Mount Washington Auto Road and its predecessors have provided public access to the 6,288-foot summit 160 years

The White Mountains, so named because of their ranges’ sheer granite inclines, could be considered the Rockies of the East. While not the absolute summit of the Appalachian mountain chain – that distinction belongs to Mount Mitchell in North Carolina – the Whites are subject to extreme alpine conditions not found anywhere east of Colorado. And nowhere more so than at the top of Mount Washington.

At 6,288 feet, Mount Washington is New England’s highest peak. While about 400 feet lower than its Carolina cousin, Mount Washington’s topographical prominence (the distance from summit to valley floor) is 60 feet greater. Its ascent by foot is among the toughest in the world, with apologies to the Himalayas.

Mount Washington and the neighbouring Presidential Range are battered by weather systems from three directions. The result is the highest recorded wind speed of all time (excluding cyclones or tornadoes) atop Mount Washington – 231 miles per hour, or 372 km/h.

Mount Washington

A wagon stops halfway up the mountain during the late 1800s to allow passengers to view The Great Gulf below the Presidential Range.

Incredibly, you can drive all the way to the top of this massive mount, and motorists have been able to do so for 120 years – and by horse and carriage since the 1860s. The Mount Washington Auto Road, now a paved two-lane roadway, winds and weaves 7.6 miles through four ecological zones to the top, where you will find a visitors’ centre, gift shop and museum, including Tip Top House, built in 1853. There is also a weather observatory, which is staffed year-round. The auto road converges at the summer with the Mount Washington Cog Railway, which has been climbing the western slope from Bretton Woods since 1869.

While motoring up and down the auto road is considerably easier and much faster than by carriage or certainly on foot, your car might not agree. The 4,000-foot descent is tougher on vehicles than the ascent –a half-hour drive each way – with the often steep grades testing transmissions and brakes. But driven with care, it’s not a problem, and nearly 50,000 vehicles make the trip each year. There are scenic pull-offs along the way, allowing passengers tremendous views, and ample parking at the summit.

The auto road is privately owned and is carefully maintained, including a mammoth snow-clearing operation each spring during which drifts of 20 feet or more are removed from the roadway, allowing it to open by mid-May. The gates at the bottom open at 9 am daily and entry is allowed until between 4 and 6 pm, depending on the month, which allows for sunset visits. And earlier start for sunrise visits may be available, depending on conditions; call ahead. An audio-tour app can be downloaded to your mobile phone. You don’t need to book a drive time, just pull up to the entrance gate and pay the toll by credit card or cash. Self-drive rates are US$45 for vehicle and driver, $20 for each passenger ($10 for children 4-14, free for toddlers). Sunrise and sunset self-drives cost $10 more per vehicle. ATVs and motorcycles are allowed.

Given Mount Washington’s erratic climatic conditions – and be warned, weather on the mountain can change dramatically at any time – access to the road is weather-permitting. Full details on vehicle restrictions and driving requirements are found on the website.

If you prefer not to drive your vehicle, a two-hour guided tour by eight-passenger van is available. The best reason to opt for a tour are the guides, who have thorough knowledge of the geology, flora and fauna, and history of Mount Washington. They are entertaining characters with a strong sense of humour, as amply demonstrated by Marc Martin. A native of Berlin, NH but from a Québécois family, his ancestral joie-de-vivre serves him to great effect as he pilots the van up the mountain. These tours allow an hour’s personal time up top. Sunrise tours are available on July 21 and Aug 25 this year and must be pre-booked. If you are a strong hiker, a one-way shuttle (up or down) is available.

Bird watchers may want to take a Bicknell’s Thrush Tour at sunrise or sunset. The bicknell thrush is a rare species, restricted to the northeastern part of the continent. They usually breed at higher elevations, normally nesting above 3,000 feet.

For a considerable amount of additional information and to reserve a tour, visit, email [email protected] or call 603-466-3988. The auto road entrance is 20 miles north of North Conway via US-302 and NH-16. Tours depart from the base lodge at the Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center, across NH-16 from the auto road entrance. For information on the Mount Washington Cog Railway, visit

Related Posts