To celebrate our wedding anniversary in 2010, Sarah and I decided to get away for a weekend in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Staying at a wonderful B&B in North Conway (the Cabernet Inn), one of the activities we planned for this trip was a hike to the “Middle Sister” peak on Mount Chocorua.
This was our first hike together, and we immediately fell in love with hiking and the White Mountains in general. More trips to the Whites followed and like anyone who begins trekking through those mountains, we eventually decided that our goal was to conquer the tallest peak in the Northeast – Mount Washington.
Home of the World’s Worst Weather
At 6,289 feet, Mount Washington is a milestone hike for many in the New England. It is, indeed, the tallest peak in the area, and with a prominence of 6,148 feet it is actually the most prominent mountain east of the Mississippi River. Adding to the mystique of this peak is the fact that it is known as the “home of the world’s worst weather”, a title that it has earned through a mix of unpredictable and extreme weather. The weather on Mount Washington can change very quickly, and it can sometimes be intense. For example, for nearly 75 years Mount Washington held the record for directly measured surface wind speed. On the afternoon of April 12, 1934, that wind speed was measured at 231 mph (372 km/h). Couple that with a recorded low temperature of −50 °F (−46 °C) and you can see why this peak has earned its ominous name.
As imposing and unforgiving as Mount Washington may sound, the reality is that is a super-accessible and very popular hike. While making it to the summit is certainly a challenge, it is one that you will make along a well-traveled trail with literally hundreds of other people if you choose to hike during the peak times of early Summer through early Fall. This combination of a superlative peak, a challenging hike, and an easily accessible trail is why so many people choose to make this trek each year.
The Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail
For our hike up Mount Washington, we chose the popular Tuckerman’s Ravine Trail for our ascent and the Lion’s Head Trail for the descent (these two trails connect at some point, so a good portion of our way both up and down was over the same trail). The distance of this hike would be approximately 8.2 miles, which would be the longest we had done at that point by over 2 miles.
Accompanying us on this trek were our friends Dennis and Kate. Dennis had hiked Mount Washington a few times already, so having him along and knowing that someone in our party was familiar with this hike gave us a sense of comfort.
The visitor center at the trailhead for this hike was very busy when we pulled up around 8:30am. There were already many hikers on their way up the mountain and lots more were getting ready to begin their climb. The visitor center has a large (and free) parking area as well as bathrooms, a restaurant, and a supply shop. If you failed to pack something for your hike, you can likely get it here. Kate actually forgot to pack any rain protection for our hike, so she picked up a windbreaker at the visitor center – a smart decision that would come into play later in the day as the weather turned against us.
The Way Up
We started up the mountain at just about 9:00am. I always find myself winded at the start of a hike. Even on small hikes, for the first mile or so I struggle until I can find my mojo and settle in. This trek was no different and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I questioned whether or not I was ready to make this journey. Thankfully, I started to feel stronger as the hike progressed and we came to the first landmark on the trail, the “Crystal Cascades”. This small waterfall is only about 10 minutes into the hike and it provided a nice stopping point and an opportunity to snap some pictures and catch my breath.
After leaving the Cascades, we continued our climb up the mountain. The first part of this trail is not a difficult hike at all. It has a pretty gradual grade and fairly rocky path. After hiking for nearly two and a half miles (and for about 2 hours), we came to the next landmark on the trail - the Hermit Lake Shelter.
Set at the base of Tuckerman’s Ravine, this shelter is a great place to stop for a breather before tackling the .7 mile trek up to the top of the ravine. Our group took a few minutes to load up on some trail mix, snap a few more photos, and get ourselves ready for a climb that would get a bit more difficult from this point forward.
The .7 miles up the ravine is actually not as challenging as you would expect. There are a number of switchbacks that make this part of the journey a bit easier, but you do need to be mindful of the trail itself. We saw multiple places that were wet and slick, as well as some spots where the footing seemed a bit precarious. I never felt unsafe, but I was also climbing very cautiously to make sure I wouldn’t slip along the way.
The view from the top of the ravine is stunning. This was another opportunity for us to take a short breather and grab a few photos. Looking down into the ravine, Dennis told us how people hike this trail in the winter and ski down the ravine. Being at the top of that area on a nice Fall day, I couldn’t imagine how people would be brave enough to visit this place in Winter, never mind ski down that slope!
Turning back to the trail, we now had the most challenging part of the road ahead of us. The final mile to the peak of Mount Washington is over the rocky landscape that gives the “White Mountains” their name. At this part of the hike, you are basically following a path marked by rock cairns and you are bouncing from boulder to boulder. Sarah and I found ourselves straying from the trail more than once, but there are so many people climbing at this point that you would be hard pressed to really get lost. As long as you keep going up and follow the general flow of traffic, you will make it to the top.
I’m not going to sugarcoat it, this part of the hike was pretty hard. I remember seeing a signpost telling us we had .8 miles left to go. After hiking for what seemed like an hour, I came to the next signpost, expecting it to say that we had only .2 or .3 miles left. Nope, it said .7 miles. We had only gone one tenth of a mile! Deflated but not defeated, we continued our climb and eventually reached the parking lot near the top of the mountain. Yes, there is a parking lot shortly below the peak of Mount Washington – a summit that is really unlike any other you will find.
At the Summit
If you’ve ever climbed a mountain, you know that at the peak you will likely some fellow hikers and some wonderful views. At the summit of Mount Washington, however, you will find a small village bustling with activity! It truly is unlike anything I have ever seen in my years of climbing mountains.
First off, as many hikers as you may have seen climbing the trail up to the peak, once you get to the top of Mount Washington you will realize that there are way more people there than you expected. This is because you can actually drive up to the top of the mountain via the Mount Washington Auto Road or you can take the Cog Railway train to the summit. Thousands upon thousands of people make these treks each year, so you and your tired hiking companions will find yourself rubbing elbows at that summit with people who took the “easy way” up.
The first thing we did once reaching the summit was to take a picture with the iconic sign marking this spot. It was pretty windy up there, so we donned our windbreakers and hats and waited in the line to snap a shot in front of that signpost.
Next, we checked out the Tip-Top House, a stone building at the peak of the mountain. According to Wikipedia, the Tip Top House is a “historic former hotel. It is the oldest surviving building on the summit of Mount Washington and believed to be the oldest extant mountain-top hostelry in the world.” Inside of the house was a museum-like display of how it would’ve been set up in years past.
At this point we had been hiking for 4 hours, so it was lunch time and we were all starving. There is a cafeteria/gift shop at the top of Mount Washington that was pretty crowded when we got in. We had packed lunches, but some fellow hikers on the way up the mountain told us that we had to try the chili that they sold at the summit, so we got in line and purchased a few bowls. It was the best chili I’ve ever had. Granted, I am willing to admit that after a 4 hour hike, any hot bowl of chili would’ve been amazing, but whatever the reason may have been, that chili sure hit the spot.
Besides chili, the cafeteria at the top of Mount Washington serves sandwiches, pizza, soup, etc. Like I said, this peak is unlike any other. I know I’ve never seen someone selling slices of pizza on any other hike I’ve ever done!
After lunch, we filled up our water packs and used the restrooms (two more nice advantages that this summit offers over others) and we grabbed a few souvenirs for the kids from the gift shop. We wanted to spend more time at the summit and visit the weather station, but there were reports that a storm was coming in. Knowing how fast the weather on the mountain could change, we decided to get back on the trail and head down the mountain before that weather turned on us. All in all we spent 1 hour at the summit, which means we were now 5 hours into our excursion.
We began our trek down the mountain by taking the Lion’s Head trail. This is another popular trail on Mount Washington and we had plenty of company alongside us as we hiked. The weather remained clear, but we saw the clouds starting to darken and we knew that we would not make it off the trail before the rain started. Our goal was to at least get below the tree line before that happened.
The rain began just as we approached the tree line. We were a solid two hours into our descent at this point and although we were getting wet, it was much better than had we been exposed closer to the top of the mountain. Those next two hours on the trail were a challenge, however. Even though we thankfully had our rain gear on (Kate was so happy she had picked up that jacket at the shop at the base of the trail), it was still a soggy slog down the mountain and in our desire to just get off the trail as quickly as possible, we neglected to stop and fuel up as frequently as we should’ve along the way. Those final 2 hours of hiking were absolute proof to us of how quickly the weather can change in the White Mountains.
A full 9 hours after we had started on our journey, we came off the trail and returned to the visitor center and parking lot. Shedding our packs and wet coats, Sarah and I looked at each other and smiled. We had done it. We’d conquered the tallest mountain in the Northeast.
While Mount Washington may not stack up to the taller peaks in the Western part of the US or some of the behemoths in other parts of the world, it is still an impressive trek for day-hikers and it is something that Sarah and I had been dreaming of for years. That is what is most important about finding adventures out there in the world. It is not necessarily about always tackling the biggest or most challenging adventure, but rather having a dream and then making it a reality.
While Mount Washington is a well-traveled and relatively safe hike, there are precautions you should take on these trails and with any hike that you do. Making sure that you have the proper clothing and footwear, enough water and food for the trip, and that the weather forecast is favorable to a day on the mountain are all essential to an enjoyable and safe excursion. You can visit the Hike Safe website for more details on hiking safety.
Other than those general hiking saftety tips, give yourself plenty of time for this hike and prepare with some smaller hikes to get yourself ready for this peak. Some of our favorite smaller hikes in the Whites include Mount Crawford, Mount Kearsage North, and Mount Chorcorua.