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Mt Washington: Nelson Crag and the Alpine Garden

Rock Cairns mark the Alpine Garden Trail above treeline on Mt Washington
Rock Cairns mark the Alpine Garden Trail above treeline on Mt Washington

“I want a spectacular hike,” I told my friends Lisa and Ken, two strong hikers that I became good friends with last year. I hadn’t seen them for a few months and this was going to be a reunion hike for us.

We’d been tossing around ideas to hike up the Great Gulf, a huge glacial cirque that’s surrounded by Mt Washington and the Northern Presidentials (Madison, Adams, and Jefferson) before climbing up one of the headwall trails to the Northern Presi Ridge. There are few steep trails from the base of the valley that I haven’t hiked before and that I’d like to climb this year: Madison Gulf Trail, Six Husbands Trail, Sphinx Trail and the Buttress Trail.

Lisa, Ken, and I met at the Pinkham Notch Visitors Center at the base of Mt Washington for breakfast and wolfed down the all-you-can-eat pancakes, bacon, and home fries that the AMC serves there. When climbing in the Presidentials, it’s always a good idea to have a very big breakfast, since the routes have so much elevation gain and the approach hikes are long.

Welcome to the Alpine Zone sign on Mt Washington
Welcome to the Alpine Zone sign on Mt Washington

Being near 9:00 am, we decided to skip a Great Gulf hike since we ‘d need an earlier start to get out by dark without a car spot. Instead, we decided to climb up to the Alpine Garden on Mt Washington, via the less popular Nelson Crag Trail. The Alpine Garden is an alpine meadow on the east side of Washington about 1000 feet below the summit. The best time to hike it is in June, when the flowers in the meadow are in bloom. The Nelson Crag Trail also climbs Washington from the northeast, but it’s not used much by the hordes of hikers that climb Mt Washington, who mainly use the Tuckerman Ravine and Lion Head Trails to climb the mountain.

The lower section of the Nelson Crag Trail is an unrelenting climb that requires good  scrambling skills.
The lower section of the Nelson Crag Trail is an unrelenting climb that requires good scrambling skills.

When we started our hike, we didn’t have firm plans to climb Mt Washington, even though we’d pass by close to the summit. I hate to say it, but climbing Mt Washington gets kind of old after you’ve done it a few times. It’s also very crowded in summer, since most people drive to the top on the auto road and chow down in the mountain top cafeteria. There’s even a post office on the summit. It can be very strange up there sometimes.

We left the Visitor’s Center and hiked up the Old Jackson Road, which isn’t actually a road now, but probably was once in the logging days, coming to the Nelson Crag Trail head after about an hour of hiking. The bugs were out in force, so Ken and Lisa applied Deet and I just put on a headnet, since I was covered up in long pants, a long sleeve short, and hat, my normal hiking uniform.

The Rockpile (Mt Washington) seen from the Nelson Crag Tableland
The Rockpile (Mt Washington) seen from the Nelson Crag Tableland

Below treeline, the Nelson Crag Trail is narrow and steep, with lots of wet and rocky scrambles. But once you get above treeline, it is horribly exposed to wind and weather, and the last place I’d want to be during a thunderstorm because of the lightning danger.

The Nelson Crag Trail, intersects the auto road after 1.7 miles and 2200 feet of elevation gain, before continuing another 1.1 miles and 900 feet to the Huntington Ravine Trail Junction (top of the ravine.)  It was here that we ran into Rachel Kowalski, author of Such Great Hikes, and her dog Isis. They joined us for the rest of our hike and fit right in with our motley group. Rachel is training for a two-week section hike of The Long Trail this summer and was carrying a 40 pound pack. She hadn’t been expecting “the ass-kicking”, as she called it, that would be doled out by the Nelson Crag Trail, but she’d made it up with Isis in tow, which is a pretty good indication to me that she’ll do fine in Vermont on the LT.

Rachel Kowalski and Isis
Rachel Kowalski and Isis

We got off the Nelson Crag Trail and onto the Alpine Garden Trail, passing the cairn above the Huntington Ravine Trail, which is considered the most difficult trail in the White Mountains. Like famous Tuckerman Ravine, there’s a daily avalanche forecast in Huntington Ravine every winter, although unlike Tuckerman, it’s mostly used by ice climbers, not backcountry skiers.

Lisa gawks over the edge into Huntington Ravine, considered the most difficult route up Mt Washington
Lisa gawks over the edge into Huntington Ravine, considered the most difficult route up Mt Washington

The Alpine Garden is on a plateau about 1000′ below the summit of Mt Washington. Classified as alpine tundra, the garden has a very short growing season because it’s covered in snow most of the year. The dominant plants are Bigelow sedge, highland rush, and dwarfed heath shrub. (The Nature of New Hampshire is an excellent reference for understanding above-treeline plant life in New Hampshire’s wilderness communities.)

Dwarf shrubs, also known as Krummhollz
Dwarf shrubs, also known as krummholz
Profusion of Bigelow Sedge in the Alpine Garden
Profusion of Bigelow Sedge in the Alpine Garden
Diapensia shrubland in the Alpine Garden
Diaspensia shrubland in the Alpine Garden

Once through the garden, we came to the Lion Head Trail which is the most popular route up Washington, running along the top edge of Tuckerman Ravine (which is currently closed due to spring avalanche danger.) Ken and I weren’t that interested in hiking the extra mile and 1000 feet up to the summit, but Lisa wanted to go because she’s only climbed the peak in winter.We’d already climbed 4000′ in the day, so climbing another 1000′ wasn’t a big deal.

Father and daughter hiking down the final mile of Mt Washington
Father and daughter hiking down the final mile of Mt Washington

The final mile of hiking up Washington isn’t exactly a trail, it’s a boulder field, which is why Mt Washington is often referred to as ‘The Rockpile.’ There are cairns to guide through you through the rock jumble, but good footwork is required to avoid falling and getting cut up on the rocks. This isn’t a place you want to be, however, when the mountain top is covered in cloud or a thunderstorm is on the horizon, headed your way.

Mt Washington via the Nelson Crag and Alpine Garden Trails
Mt Washington via the Nelson Crag and Alpine Garden Trails

It took us an hour to get to the summit, but it was well worth it because Lisa and I grabbed ice cream bars at the summit cafe, in addition to cold cokes. Once fortified, we headed back down the way we’d come to the Alpine Garden Trail junction, continuing south down the knee grinding, boulder choked hell  of the Lion Head Trail and the Tuckerman’s Ravine Trails.

Descending back to Pinkham Notch via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail
Descending back to Pinkham Notch via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail

It was a long and arduous descent, but totally worth it. We’d had fantastic weather on the summit, with bright sunshine and low winds: a fitting reunion for hiking friends and a memory that I’m sure we’ll all cherish.

Distance: 10.6 miles with 5000′ of elevation gain.

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12 comments

  1. Nelson’s Craig has been on my list for a while. Did you take Old Jackson Road to get there?

    If you were to tell me you were climbing “the rock pile” i’d think of Madison before Washington. I remember some blog saying “Mt.Madison is more like a pile of rocks that goes rather high than a true mountain”

    • Yep. Nope Washington is called the Rockpile.

      • Not debating proper names just saying that is what I would think of.

        Whole area is “The moonscape” to me.

      • …except there are few jagged rocks on the moon since everything there has been pulverized by eons of micrometeorites, thus softening and rounding the edges of the exposed rocks. All that being said, when I was there a couple years ago, it all looked like a moonscape to me, too.

  2. How long did this take you

  3. The rush of being on Mount Washington never goes down. However the rocky Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail is torture going up and coming down. Nice Report!

  4. Thank you for the beautiful pictures and description.

    I love rock hopping. I fancy myself a billy goat from a previous life :-)

  5. Hiked the Nelson Craig November 1 1987 with a buddy…made it above treeline to about 5000’…wind cut us to pieces…( -25°F…windchill about -35°F) snow packed…bailed to the Toll Road at the 6 mile mark and went back down that way…took 4 hours to get down the Toll Road as it was clear boilerplate ice for about 2+ miles down…we were equipped for the cold but hindsight being 20/20 … should have had crampons…great hike though, would love to do it again…winds at the peak that day were over 80+…love The Rockpile.

  6. Looks like a great hike, and such gorgeous weather!

  7. Nelson Craig Trail UPDATE. I descended Nelson Craig from the Alpine Garden yesterday July 23, 2016. Once you leave the garden you are completely exposed. Keep your a eye on the weather. This trail is a grueling grind above tree line. And it is a nightmare below treeline. Below treeline, at its most 30 inches wide and poorly marked. At points I was worried I was off trail. It is super steep,slick and a destroyer of knees. Your best option is to descent the Auto road when the trail meets treeline and hop on the AT when it crosses. I have climbed Mt Washington many times. This trail is not for the faint of heart or anyone who is not a very strong climber. Below treeline is a nightmare ( I can’t emphasize this enough!)

    • Nothing to Update. It’s always been like this, but it’s really not all the different from any above treeline trail on Washington or in the presidential range. Going down the Auto Road….you’ve got to be joking. What joy is there in that?

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