Hiking Mt. Washington
Hope for the best conditions, be prepared for the worst
Mount Washington. The crown jewel of White Mountain peaks. The highest point in the Northeast. A coveted hike on anyone’s bucket list. Or one of the most dangerous hikes in the United States. The deadliest small mountain in the world. Home of the world’s worst weather.
Whatever you want to call it, since 1642 Mount Washington has attracted those with an adventurous spirit to its inspiring landscapes. Today one can enjoy the rare flora, wildlife and vistas from the comfort of a personal vehicle or on foot. This short article has been prepared with the latter in mind.
Hiking Mount Washington can be at once the most enjoyable and exhilarating outdoor activities and one of the most taxing. But proper preparation can help swing the balance towards the enjoyable end of the spectrum. Consider this before you set off on your hike: since 1849 over 150 individuals have died in pursuit of the summit and not one, I’m sure, thought that their name would be added to the list. To avoid that, and to minimize the impact on yourself and the environment, the following just might also give you a great story to tell around the water cooler at work on Monday.
ESSENTIAL GEAR LIST
A suggested minimum gear list is provided by the State of NH Fish & Game department (the lead agency for NH search and rescue) and one of the sponsors of the Hike Safe Program. The recommended minimum gear list is composed in part of the “10 Essentials”:
- Map & compass (cell phone is not an acceptable substitute)
- Water (and a way to make more. i.e., purification tablets, filter)
- Extra clothing (including wind / rain gear, insulation)
- Shelter (bivy sack / tent / tarp) simple and inexpensive starting around $15
- Flashlight / headlamp
- First aid kit
- Matches / lighter / stove
The contents of this list will fit into a small stuff sac and weigh a bit more than a pound, (a pint of water weighs a pound). Other organizations put out lists that might substitute some of the items but the concept is the principal of hoping for the best while being prepared for the worst.
Weather is a very important factor affecting a hike on Mt. Washington. For up to the minute weather information, the Mount Washington Observatory posts real time weather conditions, including temperatures at various elevations, wind speed, wind chill factor, visibility and whether it’s raining, snowing, freezing fog or any other weather event in progress, as well as a 48 hour forecast.
Weather conditions change incredibly fast on this mountain and it’s not unusual to find that the temperature is 30 degrees cooler on the summit than at the base. Calm air at the trailhead could increase (and frequently does) to hurricane force on the summit. Hurricane force winds occur, on average, every 4th day on Mt. Washington. One hundred mile an hour winds occur in every month of the year. This little mountain has recorded the highest windspeed ever observed at any land based, manned weather observatory, with a record of 231 miles per hour.
Clear skies in the valley frequently yield to a summit enshrouded in fog with visibility reduced to mere feet -- the summit is in the clouds ⅔ of the time. June, July and August have average daily temperatures in the 40’s. Therefore, it’s absolutely possible that on any day in August you might find yourself on the summit with a temperature below freezing, 75 mph winds, 20 foot visibility and snow, sleet and freezing rain -- this actually happened to a group (who needed a very expensive rescue) in August of 2017.
FITNESS and SPEED
Nothing does more to prepare you for hiking Mt. Washington quite like hiking other mountains. An hour 3 times a week on the stairmaster at the gym will help, but in no way does it prepare you for the reality of hiking this (or any other) mountain. Prepare for this hike by hiking. Building up to it over time will make the experience more enjoyable. If you’re hiking with kids and dogs, this is especially important. More than a few dogs have needed assistance with sliced pads, heat stress and exhaustion. Kids are pretty durable, but they do have their limits and less body fat to draw from for energy and to keep them warm. Exhaustion sets in surprisingly quickly and will slow your pace to a crawl.
There is no shame in turning back at any point along the way. Even if you’re within a half mile of the summit, a retreat might well be the best choice.
Invariably, it takes much longer to hike mountain trails that walking the same distance on pavement. This is due to the rough, rocky nature of the trails that might lack a clearly defined treadway. Hiking times of less than one mile per hour are not uncommon and descending often takes longer than the ascent, especially if the trail is wet from fog or rain or snow. As an example, 4 hours and 15 minutes is the “book” time for hiking to the summit of Mt. Washington via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail (one way distance of 4.2 miles) and the descent will not be faster. A round trip hike to the summit of Mount Washington via this most popular trail will very likely take more than 8 hours.
WHICH PATH to TAKE
There are many routes to the summit and each has its selling points. What route you choose will be based on your preferences and additional research should be on your to do list. That said, the following is a list of the trails most commonly used in order of public preference.
From the East (Access from AMC’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, distances are round trip):
Starting from here means ample free parking, an outfitter store, trail information, lodging, dining and is served by the Mount Washington Auto Road Hiker Shuttle (more on that later)
- Tuckerman Ravine Trail (Tuck or Tux trail) 8.4 miles
- Tuckerman-Lion Head - 8.2 miles
- Boott Spur Trail - 10.8 miles
- Huntington Ravine Trail (the most difficult regular hiking trail on Mt. Washington) to Alpine Garden, Nelson Crag Trail - 8.6 miles
From the West (Access from Base Station Road):
- Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail/Crawford Path - 9 miles
- Jewell Trail/Gulfside trail - 10.2 Miles
End to end (about equal in popularity):
From the North - Gulfside Trail. When the huts are operating, some hikers choose to spend a night with the AMC at Madison Hut and hike to Mount Washington over two days This offers the opportunity to visit the other summits of the Northern Presidentials; Mt. Madison, Mt. Adams, Mt. Jefferson. From Madison Hut, the hike is 6.0 miles. If one wants to avoid the overnight stay at the hut, the distance from US Route 2 to Madison Hut is an additional 3.8 miles making the one day total nearly 10 miles one way from the Appalachia Trailhead in Randolph.
From the South - Crawford Path (from AMC Highland Center) - 8.5 miles one way
These listed trails are not all of the possibilities but are the routes most commonly used. Distances are taken from the ultimate reference, The AMC White Mountain Guide, which is updated every 3-4 years. (Note that elevation gained is approximately 4000’ from any of the listed trailheads, although a bit less from the higher trailheads on the western side of the mountain.)
HIKER SHUTTLE - not operating in 2020
“Ah, whatever…” you might say. There’s a road and a million people there. “I’ll just get a ride down if the weather is bad”. Sure, you could do that. In normal years, The Mount Washington Auto Road offers a Hiker Shuttle from the summit to the base making a one way hike a real possibility.
A few things can mess with this plan. First, due to COVID-19, the Hiker Shuttle is not currently operating (June 2020). When it is operating, reservations are not accepted and passage on the shuttle strictly on a first come, first served basis -- the number of seats available is truly limited. Demand frequently exceeds supply and arriving at the summit looking for a ride down after noon could result in disappointment. Hitchhiking on the Mount Washington Auto Road is prohibited because it’s entirely possible that putting additional passengers in a vehicle could exceed the recommended safe load limit for that vehicle, resulting in brake issues and an accident. Lastly, if weather conditions require, (e.g., high winds, heavy rain), the road could close to all traffic meaning that a ride off by any means is not possible. Also, when available, a ride off has a price. For the 2020 season, the prices are $35 before 4 PM and $55 after 4 PM.
KNOW BEFORE YOU GO
So there you have it. Mount Washington is a truly special place. A White Mountain and New Hampshire icon that all of us here at the Auto Road love and appreciate in all of its many moods. We wish you an experience that you will enjoy and long cherish and hope that this information helps to make it so. For additional information about hiking Mt. Washington, check with the experts at the Appalachian Mountain Club, or at the US Forest Service, Androscoggin District. You might also look to the Center for Outdoor Ethics and the principles of “Leave No Trace”. With proper preparation you should thoroughly enjoy your visit to Mt. Washington. We look forward to seeing you return to our home again and again.
*NOTICE: Hikers who find themselves stranded on the summit after hours in severe weather and require outside assistance from Mt Washington State Park or NH Fish & Game personnel to provide shelter or transport services fall under NH RSA 206:26-bb and NH RSA 153-A:24 for negligent conduct and may be subject to prosecution and state fines.
If you have any questions, please call us at (603) 466-3988.