Planning a vacation in New Hampshire, and need to know more about what to do in Mount Washington? Discover the secret to experiencing the best of Mount Washington…

And the secret is really simple…

Standing on the summit is the only way to truly experience this mountain. Once you’ve done this, maybe, you’ll appreciate its reputation for having the “world’s worst weather.” Seriously.

So, my task is difficult.

Mere words – and a few photos – are all I’ve got to convince you to make the trek to Mount Washington. It’s not just the beautiful vista from the top or the unique experience of the cog railway. It’s standing at the top of the most commanding mountain in New England.

But I’m going to do my best to get you to promise yourself you’ll go. And here’s why…

Mount Washington Lake Scene

Wouldn’t you want to be standing on the edge of a lake absorbing the sounds and smells of the wild and the rugged? Where the only noise to disturb the silence is the rustling of a small animal in the nearby brush and the only scents are from fields of wildflowers that surround you.

I don’t know about you but looking at that picture I can almost taste the lake and the crisp mountain air. Refreshing! Known as the Agiocochook by some Native American tribes, Mount Washington is considered the most prominent mountain east of the Mississippi River.

How about this for a view from the top…

Mount Washington Summit

Wouldn’t you want to be standing on the edge of a lake absorbing the sounds and smells of the wild and the rugged? Where the only noise to disturb the silence is the rustling of a small animal in the nearby brush and the only scents are from fields of wildflowers that surround you.

I don’t know about you but looking at that picture I can almost taste the lake and the crisp mountain air. Highly refreshing! You could even let the kids run wild and no one would notice.

How about this for a view from the top of Mount Washington…

It doesn’t matter how you get to the summit, just get there any way you can. Drive up the auto road if you must, take the cog railway (my favorite) or hike it (if you can).

I want you to experience the feelings and wonder of standing on the summit – there’s no other place like it on earth. Mother Nature surely had a remarkable day when she created Mount Washington.

And I’m going to tell you here how best to explore it. But first some facts…

“Worst weather in the world”

Mount Washington stands 6,288 feet above sea level in the heart of the White Mountains national forest. It’s the pinnacle of the presidential range, a group of mountains – you’ve guessed – named after U.S. presidents.

As you stand on the summit on a summer’s day it’ll likely be windy most days. If the day is clear you’ll be able to see Quebec, the Atlantic Ocean, and four other states. Yes, you’re standing at a truly unique crossroads in the world, or at least New England.

In addition to its lofty elevation, Mount Washington lies in the path of both the major storm tracks and the air mass routes that affect the Northeast. The mountain’s topography and high elevation create an acceleration effect on the wind in much the same way a river’s velocity increases as it passes over a rapid.

Its unique geographic position has earned it the reputation of having the worst weather in the world. When you go to Mount Washington, be prepared for the weather. Sunshine can quickly become summer storms, and the peak has even been known to have surprise storms.

The worst storm ever recorded…

The summit of Mount Washington has buildings that house a museum and a working weather observatory. Both of these offer educational opportunities, so plan to spend some time at the summit when you go up.

On a stormy day in April 1934, the Mount Washington Observatory recorded a wind speed of 231 mph. This remains a world wind speed record for a surface observatory. Given how many observatories there are, that’s incredible.

Here’s an excerpt from the Observatory log the day before the storm hit:

“Hardly did we realize as we were enjoying a fine view of the Atlantic Ocean that we were to experience during the next 48 hours one of the worst storms ever recorded in the history of any observatory.” – Logbook entry, Sal Pagliuca.

Summit Station Mount Washington

For the fascinating account of this historic event by the Mount Washington Observatory staff, you’ll need to visit the summit. The Mount Washington Observatory Weather Discovery Center offers fantastic exhibits and interactive elements perfect for understanding the unique position of the mountain.

But enough of the extreme weather of Mount Washington… let’s talk about how you get to experience the mountain for yourself…

The quickest way to the summit…

You’re going to need a whole day to spend at Mount Washington. It takes the day (at least) to experience fully and not miss any of the breathtaking features the area is known for.

As I mentioned earlier there are three ways of getting to the summit: The Mt. Washington auto road, cog railway, or hiking.

Most visitors to the summit take the road. There’s a charge, but you get an audio tour and a bumper sticker that proclaims your car survived the ascent of Mount Washington. The road is very steep in some sections, so check your tires and brakes prior to setting out. Do make sure you’re not driving a rent-a-wreck with worn brake pads.

The benefit of taking the road is the ability to stop where you want. There are many beautiful vistas on the way up that you would not otherwise see, and there are pullouts for your car as well. You can take it at your pace, even if the descent can be a little hair raising.

You can reach the Mount Washington auto road by traveling on route 16 to Pinkham Notch. The road to the summit closes during the winter for private vehicles. It’s a safety concern, so be sure to check the open season on the road prior to planning an ascent.

Easy way to the summit…

My personal favorite way of getting to the summit is “The Mount Washington Cog Railway.” Yeah, I know, it’s that train thing again. However, I’m not alone in my love of rails, so let’s take a look a t my favorite way to travel.

The Cog Railway has been running since 1869, making it the world’s oldest railway. In the summer season and fall, it runs hourly. The round trip takes about 3 hours with a 20-minute stop at the summit. While round trip tickets cost more than $50, the splurge is well worth it.

There are several types of trains going up the mountain. The coal fired steam engines are the most authentic way to get up the mountain, since the engines are over 100 years old. Of course, there’s no need to worry since the cog rebuilds the engines to current safety standards regularly. There are also diesel engines going up the cog railway.

There are two options for stops on the mountain. All trains leave from the Marshfield Base Station. You have the option of ascending to the summit or to about 4000 feet Waumbek Station. Some people enjoy riding partially up Mount Washington and then hiking to the summit themselves. The cog railway is happy to accommodate, even offering one-way tickets for those who want to hike one way.

But be warned…

You must book in advance to take this ride, so don’t just turn up and be disappointed. The ride itself is just one of those fascinating journeys where you’re never quite sure what’s coming up around the next bend.

Maybe you’ll see an old-style wooden bridge over a stream, or a bunch of hikers taking the long way home. You might even see a wild bear.

After the final chug sounds as you pull into the station at the summit, you’ll have time to explore the buildings, and catch a few special moments on top of New England before the return journey. Just remember to grab your camera during the ascent and descent, as you don’t want to miss the views.

Getting there is easy. From North Conway to the Base Road is only a 45-minute drive – you’ll be traveling along route 302 as you pass through Bartlett and Bretton Woods and then take the Base Road to the Marshfield Station.

You may even want to stop at Bretton Woods on the way back to your lodging. There are canopy tours available, which is a fun adventure with kids. Ziplines, rope bridges, and even repelling offer a thrill after a day in the car or on the cog railway.

Now driving and taking the Cog Railway are both great ways of seeing the mountain…

But if you really want the ultimate experience of Mount Washington…

Hiking Mount Washington!

There are several great trails on Mount Washington. Not all get you to the summit, but the ones that do vary with difficulty. Make sure you verify what trail you’re on, so you do not end up on a more difficult trail than you planned for.

The most popular is the Tuckerman Ravine trail which starts at the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center on route 16. If you’re going to hike this trail start early and avoid the crowds. By early I mean aim to start before 8:00am. That way there’s a chance you’ll get some solitude, and you can get up and down with a relaxed pace.

Another popular trail, and probably the easiest to the summit, is the Jewell trail. You can pick this up at the Base Road (off route 302) and near the cog railway Marshfield Station. Again, leave yourself plenty of time to make the trip up and down.

As with any long hiking trip avoid traveling alone and know your own limitations. Make sure that you tell someone where you’re going and your rough itinerary. You do not want to be stuck on the mountain with the worst weather waiting for rescuers with no one knowing where to start looking.

Warning: The weather on Mount Washington can change very quickly, and dramatically. Even during the summer, it can become life threatening. Rapid winds and quick appearing storms are common, as are temperature drops. I recommend dressing in layers and having an emergency plan for bad storms.

There are many hikes on the mountain to enjoy without pressuring yourself to hike to the summit. You can even start partially up the mountain to make it easier. Regardless of where you hike, be prepared for out of this world views.

But having said all that, if the weather is fine, and you’ve started early enough, you won’t regret asking your body for a little extra to sample the amazing experience of hiking to the summit of Mount Washington.

During the hike, make sure to keep an eye out for waterfalls. The spring thaws offer a variety of falls around the White Mountains, and the flow is never the same two years in a row. Therefore, the falls you see this year may not be there next year. Make sure to keep your cameras handy!

As a side note, many of the trails do connect to the surrounding peaks as well. You could conceivably plan a multiple day hiking adventure to explore the depths of the White Mountains. You simply need to plan for the changing conditions, even in the height of summer.

Lake of the Clouds is one of the stops I recommend while you’re hiking Mount Washington. This lake is between Mount Washington and neighboring Mount Monroe. It’s at the convergence of several hiking trails. You could even spend the night if you’re looking to do a two-day hiking trip.

And if it’s an off season vacation you want…

Now I’ve concentrated here on summer and fall vacations, but maybe you’re looking for something different. If you’re tired of battling tourists over summer, the White Mountains in the winter and shoulder seasons is the perfect antidote.

Winter and spring on Mount Washington are a different ball game altogether. In winter, the bone-chilling cold and constant threat of avalanches, is dangerous to the unprepared and inexperienced hiker. A guide is a good choice, and there are many local options if you want an outdoor adventure.

Like many mountains in the area, Mount Washington does offer winter activities. Snowshoeing, back country skiing, and snowmobiling are all available. However, I recommend taking part in these activities cautiously. In addition to the weather, Mount Washington is prone to avalanche which can be devastating.

Then in the spring you can find the weekends full of back country skiers heading for Tuckerman Ravine. April and May are the best times to be a spectator of the annual crusade by people that prefer their skiing to be free, and on non-groomed trails with no chairlifts. You may even want to join the ranks of these explorers.

Even if winter is your preferred vacation time, you can drive many of the roads around Mount Washington. The snow offers a magical quality to the scenery. While many summit roads close, that doesn’t prevent you from enjoying the valleys and gorges of the area.

If that time of year interests you for a vacation – or you want to know more about skiing at Mount Washington, then you’ve got to read the Mount Washington section at my New Hampshire skiing page. There you’ll find some tips on the best way to ski New Hampshire.

Mount Washington Lodging

The Mount Washington and Presidential range area has a wide variety of accommodation to suit all budgets and preferences. There are two towns I recommend for soft bed and pillows and close to the range for hiking and walking: North Conway and Jackson. Both offer New England hospitality the region is famous for.

Consider staying with one of the many local bed and breakfasts. Each has its eccentricities, and you will surely remember the experience for years to come.