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This Car Climbed Mt Washington

I did something last week that I never thought I’d ever do. I drove up to the summit of Mt Washington with my wife.  She’s not familiar with the White Mountains and wanted to see where I’ve been going to hike and backpack this summer. She’s not a hiker or an outdoors type, so I found myself paying $33 dollars to drive up a mountain I usually hike up for free.

Mt Adams and Mt Madison, Northern Presidential Range
Mt Adams and Mt Madison, Northern Presidential Range

She enjoyed the views and we had great weather, which was lucky, because the 6,288 foot summit of Mt Washington is covered by clouds over 100 days per year.  I’m glad she got to experience the majesty of the place and see why I am so compelled to spend time here.

I also got to scope out a few more hikes I want to do later this year in the Great Gulf up the shoulders of Mt Jefferson and Mt Adams. I’m starting to bag these high peaks from multiple points of the compass which is  surprising to me, because I  thought that kind of thing was only done by peak-bagging fanatics. But each route up is so different, that it’s like climbing a different summit every time and I’m enjoying the challenge of these difficult hikes.

A White Knuckle Drive

I’m not easily intimidated (in my car,) but this drive got my attention. The road to the summit switchbacks for 6.2 miles, climbing over 4,000 feet with a 12% average grade. There are no guard rails and after you pass the 4,000 foot mark, you are driving alongside slopes that are steep enough to qualify as cliffs.

Mount Monroe and the Southern Presidential Range
Mount Monroe, Lakes of the Clouds Hut and the Southern Presidential Range

My wife got scared when we reached treeline and she could see into the Great Gulf that separates Washington from Mount Clay, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. It’s looks like a bottomless pit. She was in the passenger seat looking straight down into it, while I kept my eyes glued on the narrow two lane road in front of us. I would have felt much safer if I’d been on foot among the cairns, even in the fierce 50 mile an hour winds we had on the summit that afternoon.

Auto Road History

The Mt Washington Auto Road has an interesting history. It was built 150 years ago using immigrant labor and black powder explosives, which were particularly unstable to work with. In those days, passengers boarded wagons pulled by 6 horses teams for the ride to the summit, which took up to seven hours to complete.  The wagons stopped regularly at buildings along the way where passengers could eat and refresh themselves. The trip down took 4 hours and burned through a complete set of leather brakes on each trip.

Throughout it’s history the Auto Road has been operated as a private concession like the Cog Railroad, which also provides transit to the top of Mount Washington. They’re both eyesores in my opinion, but I guess having them has helped ensured that the other high peaks in the region remain undeveloped (except for ski resorts on a few smaller mountains.)

Headwall of Tuckerman Ravine
Headwall of Tuckerman Ravine

Views from the Top

In the end, I guess it doesn’t really matter how you get to the top of Mount Washington, although my preference will always be by foot. On a clear day, the views from the summit are sublime and you can’t help but feel small in comparison to the peaks and ravines surrounding this massif.

Washington is right in the middle of the Presidential Mountain Range. To the north, lie Mts. Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. To the south, lie Mts. Monroe, Franklin, Eisenhower, Jackson, and Pierce. Plus Washington has many shoulders and ravines including Boot Spur, Tuckerman Ravine, Mount Clay, Huntington Ravine, Nelson Crag and more. There is still incredible variety here for true adventurers, and only one way to the top.

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17 comments

  1. A lot of the Forest Service roads in Idaho are like that. You're driving on a narrow, windy dirt road to get to your trail head and you look over and there's a good drop off. If you slid off of that you would never be found.

  2. I drove the auto road with my wife two weeks ago (after Seek the Peak) and it was pretty frightening. I can't believe they let just anyone drive it. And I can't believe the mountainside below the road isn't littered with wreckage and skeletons! In the future I'll stick with the old-fashioned way t the top.

  3. Must be the year to drive the road. I plan on riding with some family friends in a few weeks. This will be a different perspective of a favorite hike.

    They may not be able to get me back in the car once I feel the elevation- Its beautiful on the top!

  4. Did you get your bumper sticker?

  5. I got a couple of bumper stickers last week including the Mt Washington one. I want to put them on the car, but seems I've run out of space. I also got one from the Mountain Rescue Service at IME in North Conway. That one will probably go on first.

  6. Well, the drive could have been nicer, but I an glad you got a good view.

  7. There is a wonderful unstated side story here and one of my big questions as I pursue my big love of living a simple nature based life. How do we bring our loved ones along so they understand and they don’t fret as we plan to go “out there”?

    The Spot locator isn’t what I am talking about here.

    My 80 year old mom was the instigator of a great adventure for my fretting partner, my sister and me. After her major campaign, the four of us went to Wildcat and took the gondola to the top. My partner really enjoyed this part of the trip. Then mom, sis and I took on the adventure. We rode the zip lines. We had a willing photographer greeting us at the bottom.

    This is such a great hiking blog and I guess what I am talking about here is more of a relationship blog topic but we all have our back stories. I wonder how everyone here does this end of the planning. How do you get your loved ones engaged in your passion for hiking?

    Philip, wouldn’t you love to know how many of your stories get forwarded to this bystander audience?

  8. I've been married long enough that my wife is happy to get me out of the house and have it to herself for a few days when I go on trips. She does worry, however.

    I have a post in my draft queue titled "Married to a Hiker," but it really needs to be written from a non-hiker perspective and I can't coax my wife to do it. Does anyone feel like doing a guest post?

  9. "I have a post in my draft queue titled “Married to a Hiker,” but it really needs to be written from a non-hiker perspective and I can’t coax my wife to do it. Does anyone feel like doing a guest post?"

    Oh boy, I'd love to ave my wife write that for you, but don't think what she would write would be fit for posting :-) I think we all have a pretty good idea what that article would sound like, but it would be a fun read just the same.

  10. While you were driving to the top, did you listen to the CD they gave you? The narrator really cracks himself up a few times! We thought that was pretty funny. Great information about the auto road though. I too made my first drive up the auto road in May, with my girlfriend who was recovering from ACL surgery. She wanted to hike Mt. Washington for her 30th but we settled for driving instead due to the injury. Obviously hiking is preferred, but it's still a neat experience.

  11. We got to take advantage of the auto road a couple of weeks ago during our presidential traverse hike. One of the people in the group was struggling because of some health issues so she and her boyfriend decided to head back to the cars after reaching our second summit (Adams).

    After making sure they got to the correct trail junction we parted ways – each with an FCC radio. The plan was to see if we could meet up at Washington so her boyfriend could rejoin the group and finish the hike. As we approached the cog railway there was a crackle on the radio "we're at the top, where are you guys?". Within half an hour the whole gang was back together.

    The girl who was sick got two four-thousand footers (Madison & Adams) AND a "This Car Climbed Mount Washington" and her boyfriend got to finish the hike with us. Thank you auto road.

  12. Funny coincidence! I also drive up mt Washington last week w/my family (Wednesday 27th) – it was mostly cloudy for us :-( but still very nice.

  13. We took the cog railway to the top when we were children (after having a few smaller summits under our little belts) and my dad drove us up there at some point back then, too (in the family truckster.) I finally climbed it with him in 1999 and then again last summer. Being at the top as a tired, dirty, salty hiker huddled against the wind with my cheese sandwich is still my favorite way to be up there.

  14. Sometimes it's okay for us hikers to drive to the top, especially if we are trying to convince others to hike up someday. As for the road, sounds pretty hairy. You should try the Dragon here in East Tennessee. Talk about white knuckles or chunks out the window for some. :P

  15. If you are ever in Colorado, drive over Independence Pass into or out of Aspen. It's a fun drive with great views for the passengers. As a driver, it demands constant attention…

  16. A lot of logging roads in WA are like that. I don't know what's scarier, being a driver or being a passenger on those kinds of roads!

    I always feel sorry for guys who can't get their wives/gfs out there. I really enjoy sharing a backpacking experience with my SO. Plus, you can split the weight! Heh.

  17. When I was a child, we lived in Calgary, Alberta and my aunt, uncle, and cousins lived in Missoula, Montana. We made dozens of trips over Logan Pass in Glacier NP, a guaranteed white knuckler. Now, when I visit my brother in Montana, I just have to drive over Logan for old time's (and scenery's) sake. It's also the route to many of our hiking haunts.

    By the way, my other posts are under "David". I think I'll start using the moniker "Grandpa", which is used on another site.

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