Can You Drive To The Top Of Mount Washington? +What’s At The Top

Mount Washington is the most distinctive and rugged peak in the White Mountains. The mountain dominates the skyline and captures the imagination, but most of us aren’t going to be able to hike all the way to the top of this fearsome peak. So can you drive to the top of Mount Washington instead?

You can drive to the top of Mount Washington. The Auto Road to the top allows motorists to experience multiple layers of Mount Washington’s climate, passes by fabulous hiking trails, and even has a restaurant. It is a challenging road, so bring your confidence and driving gloves – and your camera.

So is the road to the top of Mount Washington open all year? Is the weather on top as bad as they say? Is there snow on Mount Washington in the summer? In the following sections, you will find the answers to these questions and more.

The Mount Washington Auto Road

The Mount Washington Auto Road was constructed in the wake of New England’s railroad boom in the mid-1850s. Trains carrying crops and other goods ran across the White Mountains, crossing Pinkham Notch and other treacherous locations on routes that are still used today.

Eventually, people began discussing the possibility of building an observatory on top of Mount Washington, as well as a mighty hotel. Getting the jump on the idea, General David O. Macomber was granted a charter for the Mount Washington Road Company in 1853. Work on the road to the top commenced in 1854.

As you might imagine, building the road was an arduous task. Mount Washington is remote now, more so in the 1850s, making supplies difficult to haul to the worksite. All of the excavation was handled by men and animals: no excavators or machines were available. After years of construction, the road finally opened in 1861.

Driving To The Top of Mount Washington

The Mount Washington Auto Road begins in Pinkham Notch, on New Hampshire Route 16. From NH-16, it is a 7.8-mile journey to the top of the road, which sits at 6,286 feet – two feet below the highest point on the mountain.

The drive up requires focus and attention; the road is curvy, perched on the edge of a steep precipice, and often has a grade of up to 12%, and as if that isn’t enough, the weather turns rapidly. And don’t forget the one-mile gravel strip that interrupts the pavement. Whoever is driving should not be distractable or nervous.

While the road is generally quite narrow, there are several places where you can pull off to the side and enjoy the fantastic sights. If you’ve never seen the White Mountains in person, they’re worth taking in; bring your good camera.

While the ride is an amazing experience, it does cost a few bucks. Driving yourself to the peak will cost you between $39-45, depending on the season, but in addition to bragging rights and great pics, you get a souvenir bumper sticker!

Speaking of great pics, what is the view like from the top? It largely depends on the weather, but on a clear day, you can see about 130 miles. The panorama includes New Hampshire, Maine, Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Quebec, and the Atlantic Ocean. A view of this magnitude is, as you might expect, entrancing.

Not only that, but you will get to explore the Mount Washington Observatory, which has a museum and many engaging exhibits for the curious to peruse. It is also home to the Mount Washington State Park visitor center, which features a cafeteria and a store.

Road Trip Answers Fun Fact: Nearly 45,000 cars make the trip to the summit every season.

If you prefer fine dining or a non-cafeteria eating experience, you should consider stopping for lunch at the Glen View Cafe.

This little eatery serves homemade breakfast snacks, sandwiches, pizza, and salads. If you come on the weekend, you can indulge in a meatball sub or a bowl of chili. Not in the mood for a heavy meal? You can even just order a cup of coffee and sip while you admire the mountain view.

Record-Breaking Mount Washington

Mount Washington has set a number of world records, primarily for bad weather:

  • February 1969: more than 48 inches of snow falls in 24 hours at the summit.
  • April 1934: Mount Washington’s weather station measures a wind speed of 231 miles per hour, a world record for the Northern and Western hemispheres that still stands today.
  • January 2004: A particularly cold day on the peak sees air temperatures of -43.6 and winds of 87.5 miles per hour, giving a wind chill of -102.59.

Is There an Alternative to Driving to the Top of Mount Washington?

If you don’t want to drive up Mount Washington, but you’d still like to see the summit, there are options. If you’re fit enough, you could undoubtedly make the hike to the top – just be sure to bring essential gear and prepare for the worst.

The weather can change on a dime on Mount Washington, and even experienced hikers could easily become disoriented or suffer from exposure. Trail conditions are often challenging, rocky, and rough. Expect to hike at one mile per hour or less.

For a less threatening and more thrilling experience, you can purchase tickets to ride an ATV to the summit on the Auto Road. And motorcycle enthusiasts will be happy to learn that you may ride your motorcycle all the way to the peak.

Perhaps the most fun alternative to driving up is the Mount Washington Cog Railway. This historic railroad runs from Crawford Notch up the side of the mountain to the summit.

Due to the narrowness of the road and the challenging weather, bicycles are not allowed on the Mount Washington Auto Road. You also may not tow a trailer or camper or drive your RV to the summit due to the road conditions.

Is Mount Washington Auto Road Open Year-Round?

Mount Washington Auto Road is only open during certain times. For example, the road closes during the wintery months, as conditions on Mount Washington are notoriously challenging in the winter.

In general, the road opens in late May and closes before Halloween. The operator of the Mount Washington Auto Road maintains and publishes a schedule for the road.

Does Mount Washington Have Snow Year-Round?

There can be snow on Mount Washington year-round. The mountain is notoriously cold and receives massive quantities of snow every winter.

Summertime temps on the mountain rarely exceed the 70s, so it’s certainly possible to see very late-season snow.

Why Does Mount Washington Have The Worst Weather

It is said that Mount Washington has the worst weather in the world. The winter months can bring hurricane-force winds, blowing and sticking snow, ice, and frigid temperatures to the mountain. And speaking of snow, the mountain sees an average of 97 inches of snow a year – that’s a little more than 8 feet of snow.

Mount Washington’s famously severe weather is a result of several independent factors that come together on the mountain. First, Mount Washington sits at the nexus of three major air currents that travel for more than 1,000 uninterrupted miles across the land before hitting the mountain. These winds carry a lot of speed and a lot of momentum and bring moisture that can eventually precipitate into snow.

Not only does Mount Washington sit at the conjunction of these winds, but it is the tallest peak in the White Mountains at 6,288 feet. Its altitude and position in the mountain range cause wind and weather to funnel over the peak.

In effect, the mountain range is like a big thumb over the end of the garden hose of the wind, spraying high-pressure weather right at Mount Washington.

When is the Best Time to Drive up Mount Washington?

If you like a dramatic sunrise, you might want to consider taking an early-morning cruise to the top. A couple of times a season, the Mount Washington Auto Road will open early enough to allow drivers to get to the peak before sunrise.

You can stand atop the highest mountain in New England and watch the splendor of the sunrise as it comes up over the Atlantic Ocean.

Climbing Mount Washington: Motor Vehicle Edition

Summiting Mount Washington is an achievement. The mountain is high, mighty, and wrathful. But it is also full of majesty and beauty and can be a source of incredible wonder and inspiration.

If you want to partake of the thrill of the mountain but you’d rather not deal with a complex and challenging hike, or if you just like driving your car, you can hop on the Mount Washington Auto Road and make your way to the top.

You’ll find the experience of driving to the peak to be a rewarding and fun one. So sit back, relax, put the car into low gear, and take in the sights. The White Mountains never disappoint!

Photo of author

Don

There are numerous natural and man-made wonders I'm ready to find and explore, from Maine's rugged coast to California's Big Sur cliffs and everywhere between.