Mount Washington (also known as The Rockpile), just north of Jackson in the heart of the White Mountain National Forest, is often described with impressive facts and figures that don't always succeed at evoking the windblown, hellishly scenic peak. But here are a few anyway.
At 6,288 feet, Washington is the highest mountain in the Northeast. It's said to have the worst weather in the world outside the polar regions. It still holds the world's record for the highest surface wind speed ever recorded -- 231 mph in 1934, something Granite Staters take a perverse pride in. (There's a weatherman posted at the top of the mountain year-round, and there used to be a small TV crew here, too, documenting the craziness.) Winds topping 150 mph are routinely recorded nine months out of the year, a result of the mountain's position at the confluence of three major storm tracks.
Washington might also be the New England mountain with the most options for getting to its summit. Visitors can ascend via a special cog railway; in their cars, along a snaky toll road to the summit; in an all-terrain vehicle (ATV), using the same road; by guide-driven van; or on foot. Then there's cycling. Riding a mountain bike up the auto road is forbidden for most of the year, but it's permitted during two annual thigh-punishing races to the summit. Don't try this at home: The grade increases steeply to 22% near the top, where even pros have flipped over backwards trying to downshift in time.
The best place to learn about Mount Washington and its approaches is rustic Pinkham Notch Visitor Center (tel. 603/466-2721), operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club. At the crest of Route 16 between Jackson and Gorham, the center offers overnight accommodations and meals , maps, a limited selection of outdoor supplies, and plenty of advice from its helpful staff. A number of hiking trails also depart from here, with several loops and side trips.
About a dozen trails in all lead to the mountain's summit, ranging in length from about 4 to 15 miles. (Detailed information is available at the visitor center.) The most direct and dramatic way is via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, which departs right from Pinkham Notch. It's a true full day's endeavor. Healthy hikers should allow 4 to 5 hours for the ascent, 2 to 4 hours for the return trip. Be sure to allow enough time to enjoy the dramatic glacial cirque of Tuckerman Ravine, which attracts extreme skiers to its sheer drops as late as June, and often holds patches of snow well into the summer.
The Mount Washington Auto Road (tel. 603/466-3988; www.mountwashingtonautoroad.com) opened in 1861 as a carriage road, and has since remained a wildly popular attraction. The steep, winding 8-mile road (with an average grade of 12%) is partly paved and incredibly dramatic; your breath will be taken away at one curve after another. The ascent will test your iron will; the descent will test your car's brakes. This trip is not worth doing, though, if the summit is in the clouds; wait for a clear day.
Located on Route 16 just north of Pinkham Notch, the road is open daily from early May until late October from 8am to 5pm (hours may be slightly different early or late in the season). The cost is $20 per vehicle and driver, plus $7 for each additional adult ($5 for extra children ages 5-12); it's $12 for a motorcycle and its operator. This price includes an audiocassette or CD narration pointing out sights along the way (available in English, French, or German) and the famous bumper sticker.
No trailers, RVs, or mopeds, are allowed, which makes sense. But management has also imposed some other slightly curious vehicle restrictions to protect against breakdowns and logjams; for example, Acuras, Hondas, Saturns, Sterlings, and Jaguars with automatic transmissions must show a "1," "L," or "S" on the shifter to be allowed on the road; only H-3 version Hummers can ascend; and no Lincoln Continentals from before 1969 are permitted. (Darn it!) But taxis and police cars are okay (whew!), so long as the first gear is operational.
If you'd prefer to leave the driving to someone else, van tours ascend throughout the day, allowing you to relax, enjoy the views, and learn about the mountain from informed guides. The cost is $26 for adults, $23 for seniors, and $11 for children ages 5 to 12, and includes a half-hour stay on the summit. (Longer tours are currently being developed.)
One additional note: The average temperature atop the mountain is 30°F (-1°C). (The record low was -43°F/-6°C, and the warmest temperature ever recorded atop the mountain, in August, was 72°F/22°C.) Even in summer, visitors should come ready for blustery, cold conditions.
You'll Never Walk Alone -- Despite the raw power of its weather, Mount Washington's summit is not the place for those seeking true wilderness. The top is home to a train platform, a parking lot, a snack bar, a gift shop, a museum, and a handful of outbuildings housing a weather observatory. There are also plenty of crowds on clear days, all seeking that prized red-and-blue THIS CAR CLIMBED MT. WASHINGTON bumper sticker New Englanders' cars wear like badges of courage. Then again, the views here can't be beat, extending into four states and out to the ocean. It's worth seeing. But keeping all those other folks out of the frame of your digital shots and Handycam footage? Now, that's an extreme sport.
Exploring Pinkham Notch
The AMC's Pinkham Notch Visitor Center is at the height of land on Route 16. Just south, look for signs for Glen Ellis Falls, worth a quick stop. From the parking area, you'll pass through a pedestrian tunnel and walk along the Glen Ellis River for a few minutes until it seemingly drops off the face of the earth. The stream plummets 64 feet down a cliff; observation platforms are situated at the top and near the bottom of the falls, which are one of this region's most impressive after a heavy rain. From the parking lot to the base of the falls is less than a half-mile walk.
From the same visitor center, it's about 2.5 miles up to Hermit Lake and Tuckerman Ravine via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail . Even if you're not planning to continue on to the summit, the ravine -- with its sheer sides and lacey cataracts -- might be the most dramatic destination in the White Mountains. If you're in good shape, it's well worth the 2-hour climb in anything except the most miserable weather. The trail is wide and only moderately demanding. Bring a picnic and lunch on the massive boulders that litter the ravine's floor.
In summer, an enclosed gondola known as the Wildcat Express at the Wildcat ski area hauls passengers up the mountain for views of Tuckerman Ravine and Mount Washington's summit. The lift operates Saturday and Sunday from Memorial Day to mid-June, then daily through the mid-October. The ski resort's base lodge is just north of Pinkham Notch on Route 16. It cost $13 per adult, with discounts for seniors and kids, but it doesn't run in bad weather.
Especially for Kids
Parents with young children (age 10 and under) can buy peace of mind at Story Land, at the northern junction of routes 16 and 302 (tel. 603/383-4186; www.storylandnh.com). This old-fashioned (mid-1950s) fantasy village is filled with 30 acres of improbably leaning buildings, magical rides, fairy-tale creatures, and other enchanted beings. A "sprayground" features a 40-foot-tall water-spurting octopus -- kids can get a good summer soaking. Story Land is open Saturday and Sunday from Memorial Day to mid-June, 9am to 5pm; daily 9am to 6pm from mid-June to Labor Day; and Saturday and Sunday 9am to 5pm until Columbus Day. Admission is a flat $23 per person for all visitors age 4 and older; toddlers 3 and under enter free.
A warm weekday afternoon, an engrossing book, and Jackson Falls are a memorable combination. This wonderful cascade tumbles down out of Carter Notch (from the Jackson village, head up Carter Notch Rd. in front of the Wentworth Resort). Park along the notch road and find a sunny patch near the water, with views toward the valley. A few natural pools allow for great splashing around. Two caveats: It can get buggy early in the summer, and it gets crowded on Saturday and Sunday all summer.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.