Visiting New Hampshire's White Mountains? Make sure to drive up Mount Washington on the Auto Road. Plus, check out our tips for short hikes from the summit.
Before we get to all the details on driving up Mount Washington Auto Road, I have a seemingly unrelated question for you.
Do you watch The Office?
If so, you might remember that one of Michael Scott's biggest regrets in life was about Mount Washington.
"I’ve never gone hang gliding, and I’ve never driven my car to the top of Mount Washington," Michael lamented.
As we passed through New Hampshire on our latest getaway, we realized we had to try it. Not just because of that quote. We really wanted to see it.
Still, it did feel like getting in on some sort of special inside joke.
"I love inside jokes. I'd love to be a part of one someday."
(Sorry, it's hard to stop quoting The Office once you've begun.)
As we drove our car up Mount Washington Auto Road, I found myself hoping that Michael (in his little fictional life) did make it there one day. Because it is really ridiculously impressive.
What's So Impressive About Mount Washington?
Mount Washington is the highest mountain in the northeast at 6,288 feet.
It's administered as a state park and is surrounded by White Mountain National Forest.
The mountain is known for intense winds and weather. Sometimes its drastic weather can rival conditions on much higher mountains or even the polar regions.
That's why visitors are urged to check conditions before they go!
A weather observatory was established near the summit many decades ago. (Its website lists all kinds of cool-looking exhibits and programs, besides being a great place to verify weather stats on the day you travel.)
Amazingly, this peak held a world record for nearly 62 years: the fast wind gust ever recorded on earth. It was 231 miles per hour on April 12, 1934.
Check the Weather Before Going
If possible, try to visit Mount Washington on a clear, sunny day.
Your visit will be more impressive if you can see the views! The observatory website says you may be able to see up to 130 miles away, which would take in several states and the Atlantic Ocean!
Expect that it will be cold and windy. I recommend bringing along a warm jacket, like the North Face Triclimate Jacket.
In fact, some of the options from my guide to how to dress for winter camping might be appropriate!
Can You Hike Up?
You can, and people do!
We passed a few overflowing trailhead parking lots as we drove towards the Mount Washington Auto Road, so if you make the trek, start early.
I debated making the hike, but for us, Mount Washington was a spur of the moment addition to our road trip and we really just weren't prepared for that kind of hike.
Can You Really Drive Up Mount Washington?
You sure can!
The drive up Mount Washington Auto Road is 7.6 miles long with an average grade of 12%. It's been a tourist attraction since the horse and wagon days of the mid-1800s!
Back then, it would have taken about four hours to reach the summit, but today you can drive it in about 30 minutes (and possibly a little longer to come back down).
There are no guardrails, so driving it yourself is not exactly for the faint of heart! Two-hour guided tours are available if you prefer to let someone else take the wheel.
There are certain safety requirements and other things to be aware of before you arrive. Check out the official website of the auto road for all the details.
The road is only open to private vehicles from late May to late October, though it may also close when conditions are risky.
Is there a Fee to Drive Up Mount Washington?
Yes. Check out the current fee schedule here.
Driving Up Mount Washington
This is a remarkably steep and narrow road, so make sure you've got your most confident (and competent) driver at the wheel.
I sat in the passenger seat and gripped the door handle tightly for most of this drive!
But the road has gorgeous views!
Mount Washington Summit
Once you arrive near the top of the mountain and park, you'll want to get to the summit and probably explore a little bit!
From the parking lot, head up the stairs.
You'll see a welcome sign for the park, as well as a reminder about this mountain's crazy winds.
You'll see Tip-Top House, which is a reconstruction of a hotel built on this site in 1853.
A hotel on the highest peak in the northeast!
Can you imagine hauling the building materials all that way?
Then it turned into a newspaper office with printing presses. (Again — what a place to run a newspaper!)
The building was rebuilt after a fire, and today functions as a historic site and museum, though it was being renovated when we went and was not open.
Next, follow the sign towards the summit.
And savor the moment when you're finally on top!
At the summit, you will get a glimpse of the famous Cog Railway, currently the only mountain-climbing cog railway operating in North America.
The railway is a possible alternative if you don't want to drive up the mountain. Its fleet of locomotives offers a round-trip experience of about three hours, including an hour to check out the summit.
You can buy tickets in advance on the website.
We didn't try it out this time, but it looks like fun! (And maybe also a bit scary — the track is even steeper than the auto road.)
Hiking Trails at the Top of Mount Washington
Despite not being ready to hike from the bottom to the top of Mount Washington, we still wanted to hike around.
Our goal was to hike out to the Lakes of the Clouds, and possibly to Mount Monroe. That didn't end up happening, but we were still able to hike out a little bit and get a nice view of the lakes from afar.
The views are exceptional along this trail.
When you've explored as much as you have time for, don't forget to allow for the steep path back to the summit and the parking lot.
Keep in mind that if you've taken the auto road up, you'll need to start heading back down no later than 45 minutes after closing time.
As you drive down the mountain, there are lots of little turnouts for you to pull over and let your brakes cool down.
Remember, it's a steep road!
Where to Eat (+ Drink) Near Mt Washington
We stayed in a cabin at the Twin Mountain / Mount Washington KOA. The KOA is pretty close to the trailheads, but ended up being about a 45 minute drive to the Auto Road.
If you're looking for something closer, we saw lots of little bed and breakfasts all over.
Food + Drink
If you'll be in the area, I highly recommend Reklis Brewing Company in Bethlehem, NH. We enjoyed their fantastic Sunday brunch menu, and there was plenty of outdoor seating.
Our excursion to Mount Washington may have been a bit spontaneous, but it's one of the most lasting memories from our trip.
Now we understand why it was on Michael Scott's wish list.
If you have the opportunity, it's definitely worth your time to drive up Mount Washington Auto Road.