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Do you remember your childhood summer road trips? The ones that involved a station wagon and the highlight of the experience was buying a key chain with your name on it? If you’re planning one that includes New Hampshire, don’t miss the chance to summit a mountain via the Mount Washington Cog Railway.
It’s been a really long time since I packed up the minivan with suitcases, kids, videotapes, coolers and hit the highway for a summer road trip. Back in the day, we’d pile in, sing silly songs and play the license plate game for hours. Arriving at our destination, we’d grab handfuls of attraction brochures from the display rack in the motel lobby and plan out our itinerary. Each day was an adventure, ending in the motel pool.
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My daughter and I tried to recreate that nostalgic feeling on a road trip to New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Neither of us had visited before, so we were very excited to explore a new place. Our plan for our first morning was to summit Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast. And then grab lunch.
Climb 6,289 feet in a few hours?
To answer your question, no, we’re not Wonder Women.
We simply hopped on board the Mount Washington Cog Railway. Settled in a beautiful, handcrafted in New Hampshire coach car, we traveled the steep 3 miles in under an hour on the world’s first mountain climbing cog railroad!
History of the Mount Washington Cog Railway
Sylvester Marsh was the Elon Musk of the 1800s. He envisioned a safe and fun way for Victorian ladies and gentlemen to ascend to the top of Mt. Washington via train. It wasn’t easy to hike in crinolines and corsets. When he presented his idea to the New Hampshire State Legislature, he was ridiculed and told he might as well build his railway to the moon. Lucky for me, Sylvester ignored them and built a technological marvel, the first cog railway in the United States and the world. 2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Mt. Washington Cog Railway.
Explore the Marshfield Base Station
Plan to arrive about an hour and a half prior to your train ride rather than blowing into the Marshfield Base Station right before your departure. My daughter and I went at 9 a.m. (We had 10:30 tickets) to watch the traditional steam engine depart on its single daily departure. Watching the steam locomotive engine push the coach up the mountain was like a scene out of the storybook The Little Engine that Could: “I think I can. I think I can.” I was as excited as the little children hopping up and down on the base station deck.
Then we tucked inside the building for breakfast. The friendly staff prepares large, made-to-order egg sandwiches. After washing it down with steaming hot coffee, I felt appropriately sated for my ascent.
The small museum is a recent addition and includes a short film, science fun facts about how steam generates power, the pros of using biodiesel engines and an explanation of how the cog works. The mechanics are very simple. Picture a normal set of railway tracks with a chain in the middle, similar to a bicycle chain. The engine has 4 sprocket wheels and each coach has two. The wheels engage with the chain, providing stability as the engine pushes the coach up the hill and braces it on the descent.
Make Reservations in Advance
Riding the Mount Washington Cog Railway is a popular attraction for New England visitors. During the fall foliage season, approximately 1500 daily riders shuttle between the base station and the summit. My 10:30 a.m. coach was filled to its 70-person capacity. To avoid disappointment, make your reservation ahead of time. The downside though is that advance reservations can’t be changed.
SheBuysTravel Tip: Leaf peepers should book during the summer to secure a spot from mid-September through Columbus Day.
Expect the Unexpected, Weather-wise
Mount Washington promotes its reputation as the site of the world’s worst weather. On my visit, conditions at the base station were overcast with a temperature in the high 60s. By the time we exited the coach at the summit, the temperature was 22 degrees with gusting winds and occasional bursts of sleet. And we were visiting in June!
During the ride, you pass through four climate zones with unique flora and fauna, one of the interesting tidbits our brakeman shared as we climbed the mountain. In addition to visually monitoring track conditions and safely navigating switches, the Cog brakemen provide narration about the railway and are happy to answer questions.
Lucky guests visiting the summit on a clear day enjoy a crisp panoramic view encompassing the Atlantic Ocean, New York and Canada. During our trip, visibility was about 5 feet, but that didn’t diminish the experience at all. I felt like I was walking around in a storm cloud. Clutching the summit sign to avoid being blown off the mountain made me feel like Jon Krakauer and less like a city slicker. It was an amazing, bucket list experience, in case I don’t have the time to train for a mountain climb in the future.
Dress in Layers on the Mount Washington Cog Railway
I gawked at people boarding the train wearing shorts and sandals. Apparently they hadn’t read the section on the website advising visitors about the changeable weather conditions. I appreciated my sturdy shoes, fleece and scarf.
Exploring the summit is much more enjoyable when you’re not gritting your teeth and shivering. The gift shop at base station is well-stocked with sweatshirts and other items, if you forget to pack layers. It also has very cute stuffed moose dressed in conductor uniforms.
Even dressed warmly, I was happy there was coffee at the summit cafeteria. I downed a cup before heading back outside to check out the restored Tip Top House. Built in 1853, it functioned as a hotel and as the publishing house for the region’s daily newspaper, Among the Clouds. There’s also a weather-related exhibit called Extreme Mount Washington. If you are wondering what the views are like on a clear day, there’s a panorama that made me want to try my luck again!
Give Cog Yoga a Try
The steepest part of the ride is Jacob’s Ladder, coincidentally marked by trestle Number 666 – known as the Devil’s number. The grade is 37% at that point, meaning there’s an elevation difference of 13 feet between the front of the coach and the back.
What does that mean to people who aren’t Neil deGrasse Tyson?
It means you’ll want to jump into the aisle and lean back. Really far back. Without holding on to anything. Depending upon your flexibility, you’ll be able to get into a position that would make any yogi jealous. Kids especially love this. And me!
SheBuysTravel Tip: If you’re traveling with little ones, sit near the front of the coach. Chat with your brakeman. You might get a penny flattened by the train and a photo op wearing his hat!
On the ride back to base station, the brakemen will answer questions but don’t provide the same narration, urging riders to relax and enjoy the view. We chatted with our fellow passengers. One family brought their 90+ year old matriarch back to visit the Cog. She worked there as a young college student when the railway was owned by Colonel Henry N. Teague. (Subsequent owners included Dartmouth College who received the railway in a bequest.) At that time, workers lived on site and things got wild.
A Foot Race to the Top
On one ride, emboldened by beer, a young lady jumped up, declared she was faster than the train, jumped off and proceeded to race up the mountain. She fell. Another worker jumped off and saved her. Scolded afterwards, the blonde (that was what the Colonel called her) said she didn’t need to be rescued; she would have let the train roll over her! Everyone reminded her that there are big wheels underneath and she would have been an unfortunate magician’s assistant – split in half!
The round trip ride takes approximately 3 hours. We collected restaurant recommendations from our fellow passengers and set off in search of “massive” lobster rolls. The weather was warm and the day clear for the continuation of our New Hampshire road trip. My daughter and I congratulated each other on a job well done: we came, we saw, we climbed!
Ride the Mount Washington Cog Railway
If You Go:
The Mount Washington Cog Railway website has everything you need to plan your trip including an operating calendar, history of the Cog and important information about preparing for your visit.
Ticket prices in 2019 are $72 for adults with discounts for children and seniors (kids under 3 are free). There’s an additional charge if you choose to take the historic steam engine ride. There’s a discount for groups and for riders on the last train of the day. Hikers can purchase a one-way trip if they don’t want to do a roundtrip climb.
If you’re spending a couple of days on your New Hampshire road trip in the White Mountains, consider a Value Pass. For $399, you receive admission to 17 area attractions, including the Cog.
Mount Washington Cog Railway
3168 Base Station Rd
Bretton Woods, NH 03589
Where to Stay:
If you’re looking for comfortable, clean, budget-friendly lodging on your New Hampshire road trip, Carlson’s Lodge in Twin Mountain, NH fits the bill.
Family-operated since the 1960s, Carlson’s feels like you’re visiting Grandma, complete with clutter, memorabilia and family photos. Carlson’s is a vintage motor hotel mountain chalet, with a small playground and gated pool. Don’t let the disarray of the lobby put you off; the Lodge is fabulously clean.
My deluxe corner room was huge, with two queen beds (one with a plush mattress, one more firm), a sitting/tv area, dining table, and kitchenette. Conveniently, the bathroom sink was outside of the toilet/shower area. Wifi is free and worked better in the lobby than in our room.
Continental breakfast (dry cereals with milk/juice/tea/coffee and fruit) is available from 8 a.m.. Early rising caffeine addicts (that’s me raising my hand) can use the in-room coffee maker. Average 2019 rates for a Deluxe Corner are $157. If visiting with children, call the Lodge and speak with the owner. Carlson’s likes to appropriately accommodate guests and they feel that, depending on the age of guests, certain rooms are better than others.