Date Traveled, July 2009
I had only recently started hiking when I first had the opportunity to hike the whites of New Hampshire. All the serious hiking I had done had been in the Hudson highlands and Harriman State park just north of New York City. Scenic, fun...tough if you want to make it so, hiking all day you could have a very respectable 2500+ feet of elevation gain, but the hills are not that high at least not compared to the White Mountains.
The White Mountains in New Hampshire are the tallest most rugged range of mountains in the northeastern US. It has 48 peaks that top the 4000 foot mark and among them is the famous peak, Mount Washington. Standing at 6288 feet, it is the second tallest mountain in the US east coast. While certainly not in the same league as other ranges around the world or in the US, they are the tallest easily accessible range for those of us living in the northeast. And in any case, compared to my hiking grounds near New York City, the whites were a pretty big upgrade so I was pretty psyched to go when a friend from Boston offered to show me some hikes up there. And I was even more excited with the possibility of bagging the biggest prize in the Whites, Mount Washington. I mention the word possibility, because Mount Washington has notoriously unpredictable weather. All seasons, all the time, all year round, you can never tell for sure what the weather is going to be like. Another bit of trivia, the summit of Mount Washington has the fastest ever recorded gust of wind ever on planet earth. The wind speed recorded in 1934 was 231 miles per hour! But I was lucky, I got to go and had what till date remains one of my most memorable trips ever. But true to its erratic reputation, the mountain gave me four seasons in my roughly four hour trek to the summit.
There are many trails to reach the summit of Mount Washington and the most popular one is probably the Presidential trail which connects the various mountains along the trail named after prominent Presidents. We weren't particular about which one but decided on a looping circuit so we could end up roughly near where we started and back to our ride. However note that there are shuttle services offered for hikers at some of the major trail heads. Our plan was to start the hike on the Ammonoosuc trail at the base of the Mount Washington cog rail station, hike up the roughly 4000 feet to the summit via the Lakes of Clouds and hike back down the Jewell trail. The cog rail is one of the easier options up to the summit, it is steep and looked like a spectacular and scenic ride from where I saw the train while I was coming down from the mountain on the Jewell trail. The other option is to simply drive up there, but if you are able to, hike it. Not only are the sights going to be far more spectacular, you will be rewarded with a tremendous sense of accomplishment at the top...and neither cog rail nor car will take you to the most amazing feature of a hike up Mount Washington, the mystical Lakes of the Clouds, more on that further down this post.
The cog rail station and tracks
Streams and falls along the Ammonosuc trail
Hiking up the Ammonoosuc trail
After a 4:30 am wake up and an hour or so ride to the trailhead from the town of Conway, we started the hike around 6:30 in the morning. Aside from our company of three and a few foxes, we were the only group starting on that trail although we did see a few other early hikers later. Usually the trails don't have too many people until much later in the day, but its not like you will have the mountain to yourself given how popular the trails around Mount Washington and the Presidentials are. It looked like a clear day and way all the way up to the summit, but the summit itself was covered in fog which we hoped would clear out but it got worse. More on that later but we still enjoyed it. Our hike started out pretty steep and very soon I shed my sweater. It was extremely hot for first couple of hours.
My favorite part of hiking tall mountain ranges is getting into the Alpine vegetation and above the treeline. As you exert yourself up the steep trail for a while, you get this nice feeling or expectation when you first start to notice the vegetation change in the Alpine zone and once you are above the treeline, you are rewarded with unhindered vistas. The hike up Mount Washington was only my second trek above the treeline and was pretty grueling. I had completed hard hikes with lots of elevation gain in total but until my trip to New Hampshire, they were never sustained climbs but a series of ups and downs. Still the Ammonoosuc trail rewarded us along the way with many an interesting sight and vista. The most memorable ones I recall was a pool maybe an hour and a half into the hike and one nerve wracking section where we had to scramble up a sloping rock with an edge going directly over a cliff face. Would not attempt that in even the slightest wet weather.
First point above the treeline
Billowing clouds near the summit
Our first reward for the hard climb was the amazing sights above the treeline. The weather was cooler now but still not cold and the clouds were billowing like waves down the mountain faces all around in the glowing morning sunlight. As nice as clear days can be, clouds at the mountain tops can be just as rewarding. Equal parts mystical and majestic. We took a break before proceeding onwards and unexpectedly stumbling into a magical sight, the Lakes of the Clouds.
The Lakes of the Clouds
One of the lakes
The lakes in the mist
The lakes in the mist
The "Lakes" are actually a series of small water bodies - ponds and little lakes that are at the base of the final ascent to the Mount Washington summit at about 5000 feet. When we arrived there it was getting colder, windier and the fog was increasing as well. I remember the sight of the lake being revealed amidst the mist and fog as we got closer to it, like some mythical water body in a heavenly plane - I realize I am probably over hyping what is ultimately a few small ponds on the top of a mountain, but it is scenic and after a grueling (first ever) 3000 feet climb, I hope I can be forgiven for feeling elated and loving the sight of the lakes. With the mists and billowing clouds that could be easily seen across the far edge of the lakes, I could see why the lakes got their name. It was like an infinity pool, but no thoughts of swimming in it...it was starting to get very cold.
As we began the final 1000 foot ascent to the summit, the wind started to pick up and visibility dropped to just a few feet. I learned later that the wind speeds while we were there was 45-50 miles per hour. I was impressed by a few trail runners speeding past us somewhere along here in the fog. I was freezing in my light jacket and these folk were running in shorts like they were in a park on a nice summer day. In any case, there were no thoughts of stopping this close to the top and summit Mount Washington we did.
Hiking down the Jewell trail
Time for a break
The summit itself...well couldn't see anything. The clouds and mists and fog were a nice experience and would not change that, but the downside of course is that we couldn't really see the views at the summit. The other downside is of course the fact that the summit is accessible by cars and the cog rail. Up until this point we only met the occasional hiker(s) going up or down the trails but now there was a large crowd which made the whole experience up until that point seem all the more surreal. Still, we did take the opportunity to change into dry clothes at the cafe at the summit and enjoy a cup of hot chocolate before heading back into the fog and hiking down the rugged Jewell trail. All in all great experience, the only thing I would change is the fact we drove straight back to Boston and hopped onto a bus back to New York right after this hike. That was more exhausting than the 4000 feet we climbed.