No trip to New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley is complete without visiting the region’s namesake, i.e., the 6,288 foot tall Mount Washington, home to some of the most extreme weather on earth.
There are several routes to the top of Mount Washington, including hiking the Appalachian Trail, riding the vintage Cog Railway or driving up the historic Mount Washington Auto Road. The narrow, twisting 8-mile road was originally built as a bridle path by the local railroad line that was trying to attract visitors to the nearby grand hotels. The Summit House hotel opened in 1852 at the top of the mountain. It burned and was rebuilt several times over the ensuing decades. The Tip Top House, a stone hostel of sorts opened in 1853. It still stands and is open as a museum.
By 1854, plans were made to improve the road to allow horse drawn stage coaches to bring guests to the summit. It took seven years to complete the backbreaking project and the resulting private toll road was officially opened in August 1861. It was an all day journey to the top via a coach drawn by six horses. The brakes on the coach had to be changed every round trip due to the wear and tear that resulted from controlling the rig while descending the mountain.
Steam powered cars drove the road as early as 1899 with gas powered motor cars arriving a few years later. Motorized coaches replaced horses in 1912. Today’s modern van tours, still referred to as “Stages”, take an hour and a half round trip, allowing for 30 minutes at the top to take pictures, explore the rugged alpine terrain above treeline, and to visit the bathrooms, snack bar and gift shops in the summit lodge.
Our teen was grateful for the opportunity to ride in the Stage. She felt she learned a lot from our very knowledgeable and calm driver. She said she felt safer than if we had driven ourselves. She also enjoyed taking a few minutes to check out the Red Barn Museum behind the base area ticket building. It houses examples of all the different types of Stages used over the year, including a beautiful authentic Concord Coach. We agreed that going up the mountain in the open horse-drawn wagons used in the early days must have been pretty scary!
If you do opt to drive yourself, be warned, there are many tight turns and twists and there are no railings or shoulders in many spots as you round corners overlooking steep cliffs. About 20% of the road is still gravel with the rest being paved. There are a pull outs and scenic views along the way but also many spots where two cars can barely pass one another heading in opposite directions. Nonetheless, many people do successfully drive themselves each year and live to put the famous “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington” sticker on their bumper. If you drive yourself, the admission fee includes use of an audio CD to narrarate your ride. You can listen to the audio here.
We were fortunate to visit on a day when the cloud deck was above the summit and we could see 4o to 50 miles in all directions. On the best of days visibility is close to 130 miles all the way to the Atlantic Ocean. On the other hand, we are told that 70% of days the summit can be shrouded in the clouds and thick fog, resulting in limited or no visibility at all. As is typical, the temperature at the summit was in the 40s while the base was in the high 70s. Bring a sweatshirt or jacket.
For many years Mount Washington held the record for the highest wind speed recorded on earth at 231 miles per hour. Although that record was recently broken, the summit is still an unpredictable place where it can snow any time of the year. The historic stage office building on the summit is actually chained down so it won’t blow away.
The private, non-profit Mount Washington Observatory, has monitored and recorded the weather at the summit since 1932. Tours are available on the summit and the organization also maintains a free Weather Discovey Center and store in downtown North Conway. The observatory is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In fact, unless you are camping on the mountain, an Observatory-run overnight program is the only way to spend a night on the summit. In winter, snowcoach rides are available on a first come first serve basis depending on conditions.
Complimentary access to The Mount Washington Auto Road was donated by the White Mountains Attractions as part of our weekend visit to the Mount Washington Valley, which was arranged by the Mount Washington Valley Chamber of Commerce. The White Mountains Attractions pass program provides discounted one-time access to 16 major area attractions including the Mount Washington Auto Road, Attitash Summer Attractions and the Wildcat Mountain Express Gondola Skyride. Our accepting the passes in no way obligated us to provide a positive review. All opinions in this article are totally our own. For links to more information about our visit to New Hampshire’s Mount Washington Valley, check out our Mount Washington Valley Top 10 – Summer Edition article.
Note: We shared the link to these photos on the Delicious Baby Photo Friday page – stop by for lots of fun family travel links.