Via. Jewell Trail and Gulfside Trail (A.T.) 8.6 mile round-trip
Mt. Washington is a mountain of legends; it is a massive formation with many ravines and intense weather. It is the highest mountain north of North Carolina and east of the Mississippi River. First called Agiocochook by the native people of the region, it was an unclimbed mountain whose summit was reserved for the gods. White settlers climbed it first in 1642, as a matter of politics. To gain respect from the Abenaki in the region the first recorded ascent by a white settler was made by Darby Field in
June of that year. This act helped to convince their chief Passaconaway to trade with the settlers. After several more scouting parties found no precious gold or stones on the slopes it was left alone until the mid 1800s. At this time Europeans began adventuring in the Alps and creating the sport of mountaineering as it is known today.
Crowned by large buttresses and ravines that create windy updrafts, the weather on Mt. Washington is matchless in the region. On the upper slopes the weather is similar to Northern Labrador, with areas of alpine tundra that support a unique microclimate for plant life. Many of these plants and animals can only be found on high mountaintops or hundreds of miles north. This has attracted notable scientists and amateurs alike for many years.
The conditions that create this landscape are also ones that need to be respected and entered with caution. The entire upper slope (4,000 feet and above in most places) of Mt. Washington is above tree line and subject to some of the most intense weather in the world. The highest wind velocity ever recorded at any surface weather station was attained at the summit of Mt. Washington, 231 MPH on April 12, 1934. Wind chill factors are often measured in below freezing temperatures and have been recorded at a staggering 60 degrees F. below zero. Conditions can change rapidly, especially the higher you climb. Over 140 people are known to have perished on the slopes, and each year that number increases. Nicholas Howe’s Not Without Peril is a fascinating book highlighting some of these tragic events.
Inexperience is a leading factor in mountain incidents on Washington. From the trailhead to the summit is a deceptively short distance. (when looking at mileage alone) The most important factor in judging a walk of 4 flat miles versus 4 mountain miles is the gain in altitude. On Washington the average gain (depending on route) is around 4,000 feet, this increases the intensity of the mileage considerably. Without proper training or established fitness, this is not a mountain to start your hiking career with.
All that being said, thousands of people successfully climb Mt. Washington every year, in all seasons and have a great time. Preparedness is always key to having a good time and a safe hike.
If you are considering a summit bid on Washington you have a plethora of trail networks to chose from. Most popular are the trails leaving the Pinkham Notch visitor’s center on NH 16. If you are hiking with a dog, I suggest an approach from the west up the Jewell Trail. This is a relatively easy trail with constant but moderate slope and good footing the entire way. It begins on Base Road, at the Cogg Railway terminal. During summer months while the train is in service I would caution against this trail because the train in loud and can easily frighten a dog. I would in fact consider Washington in the swing months of hiking season, earlier spring and late fall a much more pleasant place to hike anyway. Without the influx of people from the auto road and the railway the summit is a much quieter and peaceful place. This also means that the summit buildings are closed so there will be no place to buy some food or mail a postcard, or to duck into in case of weather. However, it is nice to have the summit mostly to yourself.
Beginning across the parking area from the Cog Railway lot, the Jewell Trail enters the woods and immediately crosses the Ammonoosuc River. It climbs steadily but never too steeply up an unnamed ridge that leads to Mt. Clay and ends at the Gulfside Trail at mile 3.3. Reaching treeline at mile 3 this section of trail is exposed to the elements and if inclement weather approaches this is a good place to turn around. If continuing follow the rock cairns to switchback up the side of Mt. Clay. Once the junction of Gulfside is reached the summit of Mt. Washington is about 1.4 miles ahead and visible if the weather permits. The views from this part of the trail are expansive, and include most of the White Mountain Region.
The Gulfside trail runs the length of the northern Presidential Ridge crest and is part of the Appalachian Trail. It sees heavy use, from hikers of the AT and because it is the main trail leading around all of the summits of the Northern Peaks. It is relatively easy to follow, marked by the signature white blazes of the AT and well placed rock cairns. From the intersection with the Jewell Trail it climbs up to the col between Mt. Clay and Mt. Washington. It rises gradually as it climbs southeast between the Cog Railway on the right and the Great Gulf on the left. If the path is lost, you can follow the railway to the summit. The trail does cross the railway, so use caution in crossing. From here it continues to climb steadily to the intersection with the Crawford Path .1 miles from the summit. While the trail is moderate it is rocky and footing can be poor in some places. Overall the final approach to the summit is not too challenging or strenuous. We chose to descend the way we climbed up down Gulfside and then Jewell Trail. If the weather changes on the summit the less exposed Ammonoosuc Ravine trail is a better option for avoiding unfavorable conditions. Please note this trail is very steep and rocky, it is often very wet and slippery as well. (More info is available on this trail in my write up of Mt. Monroe).
Once climbed it is easy to appreciate why people are drawn to this place. Views from the top in good weather are unlike any other in New England. The history of human interactions with the mountain is extensive. There is evidence of some of the former buildings that were hosted on the summit as well as current outposts. Dogs are not allowed in any of the buildings. Among these buildings is a weather observation station. The weather station is run on a completely non-profit basis and collects donation for continued operation. Their efforts afford the public updated conditions on the summit weather and can be found online at www.mountwashington.org. This website offers the best information about current and predicted future conditions on the summit and should be checked before any climb on the mountain.
Remember to bring extra clothing, water and food and to turn around if at any point it is taking too long or the weather looks bad.