Safe & Savvy Summit: Essential Knowledge Before Climbing Mount Washington

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A hiker rests at the top of Mount Washington - SheBuysTravel
Mount Washington will challenge even experienced hikers. Photo credit: Yvonne Jasinski

Planning to climb Mt. Washington in New Hampshire? You are not alone. The Mount Washington summit is visited by more than quarter of a million people from all over the world each year. Hiking to the top is the most rewarding way to enjoy the spectacular scenery of White Mountains; it’s one of the best hikes in New Hampshire. But there are less strenuous ways to get there. Whichever method you choose, you need to come prepared. The mountain is beautiful, but it can also be deadly. Learn all you need to know before you climb Mt. Washington, including how to get there, trails to hike it, other ways to reach the summit of Mount Washington and how to stay safe.

Hiking Mt. Washington NH

My memories of Mt. Washington go back to my three-day hiking trip in 1990. In those days of no internet, planning a trip was quite different. You knew just the basic information about your destination, showed up and hoped for the best. That should never be the case with this mountain. I had no idea how difficult the hike was and how dangerous the weather conditions could be there. Luckily, my hike turned out fine despite a late start due to the weather.

Since then, I have visited Mt. Washington twice. Against all the odds, the weather cooperated both times. Still, at the summit, the conditions can change dramatically within minutes. No matter which approach you take to reach the summit, you need to keep that in mind.

Read More: Best Family Resorts in New Hampshire

Basic Facts About Mt. Washington

Location

New Hampshire is a state in the New England region of the northeastern United States. It is bordered by Massachusetts to the south, Vermont to the west, Maine to the east, and the Canadian province of Quebec to the north. Mt. Washington, at an elevation of 6288 feet, is located in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains along the Great Gulf. While nearly the whole mountain is in the White Mountain National Forest, an area of 60.3 acres surrounding and including the summit is occupied by Mount Washington State Park. The mountain is located 130 miles north from Boston and about 390 miles from New York City. Mt. Washington is the highest peak in the Northeastern United States.

Fun fact: A small township, Sargent’s Purchase, is located on Mt. Washington with 3 residents.

Read More: What to Do in Portland Maine (Besides Eating Lobster!)

Scenic view after you climb Mt. Washington - SheBuysTravel
On a clear day on Mt. Washington, you can see up to 130 miles away. Photo credit: Yvonne Jasinski

Mt. Washington Weather

Before you climb Mt. Washington, learn about its weather. The mountain is one of the most inhospitable places on the planet. The first day of spring often brings temperatures well below freezing, sometimes well below zero. Midsummer can bring rain, freak snowstorms, gale-force winds, and a high temperature that rarely reaches 70 degrees.  This is why hiking Mt. Washington should be taken very seriously.

Weather data shows that Mt. Washington is not only the most dangerous American mountain, but it is also considered the home of the world’s worst weather. The area is notorious for its unpredictable weather at any time of year. In 1934, the Mount Washington Observatory recorded a wind speed of 231 miles per hour (372 km/h), the world record for most of the 20th century. It’s still a record for measured wind speeds not involved with a tropical cyclone.

Snow of the top of White Mountains, New Hampshire.
There is a reason these peaks are called the White Mountains. Photo credit: Yvonne Jasinski.

Beautiful, But Dangerous

Located at the summit, Mount Washington Observatory is a private, non-profit organization that watches the mountain’s weather 24 hours a day every day of the year. In December of 2017, the weather station at the mountain’s summit recorded a record low temperature of minue-36 degrees Fahrenheit (-37.7 degrees C), making it one of the coldest places on the planet. And to make matters even worse, the wind chill reached about 94 degrees below zero (-70 C)

The summit is covered by fog an average 300 days of the year. But on one of those rare clear days, you can see five states and Canada and as far as Mount Marcy in New York State, 134 miles to the west.

Vegetation on Mt. Washington

A visit to Mount Washington in early summer is well rewarded. Wonderful arrays of blooms stand out in sharp contrast to its green forests and the broken gray rocks of the alpine zone.

SheBuysTravel Tip: Do not stray from the trails when visiting alpine zones. The vegetation that adapted to the poor soil, freezing temperatures, and harsh wind may appear tough and durable but in fact, it is a very fragile environment. Stay on the trails! One misplaced step can destroy what has taken hundreds of years to establish.

Vast view of White Mountains - SheBuysTravel
Tundra-like vegetation on Mt. Washington. Photo credit: Yvonne Jasinski

Easier Ways to Climb Mt. Washington

Mount Washington Auto Road in the White Mountains of New Hampshire

There is a reason why so many cars in the Northeast have a bumper sticker that says, “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington.” Getting to the top is an accomplishment! Located 25 minutes north of North Conway on scenic NH Route 16 in Pinkham Notch, the Mt. Washington Auto Road invites you to a nerve-wracking adventure. With an average grade of 12 percent and a single mile of hard-packed gravel road mid-mountain, this drive is not for the faint of heart. Confidence in your driving skills and a good vehicle is a must.

Still, this is one of the most spectacular drives in the Northeast. There are places to pull over to take in the beautiful White Mountain scenery and dramatic cloud formations. On the way down, make sure to cool down on your brakes! This is a toll road. Here are the rates to climb Mt. Washington by car. The fee includes that famous bumper sticker and an audio tour that includes instructions on the best way to climb Mt. Washington by car.

SheBuysTravel Tip: The road closes in the winter. It is open generally from early May to mid-October, weather-dependent.

The auto road in New Hampshire, a way to climb Mt. Washington - SheBuysTravel
Hike Mt. Washington or drive it?  Not for the faint of heart, the Auto Road to the summit of Mt. Washington. Photo credit: Yvonne Jasinski

Guided Van Tour

Available seasonally May through October, this tour is a great option for those who prefer to climb Mt. Washington without driving themselves. Guided Tours, driven by experienced guides, offer a unique opportunity to learn the history of Mt. Washington and the Auto Road. I took one of these once and truly enjoyed it. Here are the rates for guided van tours.

Mount Washington Cog Railway

If you want to take the easy way up, riding the Mt. Washington Cog Railway, also known as the Cog, is the best way to do it. It is the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway. The Cog is the second steepest rack railway in the world, with an average grade of more than 25 percent and a maximum grade of 37.41 percent. This scenic ride starts in Bretton Woods, NH and lets you travel with peace of mind. It takes 3 hours round trip. The train departs daily from May through November. The railway is approximately 3 miles (4.8 km) long. Reservations are highly recommended.

Mt. Washington Cog Railway - SheBuysTravel
Mount Washington Cog Railway offers a charmingly old-fashioned way to climb New Hampshire’s Mt. Washington. Photo credit: Yvonne Jasinski

SnowCoach

Experience an unforgettable winter sunrise at treeline from the comfort of the Mt. Washington SnowCoach. This service is in operation only during the winter months. Driven by four tracks rather than wheels, the 12-passenger SnowCoach transports guests up to treeline, at approximately 4,200 feet for a one of a kind winter adventure. SnowCoaches leave Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center and climb about two-thirds of the way to the summit of Mt. Washington via the Auto Road, gaining over 3,000 feet in elevation. Advanced reservations are highly recommended.

Hiking Trails on Mt. Washington in New Hampshire

The summit has been a destination for hikers since the mid-19th century, but keep in mind Mt. Washington is one of the most dangerous hikes in North America. Pay close attention to the weather before you start your climb. Even on a clear, sunny day, the temperature can drop 20 degrees at the summit. You can also encounter fog, clouds or rain, so make sure you have suitable clothes and bring extras with you. In good conditions, Mount Washington is doable for an average hiker, but that means you need to be a true hiker! Here is What to Pack for Mt. Washington Day Hike. Before hitting any trails with your family, learn important tips for hiking with kids. 

Popular Mt. Washington Trails

Boulder Loop Trail and Lions Head are popular full-day hikes. You should check into the Pinkham Notch Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC) the night before or early on the morning you summit. There is a spot to sign in and put what trail you’ll hike. This is especially important for solo hikers. Tuckerman Ravine Trail to Mount Washington is a 7.9 mile heavily trafficked point-to-point trail located near Gorham, New Hampshire. This trail is recommended only for very experienced hikers. The trail offers a number of activity options and is best used from March until October. For all hiking options with detailed descriptions read Alpha Guide: Day  Hiking  Mount Washington. 

The ever changing sky of the White Mountains - SheBuysTravel
You will be amazed by the ever-changing sky while hiking Mt. Washington. Photo credit: Yvonne Jasinski

Climbing Mt. Washington During a New Hampshire Winter

“Climbing Mt Washington isn’t just any old winter hike. It’s a long climb in tough terrain, the cairns marking the trails are difficult to locate in cloud or fog, and you need mountaineering skills with full crampons and an ice ax to get to the summit. The wind is usually ferocious, and whiteout conditions are all too common,” according to these 10 tips for hiking Mt. Washington in winter. Make sure to check the latest conditions with Mount Washington Avalanche Center.

Hiking the Presidential Range

Presidential Traverse Trail is a 20.4 mile moderately trafficked point-to-point trail located near Randolph, New Hampshire. The trail offers several activity options and is best used from May until September. Mt. Washington is the highest point of the White Mountain part of the Appalachian Trail. If you have no more experience than day hiking, you don’t belong on Presidential Range. People die there, most often from exposure. That is when your body fails to protect itself from the extreme elements. Weather can change there in a matter of minutes. Learn more about the hike here.

Summit of Mount Washington - SheBuysTravel
Dark clouds can roll in unexpectedly at the summit of Mt. Washington. Photo credit: Yvonne Jasinski

My personal experience hiking Mt. Washington in New Hampshire

The hike I took in 1990 did not start as planned. We spent the night before at Dolly Copp Campground, hoping to get a good night’s sleep and start very early in the morning the next day. That did not happen. Out of nowhere came a wind so furious that no one could sleep through it. It felt like our cheap tent was going to be picked up and thrown on the ground somewhere else. Then there was noise, almost like an animal howling. It lasted for the entire night.

When the wind finally calmed down, we slept for a few hours. To stay on schedule, we gave up on climbing the mountain and concentrated just on hiking the Presidential Range. We took a hiker shuttle to the top, and then the fun began. I remember exactly how I felt when I spotted the sign that read: “The area ahead has the worst weather in America. Many have died there from exposure, even in the summer…”  I had no idea!

Weather warning at the top of Mt. Washington - SheBuysTravel
Surprise, surprise! Photo credit: Yvonne Jasinski

Be Honest About Your Hiking Ability

Luckily, the weather cooperated, but the hike was very difficult. In many parts, the trail was just loose sharp rocks, hard to maneuver. We spend two nights in hikers huts and one night camping in the woods. Hiking down was as difficult as climbing up, and I was not even 30 then! In the end, after negotiating piles after piles of rocks all day long, my legs were exhausted. When we finally reached a nearby hotel, I was not able to get up and walk! I did not belong on that trail for sure.

Spacious parking for those who drove Auto Road to the top of Mt. Washington, New Hampshire - SheBuysTravel
You can climb Mt. Washington or drive it. There is spacious parking for those who drive the Auto Road to the top of Mt. Washington. Be sure to grab a “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington” bumper sticker! Photo credit: Yvonne Jasinski

What Awaits at the Summit of Mount Washington

If you climb Mt. Washington, you will be rewarded with stunning views of the White Mountains. You’ll also find The Sherman Adams Visitor Center, a cafeteria, restrooms, gift shops and the Mount Washington Observatory. The Observatory maintains two unique science museums: the Weather Discovery Center in downtown North Conway, NH, and Extreme Mount Washington on the summit. The historic Tip-Top House is located adjacent to the summit building. The views from the summit are spectacular if you are lucky! Do not get discouraged if the weather is less than perfect. Wait! With the ever-changing winds, the clouds could open up just for you! Take a short hike to get a feel for the trails.

Things to Do in the White Mountains of New Hampshire

The area has much to offer in addition to climbing Mt. Washington. Plan to visit the White Mountains for at least a week-long New Hampshire vacation. If you love the outdoors, Kancamagus Highway, Franconia Notch State Park, Flume Gorge, Echo Lake State Park and Diana’s Baths should be on your list of attractions. The area is a nature lover’s paradise and great for hiking with kids.

Seren Echo Lake State Park in White Mountains of New Hampshire - SheBuysTravel
One of New Hampshire’s White Mountains premier attractions, Serene Echo Lake State Park will soothe your soul. Photo credit: Yvonne Jasinski

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Yvonne Jasinski Avatar
Yvonne Jasinski passed away on June 19, 2021 from complications of cancer. She is greatly missed. See more about Yvonne and her legacy here. SheBuysTravel continues to update her articles to keep sharing her thoughts and advice with the world.
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11 responses


  1. Way back in November of 1978 me and my buddy Mike made the trek up Mt. Washington on foot using the car road. Dressed for the worst weather and supplied with a pack of Marlboros and a bag of M & Ms we were hit with a blizzard as we were in the last thousand or so feet of the summit. We continued on but the wind was blowing so hard with the snow screaming by us causing whiteout conditions we could not see five feet in front of us. We made it to the parking area at the summit and the weather GOT WORSE. We turned around and got the H out of there. Made it down in record time. What an incredible experience. Thanks Mike!

  2. In the summer of ’71, after an argument about the cost and merits of fancy hiking boots ($45), I climbed it barefoot. Straight up, foregoing the trails and using my toes to grip rocks as I went up. Near the top, the rocks were very porous and sharp, almost like lava rock. Those last 200 meters were painful, but I made it.

    Feet survived fine, but I would never consider a repeat.

    Never ever!

  3. Is it possible to hike up and take the cog railway down? Planning on doing this in June 2020.

  4. me and my bro climbed it quite a few tears ago, but I have gotten in a motorcycle accident since then and I wont be doing it again. It was awesome! Ill never forget it!

    1. Sorry to hear that. I hope you will find other ways to enjoy your life.

  5. 4.5

  6. 3.5

  7. Well told and photographed! Have hiked this several times fall and winter and Yvonne described it perfectly!

    1. Thank you Jim. You and Yong are mentioned in this post with a one word sentence, nuts! LOL

  8. 5

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