Head up the highest mountain in the northeastern U.S. to experience an adrenaline-pumping drive, captivating history and stunning panoramic views – all without the scorching heat of other scenic vacation spots.
With an entrance in Pinkham Notch, a mountain pass, located in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains in New Hampshire, the Mt. Washington Auto Road, the first and oldest man-made attraction in the U.S., has been a route to exhilarating adventure for more than a century and a half. Privately owned and operated, the road climbs up the west side of Mt. Washington for 4,618 feet from the base, until it reaches the summit, which, at 6,288 feet above sea level, is the highest point in the entire Northeast.
The road can be regarded as a three-dimensional document of the evolution of American transportation. It first opened in 1861, when horse-drawn carriages were the mode of transportation and transitioned to motor-driven vehicles in 1912. Today, more than 45,000 vehicles per year make the trip from mid-October to mid-May (it’s closed during winter), and electric vehicles are common among them.
The Drive Yourself Experience
Most of Mt. Washington is part of 750,000-acre White Mountain National Forest, which features breathtaking scenery and offers abundant outdoor recreation opportunities. But the area around the summit and the summit itself is in Mount Washington State Park, established over 50 years ago when the state became the owners of the summit. The road twists and turns to the mountain top without guard rails, and the vistas change by the minute—to call the drive exhilarating and adrenaline pumping is an understatement.
You’ll start your ascent by car at the Base Lodge, located directly across from the entrance to the Auto Road and as you climb, you’ll pass through several unique ecological zones. At the base, you’ll see Northern Hardwood forests, then spruce and fir forests. Then, you’ll enter a sub-alpine zone, where the trees become smaller and more gnarled due to the harsher weather conditions that prevail at the higher elevations. And, at about 4,400 feet, which is nearly 2,000 feet below the summit, you’ll reach the tree line above which no trees can grow—this area is known as the alpine zone. You’ll be in the clouds at this point. Scenic pull-offs along the way will give you an opportunity to ‘catch your breath,’ take in the views and go on short hikes in this final zone. Next stop: the summit!
Download the Auto Road app before your departure to access a guided tour of the Auto Road and various tips.
The Summit Experience
Soaring 6,288 feet up into the clouds, the summit offers otherworldly views and weather. The weather around Mt. Washington is unpredictable and extreme, to say the least. The climate conditions have been called ‘the worst in the world,’ but they’re also among the destination’s most notable features. Atmospheric phenomena produce savage storms at the summit. The warmest temperature ever recorded at the summit is 72 degrees, which occurred in both August 1975 and June 2003. On the harsher end: Earth’s highest wind velocity—231 miles per hour—was measured on the summit on April 12, 1934. The winds there exceed 75 mph (that’s hurricane force) over 100 days per year.
Of course, you won’t be experiencing extreme weather during your road trip since the Auto Road is closed in winter, but you should be prepared for cool temperatures and changeability. June, July, August and September are the only months of the year Mt. Washington has not recorded a below-zero temperature; the temperatures are actually refreshing at that time of year–something to consider as the U.S. has been clocking searing temperatures in so many top tourism destinations. Check out the average summer temps on Mt. Washington here. And be sure to look into the road status and weather before you head out.
Calling all weather buffs: Watch these webcams to see the weather in action and, once you reach the summit, take a 20-minute tour of the Mount Washington Observatory, a famous weather station that conducts observations and research. You’ll interact with the scientists, learn how they shape forecasts, view the instruments that capture the mountain’s legendary extremes—just know that the visits have been suspended at times and advance reservations are required (call 603-356-2137).
Entry into the observatory’s extreme weather museum, Extreme Mount Washington is included with your Auto Road admission (see the Auto Road cost section below). Both the observatory and museum are located inside the Mt. Washington State Park Sherman Adams Visitor Center.
The observatory also offers Summer Overnight EduTrips that let you spend a night in the weather station, immerse yourself in a full day of learning and alpine adventures and get a guided tour of the station that’s tailored to your specific interests.
Though you can’t travel the Auto Road in winter, you may be able to experience the mountain and the summit via the observatory’s special alpine adventure trips, which integrate snowcat transportation. Look into their winter Summit Adventures options here to see if (and when) they are being offered.
On a clear day, you can see more than 100 miles from the summit’s viewing deck—north to Canada, east to the Atlantic Ocean, south to Massachusetts and west across Vermont to New York’s Adirondack Mts. You’ll also get jaw-dropping views of Huntington Ravine, the White Mountains and the Atlantic Ocean, when the cloud cover permits. Ready your cameras—and not just for the views; there’s also a signpost marking the summit that you’ll want to snap.
The Tip Top House
Located adjacent to the Sherman Adams Visitor Center, is the Tip Top House — a museum that gives visitors a sense of what summit life was like 150 years ago. Built in 1853 as a hotel when tourists began flocking to the summit on foot and horseback, Tip Top House featured walls made of stone blasted from the mountain. The building underwent various changes over the years (it even functioned as a printing office for a newspaper called Among the Clouds) and was ultimately abandoned in 1968. But renovations completed in 1987 restored much of the original look (including a flat roof and period furnishings) and following the restoration, Tip Top House opened to summit visitors as a state historic site. It’s believed to be the world’s oldest mountain-top hotel structure and is the longest surviving one at the summit.
While you’re in the Sherman Adams Visitor Center, you can grab some food at the cafeteria and pick up gift items in the shop.
Sunrise Drive Options
Imagine viewing a sunrise from the highest peak in the northeast region of the U.S. You can do just that by driving the Auto Road at sunrise — this drive option is offered on two or three Sundays during the summer months. The road opens at 4 or 4:30 am (be sure to arrive at the Toll House well before that hour to avoid waiting in a car line), allowing you to see the rising sun between 5:30 and 6:00ish am.
Other Ways to Reach the Summit
Guided Tours— If heights and narrow winding mountain roads without guardrails make you uneasy, take a 2-hour guided roundtrip tour provided by the folks that own the Auto Road. Your expert tour guide will steep you in the history of the mountain and the route, as well as its plants and wildlife. And there’ll be ample time to explore the summit.
SnowCoach Tours that transport visitors to the Mt. Washington tree line (about 4,400 feet up; roughly 2/3 of the distance to the summit) during the winter enable visitors to have a sub-artic travel experience.
Start at the scenic base lodge where you can also get breakfast or lunch, purchase New Hampshire souvenirs, rent bikes and book a guided kayak tour.
The Cog Railway, the first mountain-climbing cog railway in the world, began carting passengers to the top of Mt. Washington more than 150 years ago—and it’s still rolling! Passengers can expect an incredibly steep ride—some sections of the route have about a 38% grade, the second steepest in the world. The train is powered by biodiesel locomotives, but the railway also continues to run two century-old, coal-fired steam engines—in keeping with its steam heritage. As for the ride up — well, P.T. Barnum, called it “the second greatest show on earth,” his circus, of course, having been the first in his opinion.
Hikes to the Summit
Numerous rugged, scenic hiking trails lead to the summit of Mt. Washington; the Appalachian Trail crosses it. For trail information and advice, contact the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC).
Costs, Vehicle Restrictions and Other Important Info for the Auto Road
Auto Road rates vary according to the time of your visit and whether you’re driving yourself or taking a guided tour; peak-time (July 4th weekend, Labor Day weekend and Fall Foliage period) charges are higher than non-peak ones. See the rates here.
Make sure to review the vehicle type and size, and passenger and luggage weight limits prior to venturing out—these restrictions are a matter of safety and are strictly enforced.
Mark your ascent and reward yourself with a memento—a bumper sticker that says: “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington.” Come on, it’s a travel feat and you should own it!
Where to Stay Overnight During Your Trip to the Mt. Washington Area
The owners of the Auto Road operate The Glen House, a four-season hotel in the Mt. Washington Valley. Their Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center offers biking (and bike rentals), kayak tours, walking trails and various events; a stay at the hotel includes some of these activities for free or at a discount.
Explore other lodging options in the Mt. Washington area here.