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Views From The Mt Washington Auto Road

Mount Washington Auto Road Drive

Not only is Mount Washington the highest mountain in the northeastern United States, it’s a mountain with an international reputation for bad weather. And that’s precisely why its become a tourist attraction – and why you want to drive the Mount Washington Auto Road.

Who isn’t curious about what the windiest place on the planet looks like? In fact on the summit – if you manage to get there – you can visit the Mt Washington Observatory Extreme Weather Museum. The Washington Auto Road may feel like cheating if you’re a dedicated hiker but it’s still a cool thing to do.

Updated January 2020

On the Washington auto road the only time I could see the summit of Mt Washington
The only time I could see the summit of Mt Washington

The Mt Washington Auto Road – in operation for more than a century

I had incorrectly assumed before my visit that the only way up Mt Washington was on foot. Little did I know until I saw my New Hampshire itinerary that there is a road up Mt Washington, and this privately owned road is the oldest man-made attraction in the US.

It’s been in continuous operation since 1861. Horse-drawn carts were used for the first 50 years.

Why You'll Want to Drive the Washington Auto Road
The summit of Mt Washington on a sunny day Photo credit: nigelmenzies on Flickr

How to get up Mt Washington

Although you can hike up Mt Washington via a variety of routes, including the Crawford Footpath, (the oldest continually maintained footpath in the world), you can also take a cog train or drive.

If you drive you have the option of doing it on your own or as part of a guided tour. If you have a fear of heights and narrow, winding mountain roads with drop-offs, do the guided tour.

Our guide related one of his two accidents in over 4,000 trips. A fellow was white knuckle driving down the middle of the road. He was so scared he wouldn’t veer off to the side forcing my driver/guide off the road.

On the Washington auto road it's lush and green at the start of the drive
It’s lush and green at the start of the drive up Mount Washington

The road climbs 4618 feet!

The road to the summit, formally called the Mt Washington Auto Road, climbs 4,618 feet over 7.6 miles and crosses through four unique ecological zones (hardwood, Canadian, sub-alpine and alpine) to reach the top at an elevation of 6,288 feet.

There are many viewpoints out to the beautiful mountains that make up the Presidential Range along the way. If the weather deteriorates on the way up – as it did for me – you must be prepared that your trip will be cut short for safety’s sake.

On the Washington auto road we got some good views from the van window
We had a window where we did get some views

Learn a lot on the guided drive

The guided drive is particularly worthwhile as you learn the history of the road, a little something about the notoriously bad weather and of course you have the opportunity to ask lots of questions.

My guide, has logged over 4,000 trips in the 16 years he’s been working for the company and can reel off a tremendous number of cool facts in short order.

Why You'll Want to Drive the Mt Washington Auto Road
And then the clouds roll in

Some Mt Washington bad weather facts

With Mt Washington’s location at the convergence of three storm systems, it’s no wonder it’s in the clouds 300 days of the year.

On the summit the weather changes quickly and drastically. Gusts over 100 mph are common and on the day I visited the winds were gusting to 70 mph.

In July, the average temperature is just 49°F. The record high is 72°F. The record low -47°F, without windchill. Needless to say, you need warm clothes to enjoy your brief hour on top.

Our

The winds showed their presence on my trip with the car door whipped open when I got out of the vehicle at just over the 5,000 foot elevation mark. Hail belted us and whatever warmth we had when we left the car was instantly stolen by the wind.

Up on the summit, structures are changed to the mountain – and all are designed to survive 300 mph winds. In April 1934, the weather observatory on the summit recorded a 231 mph wind, a land based record.

After two minutes outside I couldn't get back in the van fast enough
After two minutes outside I couldn’t get back in the van fast enough
These are the vans that you drive up in on a guided tour on the Washington Auto Road
These are the vans that you drive up in on a guided tour
About a mile of the road Mt Washington Auto Road is not paved
About a mile of the road is not paved

Should you be one of the 250,000 annual visitors that makes the visit to the summit via the Mt Washington auto road, you might on a clear day just be lucky enough to see the Atlantic Ocean.

It's a world apart back down at the bottom again
It’s a world apart back down at the bottom again

Useful information for the Mt Washington Auto Road

It costs $US35 for a car and driver to use the road. Each additional adult is $US10.

Guided tours are $US39 per adult, $US18 for children aged 5-12 and free for those under five.

The road is usually open from mid-May until late October between 7:30 AM and 6 PM.

One way hiker shuttles are available for $US35 one way. (The mountain is on the Appalachian Trail.)

There are width and length restrictions for private vehicles. Don’t even think of taking your RV up the road.

In the winter between December and March, 90 minute snowcoach tours are offered for $US49 per person. It’s possible to snowshoe down – weather permitting – from the  SnowCoach top of the tour at treeline or 4,200 feet. Great Glen Trails, offers snowshoe rentals, tours and lessons.

The Mt Washington Cog Railway (which is located off Route 302 in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire) was built in 1869; it also gets an international first as the world’s first mountain cog railway. The three hour round trip departs hourly on the half hour – whether its sunny or snowy.

Don’t rely on GPS to get you to the start of the Mt Washington Auto Road. You can try typing in 1 Mt Washington Auto Road.

Fall is the busiest time of year to visit with thousands descending to see the colours.

The Cog Railway delivering guests to the summit of Mount Washington
The Cog Railway delivering guests to the summit of Mount Washington Photo credit: Mouser Williams on Flickr

Lots of road closures

The Mt Washington Auto Road can be closed for one of the numerous special events so check before you go.

There are motorcycle only days, a bicycle hill climb (August 19th), a car race (with the fastest time averaging over 70 mph, sunrise drives, a running race and even a Bicknell’s Thrush tour which according to the website “is an extremely rare species with very limited breeding grounds. It is the rarest and most secretive of the breeding thrushes in North America and it is the only bird whose breeding is restricted to the Northeastern part of the continent. They usually breed at higher elevations, normally nesting above 3,000 ft. The unique and harsh climate is just what the birds prefer due to the combination of low vegetation and abundant moisture.”

Further reading on things to do in New Hampshire

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

A drive up Mount Washington Auto Road in New Hampshire to the windiest place on the planet

Thank you to Visit New Hampshire for hosting my visit. All opinions as always are mine alone. 

 

 

 

 

 

Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

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