Vermont and New Hampshire Adventure, Day 4 | September 9, 2016 | Hiking Mount Washington, New Hampshire’s highest peak
The evening before hiking to Mount Washington, I confessed to Curtis that I was really nervous about it. He agreed, but also said it was probably good for us to have a healthy respect for it. This was going to be a long hike, and we were going to reach much higher elevations — the highest in New Hampshire, the Northeast, and the second highest peak East of the Mississippi River. As Curtis mentioned in the post about hiking to Mount Mansfield, after hiking to Giant in the Adirondacks, our confidence in ourselves as pro-hikers was a bit shaken. We were starting to see all the ways that hiking in the Northeast was different and more difficult than in other areas where we’d hiked, so big hikes like this seem all the more intimidating.
However, this fear wasn’t enough to scare us away, so we mentally prepared ourselves for a challenge and packed all the food, water, and extra clothing we thought we’d need. Curtis had a reasonable route planned that would begin and end on the West side of the mountains, but would make a loop to make it more interesting. We listened to the radio to hear weather updates — the station that came in the clearest was based in Vermont, and they were saying it’d start out a cloudy morning and the clouds would pass as the day went on. There was no rain or thunderstorms in the forecast, so we decided to take the opportunity to do it today. The pros were at least it wouldn’t be too hot and we wouldn’t be exposed to the sun at the higher elevations.
We drove to our trailhead, which was located next to the Cog Railway attraction. Not only can you drive up to the top of Mt. Washington for $30/driver and vehicle + extra for each additional person, but you can also take the railway up for the price of $70/person! Despite being unable to see the peak of the mountain in the clouds, there was still a lot of cars and people flocking toward the ticket counter. We knew upfront that there would be a LOT of people at the top of the mountain, but that was the price we had to pay to accomplish our goal. Luckily, it was the only price we paid because hiking up is free. 🙂
After some minor confusion on where the trailhead was and a little bushwhacking to find it, we were on our way. For the ascent, we hiked up the Ammonoosuc Ravine. It started as a mostly flat trail that followed a stream, then began to climb. Right off the bat, we were passing other hikers and feeling pretty good about ourselves. The trail was honestly the most maintained that we’d seen, and despite being pretty wet, we had no problems with loose ground or slipping. There were long sections where they used rocks as steps up a particularly steep slope, but those were pretty easy to push through and make it to the top. We saw a couple small waterfalls, but the highlight for me is pictured below, on the left. A narrow cascading fall and a small pool of water off to the side of the trail. I kept thinking about it through the rest of the hike, how perfect it was, and honestly if that were the only thing to be seen on this hike, it would have been worth it.
The scenery was just all around beautiful and diverse though — we started in what felt like a rainforest, with a dirt trail and moss and ferns and just green everywhere. As we ascended, the trail became more rocky and had more tall pine trees. And once above 4000 feet, we entered the treeless tundra and walked on large flat rocks. Since the trail itself was never too challenging, we were really able to enjoy and appreciate every little change in scenery.
The hardest part for me were big, flat rock faces that sloped rather steeply, and I would always have to take my time with zig-zagging my way up or basically climbing them with my hands and feet. Curtis and Charlotte would get farther ahead of me during those parts and would have to wait for me to catch up. Charlotte HATES having to wait, so as soon as she decides I’m fine, she’s off onto the next stretch.
When we reached the ridge, we were hit by strong winds and immediately sought shelter. Luckily, we were right next to the Lake of the Clouds Hut, a shelter used by Appalachian Trail Hikers. We sat on a bench outside out of the wind and had some snacks. There was no view at this point — we were in the clouds. Here, we had the option of throwing on Mt. Monroe, another 5000′ peak and 5th highest in NH. It would be about 20 minutes out of the way, but at this point, that didn’t seem like much. I was a little skeptical because I was cold, but Curtis said it could give the clouds a chance to pass over so that maybe we could get a view at some point. So we took the short path up to Monroe, pushing through the wind and the cold. It’s interesting hiking to a peak when you can’t see 20 feet in front of you. It makes the anticipation greater because the peak could be anywhere! We made it to the top, had someone take our picture, looked at the clouds, then made our way back.
And what do you know, Curtis’ plan worked — as soon as we arrived back at the hut, the clouds cleared for a bit and we got some quick glimpses of the valley below! It was such an exciting moment; another hiker was coming down from Monroe with us and we all saw it at the same time and cheered together. It’s fun to share these happy moments with strangers! 🙂
We also really enjoyed seeing the Lake of the Clouds, an alpine lake here above 4000′ elevation. Then, I noticed a sign that made me a bit more anxious about attempting Washington in this weather. Apparently the weather up here on the ridge is known for having the worst weather in America. The sign read: “Turn back now if the weather is bad!” I stopped and wondered…is high wind considered bad? Another hiker who was not attempting this peak today said winds were expected to be 70 mph at the top. Is that bad? Curtis said no, so we continued. 😉
Honestly, this was such a cool section of trail that I soon forgot the warning and really enjoyed walking along the rocky tundra. We watched birds struggle to fly in the wind, and passed other winded hikers. We knew it was less than a mile to the top, but again had no idea when it was coming because we couldn’t see too far ahead of us. I was thankful that we weren’t in direct sunlight and that it wasn’t too hot. We weren’t too cold as long as we kept moving. Another cool fact is that the trail we were walking on — the Crawford Path — is the oldest continuously maintained trail in America. It traverses the Southern Presidential Peaks and is part of the Appalachian Trail.
Soon enough, we reached the top! It was super eerie seeing the shapes of buildings and a tower suddenly appear in the clouds. It was exciting, yet we were suddenly also standing among crowds and crowds of people. We went and stood in line to get our picture with the high point sign, behind all the people who had ridden the train up the mountain. I walked through the Tip Top House, one exhibit at the top, and heard a man complain about the sidewalk to get to the house — “They really make you work for this, don’t they?” No one’s making you visit this house, sir. Go get on your train. 😉
Of course now that we weren’t walking, we were really cold, so we sat inside the visitor’s center and ate our lunch. I read a board about all the people who died of hypothermia while hiking here, and decided to wear a hat until we were safely out of the cold. I will admit, it was nice to have a warm shelter and full restrooms at the top of the mountain, but it made coming back outside and starting our descent even harder.
We left the peak following the Appalachian Trail to the North eventually taking the Jewell Trail back to our starting point. And once we warmed up, the hike down was just as fun as the walk up the tundra. As we got lower, we were actually able to see again, and it was amazing! This part of the hike was so fun, I almost wanted to suggest we do more presidential peaks the next day…but I know better than to suggest that until later, when I’m resting in the tent and start to think if I REALLY want to do all that work again tomorrow.
We decided that this trail was way easier than most of the trails we’d done in the Adirondacks, despite being over 2000′ higher than any of those. Trail conditions make all the difference!
Eventually, the beautiful tundra turned into a forest, green and lush and beautiful in its own way. We love all the variety up here. We made great time on this part of the trail, and before we knew it, we were back at the Cog Rail Station.
Well, that is, after one little incident along the last 20 feet of the trail. The trail had crossed the ravine/river several times, and always had a decent bridge or rocks to help you get across, but the very last one had nothing — absolutely nothing. Well, a log across the water, but I’m pretty sure nature did that and not the trail builders. The creek was also loud, raging rapids around here, which made it seem all the more treacherous. Curtis and Charlotte crossed at one point no problem, but I wasn’t comfortable with that. So Curtis walked halfway across the log to try to help me, but of course Charlotte had to follow him and be a little show-off. Since she’s a long and awkward dog, she couldn’t just turn around mid- log, so they had to come back and then find a different place to cross back. Charlotte made it back, but as Curtis and I were making our way over the boulders that looked promising, Curtis slipped, and everything seemed to go in slow motion…and he ended up in the water. Of course he was fine — and luckily nothing important like his phone or our letterbox logbooks got wet — but now I knew there was no way I was crossing. I was forever stuck on the other side.
Just kidding, I sucked it up and found another spot with boulders to cross and made it safely — which is good because I have the “expensive” equipment. 😉
Curtis changed in the visitor’s center, then we made our way back to our campsite. We started to lounge around lazily, making up some soup or something easy for dinner, when a guy showed up. He introduced himself, and told us he was here to go hunting. Bear hunting. Apparently September is bear hunting season up here — who knew? He told us stories about how campers here have fed the bears hot dogs, and by that I mean, campers sitting inside their tents, throwing hot dogs out at the bear right outside. What?? These are the people that ruin the experience for everyone else, bears included! Anyway, the bear guy came by several more times while we were here, but never had any success.
And that was the day we hiked Mount Washington! So far, it is still our favorite hike we’ve done in the Northeast, and possibly our favorite high point we’ve ever hiked to. I read that Mt. Washington is in the clouds for more than 300 days a year, so I feel like we got a true taste of what the peak is like. Being so nervous about it beforehand also made finishing it an even greater reward.
Curtis also recently finished his first compilation of our Hiking Challenges and Hikes. He’ll add more info like trail routes and pictures when he gets the time, but until then, you can find it here!