The weather report was for more heat but a quick investigation showed that the coolest place in New England was the top of Mount Washington. It’s also the highest point in the Northeast, and the coolest way to get there is up the first, and oldest, cog railway in the world, The Mount Washington Cog Railway.
At 6,288 feet tall, Mount Washington towers above all other New England mountains and sits at a point where three North American weather systems meet. On a clear day the view is 360° and stretches out for hundreds of miles. All of the peaks of the Presidential Range are visible, to the west the Green Mountains of Vermont and to the east Maine and the Atlantic Ocean.
A ride to the sky
While the weather in the Mount Washington Valley is usually predictably good, you can never tell what will happen on top of the mountain. On the day we went the weather was hot and sticky humid, and cool sounded good. From the viewing spot in front of the Mount Washington Hotel on Route 302 a look at the mountain showed the top encased in a cloud even though it was clear below. On we went, because the experience of being in the cloud is itself a part of the adventure.
From Route 302, a sign points the way to the six-mile road to the Cog Railway base station and museum. The Cog’s base station could be a destination all by itself. The history of the Cog Railway is well told in the museum, a good way to learn about how the cogs work to pull the train up the mountain, and the incredible story of how this railway came to be built. Outside there are the cars and engines and other old Cog Railway equipment on display, usually including the original handmade engine, “Old Peppersass” — unfortunately off for restoration when we were there.
An In-Cog-Neato ride
Riding the Cog is great fun and, by reservation, you can even ride up the mountain in the Cog biodiesel engine! While coal fired steam engines still push coaches uphill to the summit once or twice a day, new biodiesel powered engines now make most of the trips. It once took more than a ton of coal and 1,000 gallons of water to make a round trip, but the new biodiesel engines do it on a mere 18 gallons of fuel. The trip is still as exciting as ever, with views of the White Mountains expanding with every foot of gained elevation. At about 3,800 feet elevation the trees grow smaller and by the 4,400 foot level no more trees grow, supplanted by alpine plants usually seen elsewhere only at even higher elevations. While you can usually buy tickets at the base station, it is best to reserve ahead to ensure that you get to do the trip when you want it.
Closer to the top of the mountain the train passes conical mounds of rock, cairns, placed to aid hikers in these high spots More cairns mark where the fame Appalachian Trail crosses over Mount Washington. Close to the top, a plain monument commemorates the tragic death of Lizzie Bourne in 1885. (For more details see It Happened in New Hampshire, Globe Pequot Press).
The Cog in the Fog
This trip to the top differed from my last one. This time, close to the top we entered the clouds, first with a few wisps of white that quickly thickened into a wall of white that prevented views more than a few yards away. The Sherman Adams Building at the top was barely visible as the train pulled to a stop. Getting off the train meant entering into an alien world — blowing masses of mist, buildings and people who disappeared and suddenly reappeared. I’d been to the summit on clear summer days, clambered over the rocks and enjoyed the views, but this was a new and exciting experience.
We found the path through the portico and out around the back toward the stacked stone Tip Top House, not even immediately visible in the fog. Following the path up over the rocks, in the full blast of a wind that did its best to knock us over, we made it to the marker at the very top of the mountain. We were the highest people in the entire Northeast, but buffeted by winds and blowing cloud, we had to struggle to keep our footing as we stood on the pinnacle. Yeah, it was a wild and woolly experience and absolutely the best thing we could have done on that hot, humid and sultry day in the valley below. After standing on top of the mountain be sure to see the Tip Top House, now a museum.
Exploring the summit
The Sherman Adams Building is the newest structure on the top of the mountain and it houses not only a snack bar, gift shop and rest rooms but an excellent museum as well. Entrance to the museum is included in the train ticket fare. It includes information on the flora and fauna of the mountain, its geology and in particular the story about the mountain’s unique place in weather patterns for New England. If you happen to the summit on a clear day, plan to spend time wandering the top. Another option (if you are equipped with the right footwear and gear) is to hike down from the summit to the Lakes of the Clouds AMC Hut, but ask the train people if you will have enough time to catch a train back down!
What to bring
Mount Washington can have some of the most severe weather in the world so e prepared. Even on hot days in summer bring a warm jacket, and if there are clouds rain gear is good to have. Wear good quality shoes with thick soles, as you will be walking on and climbing big granite boulders. And yes, bring a camera to record the adventure.
From the Boston area, take I-95 North to Portsmouth and then the Spaulding Turnpike/Route 16 north to Conway and North Conway. At Glen, when Route 16 turns right, continue straight on Route 302. At the top of Crawford Notch, shortly beyond the entry to the Omni Mount Washington Hotel, the road to the Base Station will be on the right. From west of Boston, I-93 North travels into New Hampshire, past the state capitol at Concord and on north through scenic Franconia Notch. Just north of the notch take Route 3 to Twin Mountain and at its intersection with Route 302 take Route 302 east. The road to the Cog Railway is just beyond the old railroad station on the left.