Driving Mount Washington Auto Road In Fall
Mount Washington is the tallest peak east of the Mississippi and it's been a popular tourist destination fo more than a century as enterprising Americans have figured out ways to bring people to the top. While you can ascend to the summit by train, tour van, and even snow cat - our favorite is to drive up it on a fall day to see the amazing colors of New Hampshire's White Mountains and the wispy clouds blowing past you as you climb to more than 6,000 feet in the air.
On this trip, we were guests of Nissan, driving their Rogue Sport - a new compact crossover SUV in their lineup. It's an interesting little car that reminds me a lot of Mazda's CX3 since it's compact and a bit sporty - perfect for a road trip with no more than two people (or maybe some kids in back). While it's fun to drive, there was enough power to do what we needed it to do - but it would have been a lot more fun with more horses under the hood.
It's hard to believe, but this road was actually first opened to the public in 1861 and climbs 4,618 ft from an altitude of 1,527 ft to 6,145 ft at the top, with an average gradient of 11.6! It is also the site of the oldest auto race in the United States - the Mount Washington Hillclimb Auto Race that was first hosted here in 1904. As we drove up the road at 20-30 mph, I can only imagine the experience of racing up the mountain in a vintage automobile.
Lucky for us, even with only 141 hp, the Rogue Sport brought us comfortably to the top of Mount Washington in comfort and style.
As you climb the mountain, you're going to find some extremely tight spots with sheer drops on the outside and cars heading down the mountain with rock cliffs on the inside of the road. There are no shoulders to use, though there are ample pull-off spots to allow slower drivers to allow others to pass.
The Mount Washington Auto Road is simply a spectacular place to view fall folliage in New Hampshire due to the fact that you start in the valley and then can look down and see it from above. Sadly, this year (2017) was not a great year for colors and they are generally pretty muted compared to what they might be on other years. Regardless though, I thought they were pretty amazing and absolutely worth the trip.
Once you arrive at the summit, the Mount Washinton Auto Road has ample parking spaces. We visited on a Tuesday and it was "busy" but I'm sure on weekends that it is pretty crazy up at the top.
As I mentioned above, the summit of Mount Washington has been a busy place for more than 150 years. This includes the Tip-Top House that once served as a hotel for guests staying at the top that was built in 1853!
It is believed to be the oldest extant mountain-top hostelry in the world and is open from early May through October as weather permits. While not open for guests today, it was never very luxurious and consisted primarily of rustic wooden bunks and a cafeteria-style mess hall. That being said, if I had just hiked to the summit in the late 1800's I'd be happy to simply have a spot protecting me from the extreme winds up there!
Next to the Tip-Top House, there is a modern building housing a restaurant, gift shop, and a museum talking about the history of this mountain. Of course, one of the most important pieces of history here is related to the extreme winds. On the afternoon of April 12, 1934 the Mount Washington Observatory recorded a wind speed of 231 mph - the world record for most of the 20th century and still the record for a measured speed, not produced by a tropical cyclone.
The Mt Washington Auto Road is truly one of the most amazing drives in the country and I'd put it up there with driving through California's Big Sur area as far as the excitement and beauty. In many ways though, I enjoyed this drive more simply because at just over seven miles it was far shorter and it was nice to get out and walk around at the top. Another aspect that made this drive particularly exciting was that you pass through different climate levels - starting at the base with dense maples and birch trees and then at the top being left only with lichens clinging to the granite.
As you come down the mountain, make sure to pay attention to the signs about putting the car into low gear and pulling off periodically to cool the brakes. Luckily our car was brand new and had pristine brakes but when we arrived at the bottom and stepped out of the car the smell of smoking brakes made it clear that I should have stopped more frequently to take even more photos. :)
The Mt Washington Auto Road is open from early May through late October weather permitting, for a fee of $29 for car and driver; $9 per additional adult passenger. That fee includes the famous "This Car Climbed Mt Washington" bumper sticker and an audio tour on CD as well as admission to the "Extreme Mount Washington" museum at the summit. Guided tours in a van are also available during those months. During the winter, they also run SnowCoach tours to the tree-line (4,200 feet) in a unique tracked van.
- Written by James Hills
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