New Hampshire's Mount Washington endures 'world's worst weather'
The Mt. Washington Stage Line van heads up the road at Mt. Washington. (Courtesy of Mt. Washington Auto Road / March 29, 2012)
- A stream cuts through the valley at the base of Mt. Washington.
- A moose grazes on the side of the Mt. Washington Auto Road.
- Rick Ruppel, a guide for the Mt. Washington Auto road, leads a van tour up Mt. Washington.
- Mt. Washington State Park sign
- An IT Observer works just off the summit of Mt. Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire
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- Mt. Washington, N.H.
Because of the dramatic weather, every mile up the road is equivalent to traveling 150 miles toward the North Pole, which means we passed in just under eight miles an astonishing number of climate zones — from northern hardwood forest to arctic.
The legendary weather prevented much of a view beyond a few hundred feet as we ascended farther in that grumbling van, but I hardly felt robbed; the show wasn't in the distance, it was in the changing landscape, which seemed even more dramatic amid the gray mist. In a remarkably short time — probably about 4,500 feet — the trees disappeared altogether, giving way to squat, scrubby bushes.
At close to 6,000 feet, a mere 20 minutes in the van, we crossed into an arctic landscape of moss-covered boulders. It happened at about half the elevation where such a change happens in mountains of the West. That's what Mount Washington winds do.
Finally we reached the wind-whipped visitor center that's open only during the most temperate months of the year (when the weather is slightly less awful), a low fortress of concrete and glass that would be fit for a James Bond nemesis plotting world domination. It looks that way to withstand the wind.
An unfathomably brave, raw-faced hiker was thawing out in there — he told me he was a recovering drug addict whose new addiction was climbing Mount Washington — but the rest of us had come the easy way. We ate chili from the small cafeteria, browsed the gift shop where everything was 40 percent off because the tourist season was ending and visited the lower-level museum that included images of the view on a clear day.
Then we piled back into the van and left the arctic behind. Thirty minutes later, we were back among tall trees, a light breeze and our cars.
I dropped my postcard in the mail and made a vow: Next time I'm walking.
If you go
Situated between North Conway and Gorham, N.H., and just off State Highway 16, Mount Washington is a readily accessible peak. But the closest large airports are a drive: Portland, Maine (90 miles); Manchester, N.H. (125 miles); and Boston (165 miles).
Mount Washington is within the massive White Mountain National Forest (tinyurl.com/cwhwqq) in northern New Hampshire and western Maine. The summit of the mountain comprises the 60-acre Mount Washington State Park (tinyurl.com/6n55cov). The mountain is open for year-round hiking, but summer is the most popular season. Be warned: Conditions can be so extreme that hikers get into trouble with exhaustion and hypothermia year-round. The visitor center at the summit, which includes a rudimentary cafeteria and gift shop, is open to the public between mid-May and October.
If you don't want to hike to the top, try the Mount Washington Auto Road (mtwashingtonautoroad.com) $30 for a guided tour, $25 for a private car and the driver, $8 for additional adults and $6 for kids between 5 and 12) and a railway (thecog.com; prices vary between $28 and $62 depending on the passenger and the season) that will take you to the summit. Both the road and railway are privately owned and have been operated since the 1860s.