I spent most of this month off-trail down in Boston, helping a family member recuperate from major surgery. It was important that I be there, even though it meant leaving my beloved White Mountains for close to four weeks. I decided to climb up Mt Washington to test how much conditioning I’d lost in my absence. The weather forecast called for chilly but clear weather, with a touch of autumn already in the air.
There are a lot of different routes you can take to climb Washington and I decided to approach the peak from the northeast, coming up the back way on the Nelson Crag Trail, which overlooks the Great Gulf. From the summit, I descended the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, climbing down the headwall trail to the bottom of the ravine and back to Pinkham Notch in a big loop.
Washington is often a crowded summit, but you can usually experience some solitude if you hike up one of the less popular trails that don’t have a parking lot at their base. (I actually didn’t encounter a soul on the trail for the first 5.5 miles of this hike, all the way to the summit.)
While the Nelson Crag trail fits that description to a T, it’s one of the rougher ascents because it crosses miles of boulder fields that resemble the surface of the moon. It’s a much more strenuous trail than the popular Tuckerman Ravine Trail and not one I’d want to climb down if it was avoidable. While not as dangerous as its close neighbor the Huntington Ravine Trail, climbing down through boulder fields and steep rock ledges is not recommended. The Nelson Crag Trail is also very exposed to bad weather and should be avoided in high wind and rain. But in great weather, it is an awesome route with fantastic views.
This route starts at the AMC’s Pinkham Lodge.
The complete loop for this hike is:
- Old Jackson Rd (AT): 1.9 miles, 750 ft elevation gain
- Nelson Crag Trail: 3.6 miles, 3750 ft elevation gain
- Tuckerman Ravine Trail: 4.2 miles, all downhill
On the Trail
I arrived at Pinkham Notch at 7:00 AM to get an early start. While my route was about 10 miles long, I fully expected it to take 7-9 hours to hike over the rocky terrain and climb the 4500 feet of elevation gain to the summit and back. I know my pace, but if you’ve not hiked Mt Washington before it pays to look up the expected times in the AMC’s White Mountain Guide so you can figure out a good turnaround time.
A turnaround time is the time you decide to turnaround if you hike slower than expected and won’t make it to the summit without enough time to descend safely before sunset. While the summit is optional, getting down isn’t. Having a turnaround time that you stick to is good on this peak because you don’t want to hike down it in the dark. If you slip and fall and hurt yourself while downclimbing through the boulder fields and rocky summit cone, you’ll be out of cellphone range or easy access for rescuers. Washington has no pity for the unprepared. Get an early start to hedge your bets.
I started up the Old Jackson Road which is part of the Appalachian Trail, before turning left at the Nelson Crag Trail Junction. The trail follows a sequence of bog bridges before it starts climbing. The lower section below 3000 feet is fairly moderate, but it gets progressively steeper and rockier as you climb. The section between 3000 feet and treeline narrows but the trail is still easy to discern, although it could use a good brushing.
When you reach treeline, you pop out onto a wide plateau with great views of Bootspur Mountain, Madison, Adams, and the entire Carter Moriah and Wildcat Ridge. From here, you’ll ascent a series of these plateaus, interspersed with small clutches of krumholz. The trail intersects the Auto Road briefly at an intermittent spring, called Cragway Spring, which was dry when I passed it.
I carried three liters of water for this ascent because I know that the rocks in the boulder fields heat up in the sun and cause you to perspire more quickly than normal. I drank every drop, despite pre-hydrating for this hike, and had to refill my bottles at the summit cafeteria.
After Cragway, the trail becomes much rougher, including a steep and rocky scramble up to the next mini-plateau. All of these areas are completely exposed to the elements, which is why you don’t want to be here on high wind days or days when thunderstorms are even hinted at in the Mt Washington Higher Summits Observatory Forecast.
You soon reach a massive rock cairn just before the Alpine Garden trail junction. This is the site of Nelson Crag, recently renamed Agiocochook Crag. This is the original Native American name of Mt Washington meaning “the place of the great spirit.”
From the Alpine Garden Trail junction, it’s boulders all the way but the trail is better defined by scree borders. The next subpeak is called Ball Crag, just below the Cog Railway tracks. Cross the tracks before climbing over more boulders to the summit building.
Tuckerman Ravine Trail
The start of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail is not obvious, so look for the parking lot on Washington’s south face. Walk down the wooden staircase that leads to it and the trail begins at the bottom of it.
Take your time descending this trail, especially the first 1000 feet between the top of Washington and the big cairn at the top of the Tuckerman Ravine headwall. Make sure to read and follow the signs down the trail because there are intersecting trails on the descent. For example, don’t follow the Alpine Garden Trail, or the Lawn Cuttoff, since neither descend. Just keep on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail.
The trail continues steeply down the headwall, passing several waterfalls. These can make the trail wet in places, so watch your step as you descend. The trail becomes much easier when you’ve reached the First-Aid Rescue Cache at the floor of the ravine, just before reaching the Avalanche Ranger’s hut. If you have to hike out in the dark, this is where you want to get to before sunset.
From here, it’s just a long slog down the Tuckerman Ravine Trail back to the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center.
Recommended Guidebooks and Maps:
- Appalachian Mountain Club White Mountain Guide, 31st ed.
- AMC White Mountain National Forest Map Set
- White Mountains Map: New Hampshire and Maine