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Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Mount Washington, New Hampshire

My third-weekend hike here in New England was the best one yet. It is the ultimate prize of New England hiking if you will. We climbed the highest peak in the Presidential Range and in all of New England.  I may have left Utah but we have an ultra prominent peak right here in the northeast corner of New Hampshire.


Yep, it's the famous and challenging Mt Washington, with its sweeping views of New Hampshire.   The famous bumper sticker will not be fastened to my car because we got to the summit the hard way (on foot!).  I have to say, this was the hardest and my favorite New England hike to date and it reminded me a lot of Utah-prominent, steep and with a challenging summit of boulder hopping. This post started as a hiking guide and then it kind of evolved into an overall guide of the mountain, with where to camp, how to get to the summit, and details on my hike to the top. 

The summit of Mt Washington is known as the "most dangerous small mountain in the world".  If you are scratching your head trying to figure out why (because it's just New Hampshire, right?), grab a coffee and let's have a quick chat about the peak, the weather and its proximity to the public. 

The mountain summit is at 6,288 ' above sea level and is no giant compared to some of North America's summits.  Mt. Washington is only ranked at #413 for the USA Lower 48 High Points.  However, it is ranked at #24 by prominence and is an Ultra Prominent Peak.  One of my Utah hiking friends Girl On A Hike has a great post all about prominence.  But for the quick and dirty, "Prominence is the elevation difference between a peaks' key saddle and the summit, measuring how far a mountain rises above the lowest contour that it encircles, and not a higher peak". 
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Think of it as a "more fair" way to evaluate a peak.  It's not how high you are from sea level, but how "prominent" you are.  So Elevation: 6,289′, Prominence: 6,148′ - read "this is going to be a tough hike". Mt Washington earned its status as #59 on the Ultra Prominent Summit List (A list of summits with over 5,000' in prominence).  

So the mountain is very steep, you get it, but it also has some crazy weather.  The highest wind velocity ever recorded at any surface weather station was at the summit of Mt Washington at 231 mph on in 1934.   Hurricane force winds occur on average about every three days at the summit, which is also covered in dense fog 60 percent of the time. The Mt. Washington Observatory located at the summit sees on averages 256 inches of snow each year.  Add in its popularity and proximity to so many people and you have a dangerous scenario.

Articles state that Mt. Washington is within one day’s drive of 70 million people. The point is the mountain is very accessible (yep, not too far from an amusement park even) and every year a quarter of a million people visit the summit -- most drive the auto road to the top or take the cog railway.   However, many hikers choose to climb this mountain and a large number are very unprepared. To date, 135 people have lost their lives on or around the mountain since 1849 (more than on Mt McKinley -- the tallest mountain in North America). 

But don't let the numbers discourage you.  As long as you are well prepared (this post is a great first step), do your research, have the appropriate gear and supplies, and use your head you can successfully and safely summit Mt. Washington.

Once you get to the summit, there is a lot going on: you will find The Tip Top House (a historic site), an interactive museum, the weather station, a cafeteria, a gift shop, a post office, bathrooms, and an information building. 

There are a few ways to get to the summit.  

1.  Of course, you can hike to the summit (4.3 miles one way about 3-5 hours) which is my preferred way to see the summit. And we get into all the nitty gritty of that later.  However, if hiking isn't your thing, you may be reading the wrong blog there are other ways to stand on the top of Mount Washington to feel the hurricane force wind blowing through your hair. 

2.  You can drive up your car, earning the famous "This car climbed Mt Washington" sticker, but it will cost you. The 2016 rates are $29 for the car and driver, and an additional $9 for adult passengers (and $7 for kids). But don't worry, that fee includes the bumper sticker.

3.  You can also take the train up, the historic Cogg Railway. One hour up, one hour at the summit, and one hour down.  A beautiful historic train ride but again costly at $69 round trip or $48 one way. 

4.  And then there is the shuttle (for one way only) one way up or one way down from $31 to $50 one way depending on when you purchase the ticket (or even higher if you are up there after the last shuttle leaves). 

Regardless of how you get there, it is important that you know a few things. First, you will not be alone at the summit. This isn't one of those hikes where you reach the summit in quiet solitude. You reach the summit with a lot of other people, most of whom drove their car, rode their motorcycle or took the train up. You will have to wait in a long line to take a picture at the summit sign, and you will be among crowds. Second, you need to prepare for the weather at the summit.  It will be cold and it will be windy.  Bring a lot of layers to stay warm at the top, especially if you are hiking. Always check the Mt. Washington Observatory for weather conditions before you go. 

I wanted to hike Mt Washington, and the drive to the mountain was roughly five hours from my home in Stonington.  Combined with the fact that I like to be outdoors, we had the dogs, and hotels are stupidly expensive, we planned to camp the night before and the night after. So the question soon became, where, how close and how much.  And lucky for you I am here to answer the questions.  
We elected to stay at the Dolly Copp Campground.  Dolly Copp was the closest to the trailhead and quite frankly, the cheapest. It is also one of the largest campgrounds in the National Forest System (meaning I knew we would have a spot last minute, especially after labor day).  The campground is open from mid-May through mid-October and allows dogs.  The campground is 5 miles north from the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, which was also the start of the trail.  The fee is 22$ (with one vehicle) per night.  Each site comes with a fire ring and a picnic table.  The campground has flushing toilets, potable water, but does not have showers (coin operated showers are available at Pinkham Notch Visitor Center).  You can usually make reservations online but with current renovations, all sites are on a first come-first served basis. The campground is located on Rt 16 in Gorham, New Hampshire, 603-466-2713.

Some other nearby options include: Barnes Field (first come first served, only 11 sites, starting at $40 prime season, $15 off season, open year round, 7 miles north of the trailhead), Glenn Ellis (pricey at starting rates of $42 a site, no dogs until after labor day, and 12 miles south of the trailhead).  Timberland Campground (15 miles north of the trailhead, $22 a site). 

You know those hikes where the summit seems to be getting further and further away... and then when you finally reach the summit, the idea of turning around and going back down seems absolutely tragic? Well, this hike is it. Before you set off for the hike, you think to yourself "about four miles one way, sure its steep but it's just four miles one way". Well, after nearly 2 miles of hiking up and over a boulder field while climbing 1,000' of elevation over a mile, you realize the hike is a lot tougher than you thought. You underestimated the elevation, you weren't aware of the boulders, and it takes a lot longer than you think to cross that last mile. But the good news is that the hike the entire way is absolutely gorgeous. And the tougher the hike gets the last two miles, the better the view. 

I felt a little unprepared going into the hike with my dog because truth-be-told, there isn't a lot of information on hiking the trail with your dog. I heard some dogs have trouble with the boulder field, but that's basically it. And every blog or trail information I read really underestimated the boulder field and how long it actually was.   Olive is an avid hiker and is used to climbing large boulder fields but many dogs are not (more on hiking this with dogs in its own section below).  It is also pretty hard to stick to the trail.  There are painted marks on the rocks but mostly, its a free for all on picking your way up and across this field of boulders and scree. 

It is also important to note that the trail up will be packed if you take Tuckerman's Ravine. Alternate routes will be less busy but as I said with the dogs I wanted to take the more popular route up, figuring it was easier. If you think the trail up is busy be prepared because as I mentioned, the summit will be even crazier..... but the hike down? You will see a fraction of the people on the trail (we only passed about 4 other small groups the entire way down). A majority of hikers make this a one way trip, hiking up and taking the shuttle back down.   If you are not an experienced hiker, consider taking the shuttle down.  The hike down is by far the hardest part of the hike, making your way down the steep boulder field is harder than going up (believe it or not).  You don't want to be on your way down the mountain without supplies or more importantly, without daylight.  There is potable water along the trail at the cabin, and again at the summit.

If you want to grab a few supplies before you start, Pinkham Notch Visitor Center has a store (as well as a restaurant, a bathroom with showers, and a ranger station to offer advice and directions for the trail).  I recommend purchasing a map and talking to a ranger before you start your hike.

There is also a spot about half-way up the trail at Hermit Lake/Shelter where you can get a few supplies (headlamps being one of them).  There is also potable water and restrooms here. 

I did some research on trails and decided that the most popular route would likely be easiest for the dogs. I was confident that Olive would be fine on the hike as Utah's trails and elevation had trained her for hikes like this. But,I was a little nervous about her pads being torn up. She had issues in Utah with a torn pad on a long hike, and I read that this was a common problem for dogs on the trail. To be safe, I packed her booties which I could throw on a paw in case it was damaged. Olive was amazing the entire hike, acting like a mountain goat scaling her way up and over the boulder field.

But the boxer in our group who was a little older and not used to the large boulders had some trouble. I also chatted with a few people along the way whose dogs also had trouble getting through the last mile or two over all the boulders on the way to the summit. A few people spoke about carrying their dogs the last mile or so, and most people took their dogs down on the shuttle. Beware, if you do choose this route to book a shuttle fast and be prepared to pay $12 for your dog and $30 for you.

Due to the steepness of the hike, the boulder field, and the rough terrain, I would ONLY bring your dog on this hike if they are very experienced, in good shape, and will be okay crossing large sections of steep boulders.  

If you bring a smaller dog, you may have to carry them the last two miles on the boulder field.  Even the most athletic small dog may have some troubles due to the size of some of the boulders.  Also note if you bring a large dog that is having a tough time, you will have very few options (besides carrying your dog up the last challenging bit of the hike). 

I decided to take the most popular route to the top, the Tuckerman Ravine Trail from Pinkham Notch.  This is a crowded trail (heading up) and when I hiked it, there was a detour to fix a broken bridge. It is important to note that you are hiking up a ravine, and the trail is mostly rocks and boulders and in some instances, may be wet and slippery.  

There is an option to turn a part of the hike into a loop.  If you want to make it a loop, the rangers suggested going up Tuckerman Ravine and down Lions Head (the other side of Tuckerman). There are a lot of scenic stops along the route, perfect for when you need a break from the elevation.  There are a few stream crossings, a waterfall, lean to's, bathrooms (winter and summer with plumbing), emergency first aid boxes, and even a ranger cabin on your route to the top.  

Trailhead: Pinkham Notch

Trail: Tuckerman Ravine Trail - 2,036'

Distance: ~8.5 miles Round Trip

Elevation change: 4,252'

Time: 6-9 hours round trip


1. Trailhead to Crystal Cascade waterfall - 0.4 miles - 2,335'
2. Crystal Cascade to the junction of the Lion Head Trail - 1.9 miles - 3,809'
Continuing on via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail:
3. To Hermit Lake (and shelters) - 0.1 miles - 3,859'
4. From the lake to Tuckerman Junction - 1.2 miles - 5,341'
5. Lion Head Trail - 0.1 miles - 5,456'
6. Mount Washington summit - 0.4 miles - 6,288'

Return via the Tuckerman Trail or take the Lions Head Trail back (other side of Tuckerman). 

Total distance up via Tuckerman - 4.1 miles
Total distance down via Lions Head- 4.3 miles

Above is my route (with the detour on the two ravines).  All stats are for one way up the mountain. My plan was to hike UP Tuckerman Ravine and DOWN Lions Head.  However, when I got to the trailhead, I was told there was a detour on Tuckerman Ravine due to a bridge being out.  The detour took us onto the Huntington Ravine Trail, and then onto the Raymond Path before getting back to the Tuckerman Ravine Trail (adding 0.3 miles to the trail). Our hike was a little longer than the 4.1 (one way) planned due to the detour, and weaving our way up the boulder field for the last two miles. 

After talking to the guys on the trail, this detour should only last a few weeks and Tuckerman Ravine will be back to normal.  I skipped Lions Head all together and returned down Tuckerman and back through the detour. 

Pinkham Notch Visitor Center - with a restaurant, store restrooms and shower.  

Trail signage at the lodge/start of Tuckerman Ravine
Signage about protecting the ravine
Start of Tuckerman Ravine 
The trail-  almost entirely boulders and rocks 
First scenic stop- Crystal Cascades 
Views of nearby peaks 
Stream crossing along a detour on the trail 

Stream crossing on the trail 

Stopping at the cabin at Hermit Lake/Shelters for a bathroom break and photo op
Small store at Hermit Lake 
Making our way up the boulder field
Olive leads the way up steep sections of the trail
Steep sections of the trail with large boulders 
Trail coming across the mountain with large cairns 
View back down the trail 

View back down the trail 
Signage along the trail by the summit 

Taking in the views

Scattered crowd making their way up the boulders 
Summit time:  4.83 miles in 4:30 minutes.  Longer than expected but kept it slow for the boxer in our group

Parking lot at the summit, end of Tuckerman Ravine Trail
At the summit: Tip Top House (historic Site) and signage for the summit building, snackbar and restrooms. 

Towers at the summit


  1. Awesome post and thanks for the plug! Wow, that's a lot of people hiking up to the peak at once! -Alicia @

    1. a lllllot of people. But basically no one going down! Most of the hikers take the shuttle down:)


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