The star attraction of the White Mountains’ Presidential Range, 6,288-foot Mt. Washington stands head and shoulders above every other peak in New England. East of the Mississippi, only Mt. Mitchell and Mt. Craig in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge and Clingman’s Dome in Tennessee’s Great Smokies are taller. Despite its natural defenses—such as notoriously fierce storms that arise without warning—Mt. Washington is accessible to an almost unfortunate degree. The Mount Washington Auto Road (603/466-3988, daily May-mid-Oct., weather permitting, $29 car and driver, $9 each additional adult) was first opened for carriages in 1861, earning it the nickname “America’s Oldest Man-Made Tourist Attraction.” It still switchbacks up the eastern side, climbing some 4,700 feet in barely eight miles. A marvel of engineering, construction, and maintenance, the Mount Washington Auto Road offers a great variety of impressions of the mountain and wonderful views from almost every turn.
If the weather is clear, you can see the Atlantic Ocean from the top of the mountain; in summer, mornings tend to be clearer, and sunny afternoons turn cloudy and stormy on the summit, complete with lightning and thunder. At the top, be prepared for winter weather any time of year (it can and does snow here every month of the year). Stop inside the Sherman Adams Summit Building, which has displays on the historic hotels and taverns that have graced the top over the years, as well as a cafeteria. Visited by hundreds of people every day throughout the summer, since the 1850s the summit of Mt. Washington has sprouted a series of restaurants and hotels—even a daily newspaper. The most evocative remnant of these is the tiny Tip Top House, “the oldest mountaintop hostelry in the world,” now a state historic site.
Cyclists, runners, and motorists regularly race each other up the road to the summit, but there is another, much easier ride to the top: the Mount Washington Cog Railway, which climbs slowly but surely straight up and down the mountain’s western slope from Bretton Woods. While most trains now run on clean, efficient biodiesel, a few of the morning trains still use steam-power.
South from the foot of the Mount Washington Auto Road, Route 16 passes through Pinkham Notch, a mostly undeveloped stretch of the White Mountains lined by forests and a few ski areas. About four miles south of the Auto Road is the area’s outdoorsy Grand Central Station: the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center. Operated by the venerable Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), the year-round trailhead facility offers topographical maps, guidebooks, weather updates, and precautionary advice, as well as limited gear. The camp also offers snacks, a dining hall, a 24-hour hikers’ pack-up room with restrooms and showers, scheduled shuttle van service, and the Joe Dodge Lodge (603/466-2727, about $63 and up per person for bed and board), a modern hostel with shared bunk rooms, a few private doubles and family-rooms, and great views from the library.