If you’re looking for something just a little different this season, try a trip to Mount Washington. If you’re from the Pacific Northwest, you’ll have to take a plane or spend a few days in a car to get there, but Mount Washington in New Hampshire is a pretty incredible place. We traveled there this summer and spent a night in the weather observatory at the top. The summit of the mountain is 6288 feet, which may look like a meager elevation for those of us on the West Coast, but it rises over 4000 feet along 8 miles of road. It’s all paved except a small chunk near the top, which washes out enough each year that they can’t keep it paved. But the hiking is plentiful and the views splendid. And no, you don’t have to hike along the road to get to the top.
Why is it nifty?
Lots of reasons, namely: 1) it’s the highest point in the Northeast United States. It is the most prominent mountain east of the Mississippi River.
2) It has a reputation for the highest winds on earth. The highest human-recorded winds were over 200 mph at the top of the mountain, and they clock regular 80 mph winds nearly every week throughout most of the year. Fifty mph winds, which we had when we were there were relatively calm and kind. If you like weather, this is the place for you. They offer winter stays in the observatory for those who like to endure ridiculous snow, wind and rime ice.
3) There’s a weather observatory at the top, which records weather for most of the northeast and keeps ahead of the many storms they receive each winter.
4) There’s a museum, restaurant, gift shop and even a historical house with remnants of a century ago. Learn who died on the mountain, how winds are mapped, why the weather is so unique, and more. Meet the observatory cats, if you can, too.
5) There is a unique coal powered train, still in service which ascends the mountain each day.
6) There are numerous hiking paths from the summit to tarns, neighboring mountains, and ridge lines.
7) There is a road that leads all the way to the top, so you have no excuse not to get up there. You can start your hike at the top, or park below and hoof it up 4000 vertical feet via hiking paths.
What’s up there?
A lot of weather. Fog, rain, wind, snow are all regular visitors. They warned us that views might elude us, but we did get to see the surrounding area. Mount Washington is part of the Presidential Mountain range which is a subset of the White Mountains. It’s lush and green, rocky and alpine. It acts like a high alpine area because of the extreme weather at the top. Much of the mountain has been molded by man. The main parking lot is a mere 20 yards from the actual summit post, so bagging this peak can be a cinch. There is a train track, a radio tower (from an old radio station broadcast endeavor), a scattering of buildings, and several trailheads.
How much hiking can I do?
From the top of Mount Washington you can hike the entire Presidential Range and roam off into the White Mountains. There are huts operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) in the backcountry. It’s a big enough place to get lost. While we visited a hiker was reported missing, separated from his group when he fell behind and requested that the rest of the group go ahead. Rather than gather a search and rescue team immediately, they waited until morning, when the hiker appeared on one of the other Presidential Mountains. Trails cross each other and connect most of the mountains. They expected that if he didn’t show at one of the AMC huts, he’d find a road and walk his way out. Which he did. By the next morning he had reported back.
The hike from the bottom to the summit is 8-10 miles and 4000 elevation gain, should you choose to do that. But the hikes from the summit to any number of destinations is at least as much fun. There is an annual road run along the auto road, for those of you who want a race. As soon as you arrive they give you plenty of warning about safety, weather and hiking conditions. Heed them, there’s a reason! We got mighty soaked on a short hike we took and were turned back due to lightning. Guide service (equipped with observatory weather info) is available through the Mount Washington Observatory.
How do I get there?
You can fly into Boston or Manchester, NH. The drive is 2 hours from Manchester airport, and add another hour from Boston’s Logan airport. There are hotels and chalets along the route, including the grand and luxurious Mt Washington Hotel.
The Observatory guide service is available to drive you up the Mount Washington Auto Road, as well as give you a tour of the observatory and grounds. They also provide a plethora of historical and factual information about the area and will escort you on your hike if you desire.