Winter on Mount Washington
This time of year, it’s easy to see how the Whites Mountains in New Hampshire got their name.
The range contains some of the highest mountains in New England, which tower above surrounding valleys to heights where trees can no longer grow. As the snow begins to pile up, and the rime ice accrues on the barren summits, there is nothing to interrupt the vast sea of white shining against the bright blue winter sky.
No mountain stands out more so than Mount Washington, with its impressive height of 6,288 feet, its distinct shape, and its formidable reputation. You can plainly see its ghostly profile from the coast of Maine, from the mountains of Massachusetts, and even from the Adirondacks some 130 miles away. But the peak is much more impressive close up, in towns like North Conway and Jackson New Hampshire, in a region of New Hampshire simply known locally as the Mount Washington Valley.
Mount Washington is world renowned as the ‘Home of the World’s Worst Weather,’ a claim that aids in its appeal as one of the most popular tourism draws in the region. In summer, more than 250,000 people ascend its slopes, on foot, by car or even by train, to sample a landscape and climate similar to the arctic tundra. In winter, the visitors total just a few thousand hardy adventurers.
You don’t need to ascend the mountain in winter though to get a feel for its power, history, beauty and mystique. You can safely watch in awe as the light and weather changes over the peak from the surrounding valleys, or experience a small taste of it in nearby notches or on adjacent mountains.
East of the mountain, Pinkham Notch in the White Mountain National Forest offers a true wilderness experience, with lots of short hikes on the lower slopes of Mount Washington. The AMC’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center offers rustic lodging, great food, a gift shop, and advice for both short walks and ambitious hikes. Also in the notch, Wildcat Mountain offers an exceptional view and classic New England skiing, on a neighboring peak that climbs to 4000 feet. From nearly anywhere on their trails you can watch for skiers and ice climbers in the ravines on Mount Washington’s grand eastern slopes.
On the western side of the mountain, the Bretton Woods Resort offers a view of the steep slopes of Washington from anywhere on their property, and you can cross country ski, snowshoe, sleigh ride, zipline or snowboard in the shadow of the impressive peak. And after a fun day of winter activities, there’s nothing like watching the warm alpenglow at sunset from the comfort of the Mount Washington Hotel.
For those wishing for a more up close look, the Mount Washington Auto Road will take you to treeline on Mount Washington in their winter ready vans, retrofitted with tracks instead of tires. The steep mountain road is a thrill in summer, but a snowtracked trek definitely ups the excitement even more.
The height of adventure in winter though resides at the top of the mountain, where the Mount Washington Observatory maintains a scientific outpost, observing the extreme weather year round. The scientists at the top work an eight day shift, living and working in some of the harshest conditions on Earth, and they offer opportunities to visit, and even spend the night on the peak!
An Observatory Summit Trip begins in Pinkham Notch, where you board a snowcat which ferries you to the summit where you will find modest accommodations and a winter experience like no other, either for a day trip or overnight. An average winter day on the peak will hover around five degrees, with winds averaging fifty miles per hour, and regularly exceeding hurricane force. The peak is a snow lover’s dream, and though they’re not everyone’s idea of a comfortable getaway, the trips are always filled.
Mount Washington has been calling adventurers for years to challenge its slopes and conquer its summit. Today, adventure has been leveled, but excitement still abounds. With so many ways to enjoy the legendary mountain, perhaps an adventure of your own is in your future!