Mt. Washington Auto Road

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The trip from our campsite in Northern Vermont to Crawford Notch, NH was only 75 miles, so we were able to setup at the Crawford Notch Campground by early afternoon. Experiencing mediocre weather at best in Vermont, we decided to take advantage of clear weather while we still had daylight, and went for a drive around the ‘Presidential Range’ in the White Mountains National Forest.

Lucking out, we arrived at the Mt. Washington Auto Road at 4:57, finding that the road closes at 5pm. The toll road, constructed in the 1800’s, was the first ‘man-made’ natural attraction marketed in the U.S. Although told we would not have much time at the top of the mountain, we decided to go ahead and make the drive, as the weather by Mt. Washington standards wasn’t all that bad up top (more about that later). Mt. Washington is the tallest mountain in New England (a little over 6200 feet), and although there are far higher mtns in the U.S, the weather conditions at the mountain creates a climate for a mountain far, far taller. The Auto Road takes you from the base of the mountain (around 1000 ft) to the very top.

…and what a drive it was. It’s not a drive for the acrophobic, as it’s a narrow road (barely wide enough for 2 cars to pass). There is no guard-rail, and particularly towards the top, it looks and feels like you would drop forever if you made a slight mis-turn. The pavement ends in several sections, and it’s not hard to imagine bumping up the dirt and rock road in one of the Concord Stagecoaches initially used to haul tourists to the top.

We live in the Smokies where there are numerous mountains and drives over 6000 ft, and I lived for several years in California, driving the Sierra Nevada. I’m no stranger to roads that hang on the side of a cliff. But this one was a nail-biter (if I could have taken my hands off the wheel long enough!) If you have a fear of heights, or simply don’t feel up to making the drive up your own, there is a guided tour Van service for just a few dollars more. In hindsight, if we had gotten there earlier, I might have opted for this option, in order to enjoy the ride up, instead of concentrating on not killing us all ;-)

Although the toll for the drive is a bit pricey, it’s worth it. Part of what you get for the toll is a narrated CD, paced to cover your trip up if you go up the hill at their recommended 15-20 mph (we went a lot slower than that up toward the top). The CD gives some of the history of the area, including the difficulties in constructing the road (pre-dynamite days) and dealing with the weather. Changes in the climate and ecosystem going up the mountain are extreme. In the bottom 2000 feet the slopes are covered in hardwoods, giving way to evergreens, which shrink in size up to about the 4500ft mark. Above the timberline is a harsh tundra climate, with only mosses and lichen for plants.

Mt. Washington holds the dubious reputation for having the worst weather in the world. The highest windspeed ever recorded (231mpg) was measured at the summit in 1934. The weather can change very rapidly, and rescuers stay busy year round plucking people off the mountain trails when the weather turns nasty. Numerous companies and government agencies use Mt. Washington for harsh weather testing of equipment.

It was 60 degrees at the base with light to moderate winds. We were warned that the temperature at the summit was 32 degrees with a 50 mph wind when we headed up – a nice, balmy day by Mt. Washington standards. Wind speeds exceed 100mph over 150 days a year and it can snow year round. When we got to the top, we were in the middle of winter. Ice was everywhere, and after 5-10 mins walking around trying to take pictures in the wind, we were ready to head back down. Wind chill must have been below 0 degrees, and only having light jackets, we were cold, cold, cold!

The famous Mt. Washington Cog Railroad runs to the summit, and just as we got to the top, the last train of the day was headed downhill. The cog railroad still uses coal fired steam locomotives, and the sight of the awkward looking engine with the brightly colored passenger car headed down the hill in all the gloom was striking indeed.

The drive back down didn’t seem quite as bad – partially because knowing we were the last car up the mtn, I didn’t have to worry about oncoming traffic going down. This let me ‘cheat’ a little to the inside of the road. There are numerous pullouts on the way down, and we stopped for pictures several times. The fall leaf color seems about 30-40%, and it was very pretty indeed.

Vance: Mt. Washington is a mountain of history. First we dropped by and got a CD on the history of the mighty mountain. Then we started driving up the mountain. It was discovered during the revolution. There it was recorded the highest winds ever known to man, 231 mph.

The Appalachian Trail runs through the mountain. When we got to the top we got a few pictures then made a dash for the car. It was 36 degrees and ice was almost everywhere.

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