If you are near New Hampshire, consider a drive up to the top of Northeast’s tallest peak via the Mount Washington Auto Road. While the mountain isn’t so tall by western US standards, it’s definitely an interesting family drive to try once.
Our boys were quite skeptical when we told them we were going to go there as a family day trip (a bit over 3 hours from Boston to the entrance makes it a long driving day), but actually they liked it much more than they expected – really nice (and slightly dangerous) views from the top, interestingly high wind gusts, nice rock formations, and such.
Note that the ~7.6 mile mountain road is some effort to drive – it’s fairly narrow, with steep drop offs, no guardrails, and with high winds. Unpaved in places too, and you definitely want to go down in first gear. Somewhat of an adventure! If you’re not up to driving the road, taking the Cog Railway or a guided tour are also options.
Americans have been visiting this travel destination and driving this road since it opened in the summer of 1861. At the time, your only choice was a trip up in a horse and buggy – it’s not clear whether that’s better or worse than a car. The horses were probably a little slower, and the carts may have been narrower, but the idea of an animal with a mind of its own on a narrow mountain road still makes me nervous.
In 1869, the Cog Railway opened, giving tourists a less nerve-wracking way to experience nature and get to the top. While this could be a great way to get to the top, it will not give you the famous “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington” bumper sticker. Or if you prefer to do a one-way hike, you could consider taking the Hiker Shuttle. And if you are really crazy, you could consider a drive up the mountain on the Winter SnowCoach Tour.
The first motorized vehicle reached the top of Mt. Washington in 1899, but the first gasoline powered car was not until 1902. There was some controversy about regularly allowing motorized vehicles on the “carriage road” to the summit, but in 1912 it was formally opened to automobiles. In 1973, the first electrical vehicle, a motorcycle, made the climb to the top. Today, there are about 45,000 cars that climb Mt. Washington each year. Maybe you can join this number!
Mt. Washington isn’t just known for its dangerous road, it is also known for its crazy weather. In 1970, scientists started studying the weather on Mt. Washington and eventually built an observatory. In 1934, wind speeds were clocked at 231 miles per hour, giving it a world record until this was topped in 1996 by a terrible storm in Australia.
The location of Mount Washington Auto Road is on Route 16, 25 miles north of North Conway, NH. We chose to do a long day trip from the Boston area, but if a 3.25 hour drive each way sounds like too much, consider an overnight trip. The town of North Conway is quite cute, and there are tons of other hotel or camping options in this area.
Driving the Auto Road
If you choose to drive the Mt. Washington Auto Road keep these travel tips in mind:
- Go in the right season– the road is usually open from mid-May to mid-October
- Check the weather status before arriving (it is often closed due to poor weather, also prefer either clear weather, or at least high clouds)
- Make sure your car is eligible to drive the road
- Double check the hours the road is open
- Consider whether you really want to drive this road during peak times, or if you would prefer to drive at a time with fewer cars on the road. Go early in the day if you can.
- Check the status of the observatory museum and weather station tours. (Currently closed due to Covid.)
Cost: Currently $39 for 1 car+driver, plus $14/$9/Free for each additional adult/age 5-14/4 or under. Check the website for updated fees. The cost was a bit more than we would have expected.
At the gate, they hand you a sheet to remind you of some safety issues like going down in first gear and occasionally stopping to rest your brakes. That, and some disclaimers on the back from their lawyers, since the drive does require being careful.
One other thought: try to drive the road earlier in the day when you’re relatively well-rested, i.e. don’t spend half the day hiking elsewhere first.
Other Options That Don’t Involve Self-Driving
Take the Cog Railway.
Take a guided tour.
Take the Winter SnowCoach Tour.
Hike one-way and take the Hiker Shuttle the other.
On arrival, we paid our entrance fee and received a packet that included a bunch of safety tips, a QR code to download the app that would give us access to an audio tour (which didn’t download for us), and the famous “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington” bumper sticker.
Then we started our drive, wondering what to expect!
The first part was relatively easy. We found that you do need to have a lot of caution with both curves and passing cars coming down the mountain, but gravity is in your favor when you need to slow down.
Make sure you take breaks to enjoy the view and get some good pictures!
Eventually, the road will turn to gravel, which was a little more intense. Exercise some more caution in this area as braking is more difficult and the shoulders are soft.
Eventually the road will become paved again.
The views of the surrounding mountains are quite nice!
Towards the top of the mountain, the observatory will come into view.
You should find the parking lot and start exploring on foot.
The views are stunning!
And the wind can be ferocious. The day we were there in May, the winds were expected to be as high as 59 miles per hour!
You should take the time to explore the visitor’s center and read various signs about the area.
If the winds are blowing the right way to keep your hair out of your face, don’t forget to get a picture at the summit!
The rock formations are pretty cool.
And the remaining snow was a little scary looking.
The way down the mountain is scarier than the way up, so I put my camera away and helped navigate the drive.
There were a couple of times I opened my door to make sure that we weren’t too close to the road edge when slowly passing.
And even though we had the car in first gear, at one point we wondered if we weren’t taking enough brake cooling stops, so we stopped to admire the lush, green trees.
What a fun day! If you are taking a road trip through New Hampshire, consider a family drive up Mount Washington. It will be an experience you – or at least the driver – won’t forget!
On the way home, we decided to stop in North Conway. It was quite cute and could be worth a deeper exploration. We took a short walk through town and made a stop at the New England Ski Museum. There was a downtown full of restaurants and shops.
The Kancamagus Highway
We also decided to drive the Kancamagus Highway on the way home, which may have been a bit much for the trip.
It was quite cute and if we had more time, we would have made more stops, but since we had a long drive in front of us, we simply made one stop to enjoy the river, and then enjoyed the rest of sights from the car.
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