Location: Route 302, Sargent's Purchase, NH
Amenities: Cafeteria, gift shop, museum, observatory
Acreage: 52 acres
Number of Campsites: None
Mount Washington State Park, a 59-acre parcel perched on the summit of the Northeast's highest peak, is surrounded by the extensive 750,000-acre White Mountain National Forest. On a clear day views from the 6,288-foot summit extend beyond New Hampshire as far as 130 miles to Vermont, New York, Quebec, Massachusetts, Maine and the Atlantic Ocean. A modern summit building houses a cafeteria, restrooms, gift shops, the Mt. Washington Observatory and its museum. The historic TipTop House is located adjacent to the summit building and is open to visitors when staff is available.
The eight-mile long Mt. Washington Auto Road was completed in 1861 as a carriage road to replace rugged hiking and bridle paths. Carriages drawn by teams of eight horses carried visitors and their huge trunks of clothing to the summit. Visitors today may drive their own cars to the summit or ride in one of the many vans that provide guided tours for visitors. The auto road, which is the site of annual foot, bicycle and automobile races, begins in Gorham on Route 16 on the east side of the mountain.
The Mt. Washington Cog Railway, the first rack-and-pinion mountain-climbing cog railway, made its initial run to the summit in 1869. The three-mile route remains one of the steepest railway tracks in the world. The cog railway base station is located off Route 302 near Bretton Woods on the west flank of the mountain. Both the cog railway and auto road are privately owned and operated.
When visiting the park in the summer it is important to remember that the weather at the summit will be much colder and windier than at the base. Snow can fall any month of the year. To make the most of a visit, even if you are riding to the summit, bring extra clothing and sturdy footwear.
There are at least fifteen long, rough hiking trails up Mt. Washington. In addition, it is traversed by the Appalachian Trail, the 2,000-mile footpath that extends from Maine to Georgia. For those planning to hike remember the weather changes suddenly in the mountains, and is usually much worse at higher elevations. Be prepared! Hikers may wish to stop at the Appalachian Mountain Club's (AMC) Pinkham Notch Camp or purchase an AMC White Mountain Guide for trail information and a map before starting out. If planning to hike from mid-October to late May be aware that there are no facilities open and no shelter available on the summit.
Truly the most outstanding feature of Mt. Washington is its weather, considered by many to be the "worst in the world". The highest wind velocity ever measured on earth, 231 miles per hour, was clocked on the summit on April 12, 1934. Wind exceeds hurricane force (75 mph) over one hundred days a year. An average wind velocity of 35 mph, coupled with an average temperature of 27.1 F (-2.7C) makes for extreme wind chill conditions.
Why is the weather so severe? In addition to its lofty elevation, Mt. Washington lies in the paths of both the major storm tracks and air mass routes that affect the Northeast. The mountain's topography and high elevation create an acceleration effect on the wind in much the same way a river's velocity increases as it passes over a rapid. Because of the vantage the summit affords of weather, it is an ideal location for the Mount Washington Observatory., a private, nonprofit corporation that conducts weather observations and scientific research. The observatory operates a museum and gift shop for visitors and offers pre-scheduled tours of the weather station. The observatory is staffed throughout the year including winter when access to the summit is both limited and dangerous.
Ascending Mt. Washington or any of the high peaks of the White Mountains travelers pass through several distinct ecological zones. At the base is a forest of northern hardwoods, followed a bit higher by a forest of spruce and fir. As more elevation is gained, trees become small and stunted. These dwarf and gnarled trees of the sub-alpine zone are called krummholtz. Tree line, the elevation above which trees do not grow, is about 4,400 feet in the White Mountains, nearly 2,000 feet below the summit of Mt. Washington. The area above tree line is called the alpine zone. The short growing season, soil acidity and the destructive effect of high winds on ice-covered foliage at the higher elevations create an environment in which trees cannot survive. Although rain is plentiful, the meager soil does not retain moisture, and nearly constant winds cause plants to lose precious moisture to the atmosphere.
Many of the plants of the sub-alpine and alpine zones have special adaptations to cope with the extreme conditions. They grow close to the ground in locations where they are sheltered from winter winds by snow banks; many have evergreen leaves that eliminate the need for energy to re-foliate each spring; and many have hard, waxy leaves that retard the loss of moisture. Some of the plants are rare or endangered, including one on Mt. Washington, Rabbis Cinquefoil, that is found nowhere else on earth.
The tiny plants of the alpine zone are extremely sensitive to trampling and very slow to recover. It is important to stay on designated trails and camp below tree line.
Darby Field, a British colonist from Exeter, made the first recorded ascent of Mt. Washington in 1642. It has been related through the years that Field's two Native American companions did not accompany him to the summit because the Great Spirit was believed to dwell there. The mountain's history has been colorful since that first ascent. In 1819 Ethan Allen Crawford and his father Abel, early settlers and innkeepers of the Crawford Notch area, built the first trail to the summit. By the mid-1800s tourism on the mountain flourished. Train service was extended into the White Mountains, and a bridle path was opened to the summit that made it accessible to the tourists who were flocking to the area. The first hotel was built at the summit in 1852 to accommodate the tourists arriving on foot and horseback. It was so successful its first year of operation that a competing hotel, the Tip Top House was built the following year.
It is hard to imagine how difficult and time-consuming the building of the hotels must have been. All the materials had to be hauled nine miles by horses over rough trails. Plus, the workers had to climb each day from a camp two miles down the mountain. Development at the summit flourished, and included a three-story, ninety-one-room hotel, a daily newspaper, and a weather observatory. The great fire of 1908 destroyed the "City Among the Clouds" sparing only the Tip Top House. Shortly after the summit hotel was rebuilt, the Tip Top House burned, and, too, was rebuilt. The Tip Top House is believed to be the oldest mountain-top hostelry still in existence in the world. Recently restored and furnished, it is once again open for visitors as a state historic site. Volunteer staffing provided by members of the Jackson Historical Society makes it possible to have the Tip Top House open seasonally at least two days a week.