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 Mt 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 Mt Washington Auto Road may feel like cheating if you’re a dedicated hiker, but driving it is still a cool thing to do.
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.
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.
The Mt Washington Auto Road climbs 4,618 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.
Learn a lot on the guided Mt Washington Auto Road 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.
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.
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 chained 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.
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.
Useful information for the Mt Washington Auto Road
It costs $US45 for a car and driver to use the road in peak season and $40 in the off season. Each additional adult is $US20 during peak season and $US15 outside of peak season. Children aged 5 – 12 are $10 each. (2023 prices)
The cost of a motorcycle and a driver is $US30.
Guided tours are $US50 – $55 per adult, depending on the dates. $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 $US55 one way and $US30 for dogs. (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 $US65- $US70 per person depending on the time. Kids aged 5 – 12 are $US35 – $US40 depending on the tome. 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.
Lots of road closures on the Mt Washington Auto Road
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 tourwhich 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.”