Mount Washington Auto Road

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Drive to the Clouds - The Mount Washington Auto Road

Apr 10, 2004 (Updated Apr 14, 2004)
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:unlike any other attraction in the area, spectacular scenery and views, a unique experience

Cons:for those of you scared of heights, you might be hiding under the back seat

The Bottom Line: The prices might be a bit high, but you would be hard pressed to find a similar experience anywhere else and this along makes the trip worth it


Interested in driving what could be New England’s most scenic and breathtaking road?

The Mount Washington Auto Road winds its way up the shoulder of Mount Washington for eight miles from Pinkham Notch to the 6,288 foot summit of Mount Washington. Along the way the road has an average gradient of about 12% and for over half of the drive, you are above treeline and able to see as far as the conditions will allow for.

Anyone in the Mount Washington valley area of New Hampshire, should stop and take a drive up Mount Washington, it’s an experience you won’t soon forget!

History

The Mount Washington Auto Road is considered one of America’s first man-made attractions. It’s opened in 1861 as a horse and carriage road and serviced the hotels and other development that had occurred on the summit of Mount Washington. By 1911 automobiles had replaced most of the carriages and the road slowly became known as the Mount Washington Auto Road. Today it serves as access to Mount Washington State Park (located on the summit) and the Mount Washington Observatory.

Basics

The auto road is open to public traffic from mid-May until mid-October, depending upon the weather. Remember though, Mount Washington is home to the “world’s worse weather” and conditions can vary from day to day and even hour to hour. In more extreme conditions, the road will be shut down for the day (generally this occurs when there are icing conditions near the top of the road, or very high winds). It’s been known to snow every month of the year on Mount Washington and often you’ll start at the base with temperatures in the 70’s and 80’s and get to the top and need to wear a sweater or even a jacket, as it’s only 30 or 40 degrees on the summit of Mount Washington.

There are a couple of ways you can get up the Mount Washington Auto Road. First you can drive your own car up – that’s how you get that cool “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington Bumper Sticker.” This however can be challenging for some people, as the road is very exposed, just wide enough for a car going in both directions, and at times can be very intimidating for someone to drive (especially if you are afraid of heights). You may also not be interested in subjecting your car to the eight miles up and then back down on the mountain. If you’re not interested in driving, the Mount Washington Auto Road Company offers Stage Vans that leave every so often for the summit and will bring you up to the summit without having to drive. If you’re around Mt. Washington in the winter, the Mount Washington Auto Road Company offers “snow-coach” rides to the level of treeline on the mountain (about 4 miles up) so that you can experience Mount Washington’s alpine area in the winter.

There aren’t too many place where you can drive your car up to the top of highest peak in New England and the prices for the Mount Washington Auto Road show that. For private vehicles going up the Auto Road it’s $18 for the car and driver and $7 for each additional adult or $4 for each child age 5 to 12. This includes your bumper sticker and a cassette or CD that will provide an audio tour as you are driving up the mountain. The Stage Vans are a bit more expensive, a ride to the summit is $24 for adults, $22 for seniors and $10 for children age 5 to 12 (children under 5 are free).

There are some vehicle limitations for the road (mostly relating to transmission gears and the size and weight of vehicles), so you should check out the Auto Road’s website to see if your car is good to go before you decide on going up the Mount Washington Auto Road.

There are plenty of pull-offs and parking areas along the road so that you can stop and enjoy the view (or calm down, depending on how your doing driving up or down). The CD or cassette that you are given at the base will explain the history of the road and detail the views that you have, so you have an idea of what you are looking at. If you are familiar with the Mount Washington’s trails, or pick up a copy of the Trail Guide, you can use the road to take smaller hikes around the mountain or to further explore the alpine area of Mount Washington.

Once you’re on top of Mount Washington, the summit includes the Mount Washington Observatory where there is a museum, a cafeteria, gift shop, along with rest rooms and eating areas. There is the restored Tip Top House, which today is now a museum but used to be a hotel on the summit of Mount Washington. The Cog Railway, climbing the mountain from the other side also reaches the summit and you can watch the trains laboring up the mountain as you enjoy the views.

My Experiences

You might think that you want to have a clear day to drive up the Mount Washington Auto Road but that’s not always the case. The Auto Road is unique among New England roads and is probably one of the most exciting and breathtaking eight miles that you’ll ever manage to drive around here.

I’ve driven the Auto Road twice, once in almost perfect weather and then again in very bad conditions. Both had their pluses and minuses. In the perfect weather you could see for miles around you. You were able to see across to the other Presidential mountains and down into the cirques and valleys that the Auto Road skirts around on its way to the summit. Once at the top, you could all around, taking in all of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. In the bad weather, it was just as exciting and interesting. The Mountain was completely in the clouds with visibility around 15 to 20 feet. Cars would melt in and out of the fog as I was driving up and down, and the higher that I got up the mountain, the stronger the winds were blowing – you could feel the car being buffeted by the stronger and stronger winds. By the time we got to the top, the wind was up around 70 miles per hour and you could watch the clouds you were standing in, just whip around the summit of Mount Washington.

Either way I would do it again, but for first timers, I’d suggest trying for a day that is fairly clear and calm. It makes driving the road easier and you are rewarded with the stunning views from the summit of Mount Washington. I’d also suggest going up the mountain early in the day soon after the road opens and then enjoying the summit until you have to leave when the road closes. It gives you the maximum amount of time to enjoy both the road and the mountain.

Final Thoughts

I can’t think of a more exciting or breathtaking drive in the Northeast. Anyone in the vicinity of Mount Washington in New Hampshire, should take a day and either drive up or ride up the Mount Washington Auto Road. It’s one of America’s first man-made attractions and it climbs the side of one of the most spectacular mountains in the region.

The prices might be a bit high, but you would be hard pressed to find a similar experience anywhere else and this along makes the trip worth it. Practice driving close to the edge of a big drop-off, warm up that engine, pack a jacket and go drive up the Mount Washington Auto Road.

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Thanks to SurgRN911 for adding this for me!

More White Mountain Attractions

Mount Washington Cog Railway / Wildcat Mountain / Cannon Mountain / Tuckerman Ravine / White Mountain National Forest


Recommend this product? Yes


Best Suited For: Families
Best Time to Travel Here: Jun - Aug

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