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  • Writer's pictureMaanasi Sridhar

Mount Washington Auto Road

For over 155 years people have driven, toured and explored the Mount Washington Auto Road making it the first and oldest man-made attraction in the United States of America.

Mt. Washington Auto Road, NH
The most rugged mountains in New England.
Unlike any other driving experience in eastern United States!

On the final stretch toward our destination as we neared the White Mountains, the grandeur and majesty of the approaching mountains in the distance captivated us. The sun dazzled and the warm sunshine permeated our car, wispy clouds drifted across the azure sky and crisp mountain air filled my lungs and soul. Driving on the open mountain roads can be exciting, calming, invigorating and even therapeutic, if need be. So, when my family and I returned to the White Mountains in New Hampshire late in the summer this year, we decided to drive up the Mt. Washington Auto Road, it was our first time driving on the famous Auto Road, and what an exhilarating experience it turned out to be!

Mt. Washington is one of the thirteen mountains in the Presidential Mountain Range in the White Mountains, nine of which are over 4000 feet in elevation. Opened to the public in August 1861, the privately owned and operated Mt. Washington Auto Road climbs 4,618 feet from the base and reaches more than a mile in the sky to the highest point in the Northeast at 6,288 feet.

There's no need for a reservation to drive yourself on the historic Mt. Washington Auto Road, we arrived at the base around mid morning, and upon paying our fees at the Toll House we received a large envelope containing safety instructions, an audio CD about Mt. Washington, a "Master of the Mountain" certificate, and a bumper sticker that read "This car climbed Mt. Washington," proudly displayed on our car after 7.6 miles of white-knuckle driving to the highest point in Northeastern United States!

View of the Presidential Range in the White Mountains.
The Presidential Range in the White Mountains is one of the most iconic mountain ranges in the United States.
The Auto Road is open to privately-owned vehicles.

As the Auto Road is available to privately owned vehicles, we opted to drive a Mercedes-Benz GLE 350 to the summit (information about vehicle restrictions are given on the official auto road website). The 7.6-mile road is very narrow and steep, with an average gradient of 12% and gaining a little more than 4,600 feet in total elevation change from the starting line to finish line. Our drive started off really smooth and comfortable, but as we went higher there were some tight spots to navigate, with sheer drops on the outside above the tree line which begins at 4,000 feet, and for cars heading down the mountain rock cliffs on the inside of the road. There are no shoulders to use, though there are ample pull-off spots to let other drivers pass. Mt. Washington Auto Road is 87% tarmac with approximately 13% gravel and contains well over 150 turns and switchbacks as the road winds its way to the 6,288-foot summit of the tallest peak in the Northeast.

Now, imagine racing up the Auto Road — yes, I said racing! This is the site of the oldest auto race in the United States — the Mt. Washington Hillclimb Auto Race — aka the "Climb to the Clouds." The first ever race was hosted here in 1904, fast forward to present times we now have Purpose-Built STI cars with over 600-horsepower zipping up the narrow road surface that averages just over 20 feet wide. In 2017 a new record of 5:44:72 for the 7.6-mile course to the summit of Mt. Washington was set by multi-time X Games Gold medalist, Nitro Circus creator and 5-time US Rally Champion Travis Pastrana. On an average it takes about 30 minutes to drive to the summit, I can only imagine the exhilaration of reaching the summit in less than 6 minutes!

My husband and I unanimously agreed that driving the 302-horsepower GLE 350 on this particular trip to the White Mountains made a big difference and elevated our overall driving experience. We sure had a blast driving it on the Mt. Washington Auto Road. A good tip to remember while driving here in low gear is to not 'ride' your breaks unnecessarily. Also, there are many turnouts along the road to stop and cool your breaks, and it's a great opportunity to take more photos of the stunning vistas!

Here’s an interesting fact: In 1904, the first year of the Hillclimb, the race to the summit, F.E Stanley from Newton, Massachusetts, co-creator of the famous Stanley Streamer, drove his 6-horsepower, 800-pound steam-powered car to the summit of Mt. Washington only to beaten by Harry Harkness from New York who posted a winning time of 24 minutes 37 seconds. He was driving a 40-horsepower Mercedes that weighed 2,200 pounds.

There are four different ecological zones that existed here. At roughly 4,400 feet elevation we enter the Alpine zone, most of the plants and flowers found here are endangered. Surrounded by astounding scenery the Auto Road provided us with an unique vantage point to enjoy these rugged mountains and its delicate plant life that has survived under harsh climatic conditions for hundreds of years. As we navigated the serpentine road up the mountain unrestricted views and spectacular scenery welcomed us at every turn. We made a couple of stops at turnouts along the road to relax and take in the view. We got lucky with the weather this time as the mountain top is usually shrouded in clouds.

As the weather changes quickly on the mountain the temperature dropped drastically as we neared the top, but the unpredictable weather conditions only added to the allure of the mountains. It is said that on a clear day the stunning panoramic views from the summit can stretch all the way to the Atlantic Ocean! Walking around we felt the full effect of the wind gusting at over 30mph, true to its reputation of also being know as "Home of the World's Worst Weather." On April 12, 1934 the Mount Washington Observatory recorded the fastest wind gust of 231 mph! For nearly sixty-two years Mount Washington, New Hampshire held the world record for the fastest wind gust ever recorded on the surface of the Earth. It still stands as the record for the fastest surface wind measured in the Northern and Western Hemispheres.

Enjoy and respect the fragile Alpine Zone.

The Mount Washington State Park (60.3-acres) is perched on the summit of Mt.Washington. surrounded by 750,000 acres of the White Mountain National Forest. On a clear day views from the 6,288-foot summit extend beyond New Hampshire as far as 130 miles to Vermont, New York, Massachusetts, Maine, Quebec, and the Atlantic Ocean. The Sherman Adams Visitor Center houses the Mt. Washington Observatory and its museum, we really liked the interactive exhibit, it explores the extremes of winter on Mt. Washington, all within the state-of-the-art indoor space. Another must see building is the famous Tip-Top House, an 1853 hikers' hostel now a historic site. Adjacent to the Tip-Top House is the famous Mt. Washington Summit sign.

There are multiple ways to reach the summit of Mt. Washington — by car, train, tour van and even a SnowCoach,' or by hiking the many trials to the summit — but, if you decide to drive yourself to the summit, I'll say this: enjoy one of the best drives of your life!

The Mount Washington Auto Road is open from early May thorough late October. It is closed to private vehicles during the winter months, however, the SnowCoach tours operates from December through March.

Mount Washington State Park is perched on the summit of the Mt. Washington.
The highest point in the Northeast of America!

Location: Mount Washington Auto Road, New Hampshire

Photos: Maanasi & Sri

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