, freak snowstorms, gale-force winds, and a high temperature that rarely reaches 70 degrees. This is why hiking Mt. Washington should be taken very seriously.
Weather data shows that Mt. Washington is not only the most dangerous American mountain, but it is also considered the home of the world’s worst weather. The area is notorious for its unpredictable weather at 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. It’s still a record for measured wind speeds not involved with a tropical cyclone.
Located at the summit, Mount Washington Observatory is a private, non-profit organization that watches the mountain’s weather 24 hours a day every day of the year. In December of 2017, the weather station at the mountain’s summit recorded a record low temperature of minue-36 degrees Fahrenheit (-37.7 degrees C), making it one of the coldest places on the planet. And to make matters even worse, the wind chill reached about 94 degrees below zero (-70 C)
The summit is covered by fog an average 300 days of the year. But on one of those rare clear days, you can see five states and Canada and as far as Mount Marcy in New York State, 134 miles to the west.
Vegetation on Mt. Washington
A visit to Mount Washington in early summer is well rewarded. Wonderful arrays of blooms stand out in sharp contrast to its green forests and the broken gray rocks of the alpine zone.
TravelingMom Tip: Do not stray from the trails when visiting alpine zones. The vegetation that adapted to the poor soil, freezing temperatures, and harsh wind may appear tough and durable but in fact, it is a very fragile environment. Stay on the trails! One misplaced step can destroy what has taken hundreds of years to establish.
Easier ways to climb Mt. Washington
Mount Washington Auto Road in the White Mountains of New Hampshire
There is a reason why so many cars in the Northeast have a bumper sticker that says, “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington.” 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 nerve-wracking adventure. With an average grade of 12 percent and a single mile of hard-packed gravel road mid-mountain, this drive is not for the faint of heart. Confidence in your driving skills and a good vehicle is a must.
Still, this is one of the most spectacular drives in the Northeast. There are places to pull over to take in the beautiful White Mountain scenery and dramatic cloud formations. On the way down, make sure to cool down on your brakes! This is a toll road. Here are the rates to climb Mt. Washington by car. The fee includes that famous bumper sticker and an audio tour that includes instructions on the best way to climb Mt. Washington by car.
TravelingMom Tip: The road closes in the winter. It is open generally from early May to mid-October, weather-dependent.
Guided van tour
Available seasonally May through October, this tour is a great option for those who prefer to climb Mt. Washington without driving themselves. Guided Tours, driven by experienced guides, offer a unique opportunity to learn the history of Mt. Washington and the Auto Road. I took one of these once and truly enjoyed it. Here are the rates for guided van tours.
Mount Washington Cog Railway
If you want to take the easy way up, riding the Mt. Washington Cog Railway, also known as the Cog, is the best way to do it. It is the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway. The Cog is the second steepest rack railway in the world, with an average grade of more than 25 percent and a maximum grade of 37.41 percent. This scenic ride starts in Bretton Woods, NH and lets you travel with peace of mind. It takes 3 hours round trip. The train departs daily from May through November. The railway is approximately 3 miles (4.8 km) long. Reservations are highly recommended, especially due to Covid-19 distancing requirements.
Experience an unforgettable winter sunrise at treeline from the comfort of the Mt. Washington SnowCoach. This service is in operation only during the winter months. Driven by four 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. SnowCoaches leave Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center and climb about two-thirds of the way to the summit of Mt. Washington via the Auto Road, gaining over 3,000 feet in elevation. Advanced reservations are highly recommended.
Hiking Trails on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire
The summit has been a destination for hikers since the mid-19th Century, but keep in mind Mt. Washington is one of the most dangerous hikes in North America. Pay close attention to the weather before you start your climb. Even on a clear, sunny day, the temperature can drop 20 degrees at the summit. You can also encounter fog, clouds or rain, so make sure you have suitable clothes and bring extras with you. In good conditions, Mount Washington is doable for an average hiker, but that means you need to be a true hiker! Here is What to Pack for Mt. Washington Day Hike. Before hitting any trails with your family, learn important tips for hiking with kids.
Boulder Loop Trail and Lions Head are popular full-day hikes. You should check into the Pinkham Notch Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) the night before or early on the morning you summit. There is a spot to sign in and put what trail you’ll hike. This is especially important for solo hikers. Tuckerman Ravine Trail to Mount Washington is a 7.9 mile heavily trafficked point-to-point trail located near Gorham, New Hampshire. This trail is recommended only for very experienced hikers. The trail offers a number of activity options and is best used from March until October. For all hiking options with detailed descriptions read Alpha Guide: Day Hiking Mount Washington.
Climbing Mt. Washington During a New Hampshire Winter
“Climbing Mt Washington isn’t just any old winter hike. It’s a long climb in tough terrain, the cairns marking the trails are difficult to locate in cloud or fog, and you need mountaineering skills with full crampons and an ice ax to get to the summit. The wind is usually ferocious, and whiteout conditions are all too common,” according to these 10 tips for hiking Mt. Washington in winter. Make sure to check the latest conditions with Mount Washington Avalanche Center.
Hiking the Presidential Range
Presidential Traverse Trail is a 20.4 mile moderately trafficked point-to-point trail located near Randolph, New Hampshire. The trail offers several activity options and is best used from May until September. Mt. Washington is the highest point of the White Mountain part 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. Learn more about the hike here.
My personal experience hiking Mt. Washington in New Hampshire
The hike I took in 1990 did not start as planned. We spent the night before at Dolly Copp Campground, hoping to get a good night’s sleep and start very early in the morning the next day. That did not happen. Out of nowhere came a 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 lasted for the entire night.
When the wind finally calmed down, we slept for a few hours. 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 I spotted the sign that read: “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 the hike was very difficult. In many parts, the trail was just loose sharp rocks, hard to maneuver. We spend two nights in hikers huts and one night camping in the woods. Hiking down was as difficult as climbing up, and I was not even 30 then! In the end, after negotiating piles after piles of rocks all day long, my legs were exhausted. When we finally reached a nearby hotel, I was not able to get up and walk! I did not belong on that trail for sure.
What awaits at the summit of Mount Washington
If you climb Mt. Washington, you will be rewarded with stunning views of the White Mountains. You’ll also find The Sherman Adams Visitor Center, a cafeteria, restrooms, gift shops, and the Mount Washington Observatory. The Observatory maintains two unique science museums: the Weather Discovery Center in downtown North Conway, NH, and Extreme Mount Washington on the summit. The historic Tip-Top House is located adjacent to the summit building. The views from the summit 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.
Things to do in the White Mountains of New Hampshire
The area has much to offer in addition to climbing Mt. Washington. Plan to visit the White Mountains for at least a week-long New Hampshire vacation. If you love the 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 lover’s paradise and great for hiking with kids.