SCENIC HEIGHTS: The Mount Washington Auto Road, an eight-mile stretch to the summit of the Northeast's highest peak, affords visitors some breathtaking sights. (Photo courtesy of LISA MARTINEAU)
Growing up in New Hampshire with a father who was something of a self-imposed state ambassador, it was a surprise, even to me, that we had never climbed the Mount Washington Auto Road.
Not with our giant station wagon in the ‘70s. Not in the ‘80s with our hideous orange van with a perfect 360-degree view out its windows. When I married, becoming a step-parent, it no longer occurred to me to drive skyward to the summit of Mt. Washington. By then, the famous mountain had practically become a stranger.
No, our trips tended toward Clark’s Trading Post, Heritage New Hampshire, the “Kanc” and, always, always, to The Flume, with an inevitable stop to gaze upward at the “Old Man of the Mountain,” who always managed to set fire to our imaginations about the legends and lore of the White Mountains.
Loss of an Icon
Everyone who came to visit our family was delivered to the site, across Franconia Notch Parkway, where, if you stood looking up at Cannon Mountain in just the right spot, you could clearly see the stone profile of an old man. We believed then, this was New Hampshire’s watchman, always looking out for the citizens of our great state. That is, until he toppled from the mountain on May 3, 2003. I remember the call to my father, who was visiting his family in Florida, to dispense the heartbreaking news. He was devastated.
Suddenly New Hampshire was left without its idol. We were at a loss. We mourned. And then one day, I remembered that I had never driven the Mount Washington Auto Road. I’d never made it up to Mount Washington at all, by foot, by car or by cog. It turns out that Mount Washington held the same mythical image in my mind as the “Old Man” did. It was the epicenter of the White Mountains, but it was overlooked by me until I stood in just the right place in my life and looked up.
That’s what led me to the gates of the Mount Washington Auto Road, something that draws 140,000 visitors each year. In truth, I was suddenly disappointed in myself for taking so long to recognize this mountain that loomed so large over our state. This 6,288-foot mountain, the highest peak in the Northeast, had become a legend in my own mind. It was famous, even, what with its own bumper sticker slapped on cars everywhere. “This Car Climbed Mount Washington” nearly became a state slogan to me as a child, like “Virginia is for Lovers” — whatever that meant — and a definite rite of passage if you had visited the state. Surely I’m not the only resident that almost let this one-of-a-kind experience pass me by.
Here are some thoughts I did have, however, during my early June visit: There are no guardrails. I’ll admit there was a slight fear of tumbling off the mountain toward imminent death. But that did not happen. In fact, it’s never happened. Not even when they started racing up the Auto Road in 1904.
Mind you, folks have been driving the Auto Road in actual automobiles since 1899, or at least one Mr. Freelan O. Stanley did. And, it took (the co-inventor of the Stanley Steamer steam engine car) two hours and 10 minutes. My father and I managed to climb to the summit by car in about 30 minutes, which included a couple of stops to admire some of the most amazing vistas I’ve seen in my life.
As we climbed ever higher, we came around a bend where there was still some snow on the leeward (or downwind) side of the mountain. We mused about the snow in June, but then we came upon a prairie of alpine flowers —Lapland Rosebay and Diapensia, to be specific — two flowers that generally only grow at elevations 5,000 feet or higher.” Queue the “Sound of Music” music.
The Mount Washington Auto Road is eight miles long. So, you’re wondering why it took us a whole half hour? We may have spent 10 minutes looking at panoramic views and chatting with tourists from Sri Lanka or Colorado, but the rest of the ride, especially as we approached the summit, lit up my fear-of-heights button and produced a bit of white-knuckle, near panic-attack inducing driving.
I should add that it was the best panic attack I’ve ever experienced. It was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time. But it was worth every minute of never-want-this-to-end, heart thumping happiness. We recorded the trip and at one point along the road you can hear these words whisper from my lips: “Wow, wow, wow.” There are no written words for what you see along the road as you meander along its curves.
Then you arrive at the Mt. Washington State Park on the summit. At the top of the mountain you will find an observation deck and the Mount Washington Observatory with their new museum, “Extreme Mount Washington.” The museum offers exhibits that include a high-definition series of interactive displays that allow you to experience a Mount Washington winter. You’ll also find the tiny Tip Top House, a former hotel made of rock blasted from the mountain. It’s the oldest building on the summit, constructed in 1853. The chained-down Summit Stage Office, originally built in 1878, survived 231-MPH winds, and is now a gift shop that also offers shuttle service for hikers. If you’re lucky, you’ll also see the Cog Railway climbing to the summit on its track and stopping to pick up or drop off passengers.
Still, I had one thought as I wandered the summit, that I had to go back down the Auto Road. Everyone cautioned me that this would be the hardest part — brakes catching fire, transmissions overheating and cars falling off the mountain; these were some of the concerns shared with me by the well-intentioned family and friends who had never traveled the Auto Road.
But the ride down was a breeze. You are told to keep the vehicle in “low” or first gear. I hardly had to brake for a good portion of the mountain.
My car did its job well, edging along and letting me enjoy the views from the other direction. In the old days, when they used carriages and horses to get up the road, they burned through a set of leather brakes on each trip. My car handled it like an old pro — though that designation is reserved for the racers who “Climb to the Clouds” each summer.
We still want to conquer this mountain, only we want to do it faster, or on a Segway, as someone did in 2001.
In 1861, when the road first opened, and certainly in the years preceding its opening, one has to wonder at the ingenuity of the people who built the road. They saw a road where the wind howls during the winter at speeds equivalent to hurricanes or greater. In 1934, a wind gust reached 231 miles per hour, a number that remains a world record for wind recorded by man.
It does make you wonder why one would do such a thing like build a road with all that crazy weather at its apex. But others might say, “Why not?” Driving it is indescribable in some ways, but once you’ve done it, you’ll nod knowingly — perhaps with a wink and a smile — at those who have shared this thrilling experience.