A bright blue sky was the backdrop for the brilliant white peaks of the northern Presidential Range early this week, the perfect winter day to take a ride up to the home of the world’s worst weather.
I’d arrived at Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center in Gorham just before 9 a.m., in the nick of time to grab an empty seat on the Mount Washington SnowCoach, which climbs from the Outdoor Center to an elevation of 4,300 feet above sea level— about two-thirds of the way to the summit of the Northeast’s highest mountain.
Dave Roy, our driver and tour guide for the trip aboard the SnowCoach — a four-track, all-wheel-drive van — regaled his six passengers with the natural and human history of Mount Washington and some of his experiences as a guide here for the past 40 or so years.
Trees cast shadows across the glittering snow as the SnowCoach climbed along the Mt. Washington Auto Road. Fox tracks meandered through the trees, sometimes crossing the footprints of squirrels and snowshoe hares. Tall beech and birch trees gave way, gradually, to the stunted spruce and fir forests near treeline.
As the SnowCoach chugged steadily upward, the view shifted from the Peabody River Valley and faraway snowy peaks in Maine to the ski trails of nearby Wildcat Mountain and the snow-capped summits of mounts Madison, Adams and Jefferson. How different these mountains look in a graceful blanket of white than when their jagged, rocky peaks reach toward the summer sky.
This seemed a perfect day for such an outing, but Roy said not everyone would agree.
“People come here to see the views like you’re seeing today,” he said. “But other people want to step out of the coach and experience the world’s worst weather.”
The Mount Washington Observatory once recorded the highest wind gust in history: 231 mph, a record that stood for more than 60 years. But when my fellow passengers — from Deerfield and South Jersey — and I got out at the coach’s stopping point below the summit, it was to sunshine and temps hovering around zero; not even a breeze stirred the air.
After snapping photos and taking in the views from 4,300 feet, we climbed back into the coach somewhat reluctantly.
I rode shotgun on the way down, so had a front-row view to the steep drop-offs along the edge of the Auto Road. It was hard to imagine the horse-drawn, tourist-laden carriages that first climbed the road in the late 19th century, or the two-way traffic here during summers now, when tens of thousands of people ascend the Auto Road annually.
Roy told us this summer will mark the return of the Climb to the Clouds, when professional rally car drivers take to the Auto Road. Traveling at speeds over 100 mph in some places, the fastest drivers reach the 6,288-foot summit — a journey of 7.6 miles — in just over six minutes.
The SnowCoach tours are blessedly more leisurely. The 4.5-mile trip from Great Glen to the 4,300-foot mark takes about 30 minutes. Tours run from 9 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., as long as the weather allows and there are at least two people ready to climb aboard the SnowCoach.
Tickets are $49 for adults and $30 for kids 5 to 12. Reservations are taken only for the first tour of the day, and given Mount Washington’s notorious weather, it’s a good idea to check on conditions at 466-2333 or www.greatglentrails.com before making the trek over.
Great Glen Trails also offers human-powered adventures in the form of snowshoeing, fat biking, classic Nordic and skate skiing along 45 kilometers of maintained trails, all in the shadows of New Hampshire’s loftiest peaks.
Winter Notes is published on Fridays during ski season. Contact Meghan McCarthy McPhaul at firstname.lastname@example.org.