Updated February 2023
We all have those places not too far from home that we always say we will go visit someday but never do since we are so busy traveling all over the world. 2020 has given us a perfect opportunity to turn someday into today. For me one of those places was the summit of Mount Washington, just a few hours away from home.
Part of the Presidential range, located in the White Mountain National Forest in New Hampshire, Mount Washington is the highest summit in the northeastern US at 6,288 feet.
Mount Washington is well known for having some of the worst weather on earth. It’s in the path of three major storm tracks and usually takes the brunt of any passing storms due to it being the highest peak in the northeast. Due to this erratic weather, there is a weather observatory located on the summit.
The temperature at the summit is usually much colder than down in the valley below. While summer days can get up to 80-90 degrees in the valley, the highest ever recorded temperature on the summit is only 74 degrees. The lowest recorded temperature was 49 degrees below zero. On average the temperature falls below zero on over 65 days each year. As of February 4, 2023 Mt Washington set a record for the coldest wind chill ever recorded in the United States as it dropped to a wind chill of 108 degrees below zero! I cannot even fathom how cold that would feel!
But the big weather story on the summit is the wind. In the winter, over half the days see hurricane force wind speeds of over 75 mph. The highest wind speed ever observed by man was 231 mph on the summit of Mount Washington on April 12, 1934. Note that I used the words “observed by man” because there is actually a higher wind speed of 253 mph that has been recorded by weather instruments in April 1996 on Barrow Island off the coast of western Australia during Typhoon Olivia. Regardless of where the highest wind speed was recorded, Mount Washington is definitely known for the wind. Just this August Tropical Storm Isaias quickly went thru New England (I swear it lasted about 20 minutes in the city of Boston, nothing more than a summer thunder storm) and the wind on Mount Washington reached 147 mph.
Now that you know a little more about what makes Mount Washington so special, let’s talk about the three ways that you can reach the summit:
Hike to the summit – If you are up for it, hiking to the summit is the most adventurous way to go. There are numerous trails you can take, some easier or harder than others. They are all full day difficult hikes, so not necessarily for a beginner hiker. Maybe something to work up to after trying some more moderate hikes. The most popular trail is the Tuckerman Ravine Trail which is 8.2 miles roundtrip, has 4,280 ft elevation gain and will take you 7-9 hours. There is a Shelter half way up the trail with a well water pump and restrooms available.
Mount Washington Auto Road – Not up for a hard hike, feel free to drive the 7.6 mile auto road up to the summit. The auto road opened in 1861 as the Mount Washington Carriage Road and is America’s oldest and continuously operating man made attraction. The narrow road has an average 12% grade and no guardrails so it’s not the most fun ride for anyone with a fear of heights. To commemorate the somewhat scary ride on this road, each car driven up is given a “This car climbed Mt. Washington” bumper sticker. If you don’t feel comfortable driving yourself or just want to be able to sit back and enjoy the view, there are guided tours that will take you up the road.
Cog Railway: The final way to get to the summit is to take the Mount Washington Cog Railway to the summit. Being that I was on a solo trip, I decided that this was my best option to get to the summit. And I’m glad I did, it was such a unique experience.
After getting stuck in a pretty bad storm and having to spend the night on the mountain, New Hampshire native, Sylvester Marsh came up with the idea to invent a train that would transport tourist up to the summit. He took the idea to the state Legislature where they thought his idea was so crazy that they allowed him to build his “railway to the moon”.
On July 3, 1869 the first trip set off to the summit and trains have been using these same tracks and cog technology ever since.
For the first 40 years, wood-fired boilers powered the trains up the mountain and beginning in 1910, coal was used to power the train.
In 2008, the first biodiesel powered locomotive was dedicated. During the peak summer months, the six biodiesel locomotives take tourists up the mountain on an hourly basis.
A couple of times a day a steam powered locomotive will take tourists up to the summit. When my train was making it’s way down the mountain, we passed the steam locomotive at the Waumbek tank where it was stopped to take on more water.
About halfway up, you will reach Jacob’s ladder, the second steepest trestle in the world at a 37.41% grade.
Once at the summit, you are given an hour to look around before catching another train back down the mountain. On a clear day, you can see 4 states, the Canadian province of Quebec and even the Atlantic Ocean. I was lucky that it was somewhat clear when I reached the summit, you could see up to 80 miles away. But the weather on the summit definitely changed quickly in that hour. By the time I met the train to head down there was nothing but clouds. I most definitely lucked out with the view!
I highly recommend taking the cog railway up to the summit of Mount Washington. It was definitely a unique experience and the guides on the train made the ride even more interesting by discussing the history and even talking of personal stories from over the years working there.
They also had safety precautions in place due to covid-19 including: face masks required on the train, hand sanitizer provided as you got on and empty rows to separate families.
It was really great to be able to do something on vacation with some history involved. For those few hours, I felt like I forgot about everything going on in 2020 and felt like I was back to my normal traveling self! Definitely no better feeling in the world than that!