C lear views of the northern Presidential Range, low-hanging clouds tucked in the valley below and zero wind made for an unforgettable scene Monday morning above treeline on Mount Washington.

NH Winter by Jill Armstrong

Although sights of this nature typically come after hours of strenuous hiking, my boyfriend, Matt, and I were instead transported to this subarctic world by a SnowCoach at Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center in Pinkham Notch.

The SnowCoach — a white utility van driven by four triangular tracks rather than wheels — navigates the snow-covered Mt. Washington Auto Road, providing guests a chance to see the splendor of the White Mountains in the winter months.

Outside of the center’s main lodge, we were prompted by our guide and driver Ray Bergeron to enter our assigned SnowCoach, one of three lined up for the first tour of the morning leaving promptly at 8:45 am.

A semi-retired driver in his second season touring, Bergeron’s exuberant personality set the tone for the 90-minute tour right from the start.

Making tracks

The triangular tracks that drive the SnowCoach allow for stability during the journey up the winding Auto Road that averages a 12% grade.

As we pulled out of the parking area to cross Route 16, Bergeron announced, “This is what we call the massage chair.” He was noting the strong vibrations coming from the tracks when the SnowCoach was driven over bare pavement as opposed to snow-covered roads. Over a shared laugh, I was reminded of the once-coveted Magic Fingers trend.

The Auto Road begins at an unassuming white building, which we learn is the original toll house built just before the road opened in 1861. The oldest man-made attraction in the nation, the 7.6-mile Auto Road took 30 years to construct.

As we ascended, Bergeron discussed noteworthy historical attractions like Radiator Spring, a pull-off that used to house a hostel and stable where travelers might switch out horses and rest for the evening. This spot functioned as the road’s hub for many years.

When an Appalachian Trail sign came into view, Bergeron stopped and pulled out a laser pointer. Directing the green lights towards the ceiling, our guide transformed the coach into a popular American game show by announcing “This is Cash Cab.” Bergeron proceeded to ask trivia questions about the world-famous 2,200-mile trail, awarding us Auto Road pins and magnets for correct answers. Our confidence faltered when questioned about the identity of 19th-century Swedish opera star Jenny Lind and her relation to Mount Washington.

During the short ascent, passengers can watch the surrounding ecological zones change drastically. The journey begins in a Northeastern hardwood forest before the trees shift to smaller, softer conifers. As more elevation is gained, the trees become gnarled and stunted, shaped by continuous exposure to wind and cold. The vegetation in this subalpine zone is aptly named krummholz, a German term loosely translating to “crooked tree.”

SnowCoach stop

The SnowCoach stops at the winter turnoff, a clearing that sits just above 4,200 feet elevation.

Our tour stopped at the winter turnoff, 4,200 feet elevation sitting at treeline, or the boundary to the alpine zone where harsh conditions prevent trees from growing at all. As Bergeron helped us down from the coach, he noted the powdered sugar effect: the light dusting of snow covering the dwarfed vegetation. Snow on trees is another rare sight because of the relentless wind speeds.

“I was surprised how quickly it allows people to access higher elevations,” Matt later told me. “Within 15 to 20 minutes you are above treeline, in an environment that is quite different than most people get to experience.”

Once out of the coach, we followed a short path that led to a clearing. The bright blue sky provided a dazzling backdrop to the dramatic, snow-covered ridgeline before us. A New Hampshire native, I’ve summited Mount Washington but have never driven up the Auto Road. It was refreshing to witness the beauty of the White Mountains from an entirely new perspective.

After exploring the area, I spoke with Rik Dow, another driver who started guiding summer tours on the Auto Road in 1978. Dow spoke fondly of his career, almost as if the environment itself was addicting.

“If you like being in the outdoors, this is just a phenomenal place to fall in love with,” Dow said. “We see a spectacular array of things here, and it isn’t all just distant views.”

The view from halfway

Halfway up the Auto Road, we emerged from low-hanging clouds to clear views of surrounding mountains, including Wildcat Mountain Ski Area.

Twice in his career, Dow has witnessed a snow cornice on the ridgeline just south of Mount Adams let go, sliding in a massive avalanche down into the bowl. A pretty impressive sight, I imagine; a reminder of nature’s force and spontaneity.

On the way down, I began to notice the steep drops beside some of the road’s sharp corners, but the slow, stable maneuvering of the SnowCoach made any fear disappear. One of the key factors of running the tour is safety, so Bergeron is in constant communication with other drivers in between his stories.

Throughout the tour, Bergeron indulged us with some of his favorite moments as a guide. Once, he was asked to record the engagement proposal of a young couple. Sixty mph winds whipped at the turnoff that day, and he noticed icicles forming on the young woman’s cheek as she cried (tears of joy we assume). But Bergeron never started the video. They laughed at the situation and redid the proposal to share with family and friends.

For Bergeron, this is what guiding is all about.

“The people are awesome. You meet so many different people from all walks of life. I want them to connect with nature. It’s such a fast world. It feels good to get a chance to just idle down a little bit, see what’s around you, and enjoy yourself.”

Reservations are required for SnowCoach tours, which can be made at greatglentrails.com/booknow.

Winter Notes is published Fridays through ski season. Contact Jill Armstrong jaarmstr1@gmail.com.