MOUNT WASHINGTON, N.H. -- In 1857, an obsessive hiker counted the number of steps it took him to reach the summit of Mount Washington in New Hampshire. The total: 16,925. While the majority of the annual 250,000-plus visitors make their way to the 6,288-foot summit via the toll road (who hasn't seen enough "This Car Climbed Mt. Washington" bumper stickers?), many of us still take the long route.
So on the summer solstice, which was also the first truly spectacular and sunny Saturday of this peculiar weather year, my boyfriend Phil, who has climbed the Northeast's highest peak over 25 times, and I, who had tromped up and down some neighboring mountains but never Washington, decided to hit the trail.
From Boston, it's an easy, verdant drive to North Conway, gateway to the Mount Washington Valley. Along the way, beside Lake Chocorua, we had our first glimpse of impending summer: a happy man standing waist deep in the blue lake, tossing glistening handfuls of water up to the sky.
There is often fog or haze over the White Mountains as seen from North Conway, but on days when the air is as fresh as on that June afternoon, the village, with its turn-of-the-century storefronts and distant view of mountains dotted with snowfields well into July, can be mistaken for a cowboy town in the Rockies.
Throughout North Conway, neighboring Jackson, and the surrounding villages, there are numerous quaint inns, B&Bs, resorts, and a multitude of small motels. We opted for the Best Western Red Jacket, a 151-room "resort" with indoor and outdoor pools, a pub, restaurant, and full buffet breakfast on a green hill above Route 16, with a grand view of Cathedral Ledge -- a rock-climbing mecca.
We arrived on Friday evening and planned to leave on Sunday, having decided to take in some additional sights and make this a relaxing weekend. After checking in, we went directly to Moat Mountain Smoke House and Brewing Company, a North Conway institution. Housed in an 1840s farmhouse, "The Moat" is a casual establishment offering its own spring water-based ales and lagers, a full bar, tasty smoked barbecue, great burgers, unusual pizzas, and excellent views of the Moat and White mountain ranges from tables on the porch. It can get pretty noisy, but the food is plentiful and the brews are smooth.
After dinner, we sat on the small deck of our hotel room until later than we should have, so we found ourselves eating eggs Benedict and Belgian waffles at 7:30. We were at Pinkham Notch, the Appalachian Mountain Club's base camp for White Mountain excursions, by 8:15. Pinkham is a rustic complex that includes an education center, the Joe Dodge Lodge where bunkrooms are available for overnights, a large and bright dining hall, a small museum, and a gear/gift shop. Pinkham has a large parking lot for day and overnight guests, and behind the main building are trailheads for several hikes up the mountain.
We took Lion Head trail, a standard 4.1-mile route to the top of Mount Washington, and so did many other people out to hike the mountain that day. Because of the late arrival of spring, Tuckerman Ravine trail, another popular route, was still closed because of crevasse danger. The hike starts wide and easy. Eventually it narrows, and the payoff for hauling up a mountain along with thousands of biting insects comes early when stunning views up to Lion Head, a rocky promontory below the summit, reveal themselves. Three men in their 50s with skis and snowboards strapped to their packs passed us on their way to Tuckerman Ravine, a glacial cirque with a steep headwall about three miles up, where snow can remain skiable until July.
After the first mile, the trail narrows, and becomes rockier and steeper. Once some altitude is gained, it's worth remembering to look up: Views as far as 100 miles abound on clear days. Much of Mount Washington is in the alpine zone, a fragile ecosystem that supports a number of rare and endangered plant species. The alpine zone starts just below Lion Head, and it's something of a moonscape, with large boulders, scrubby plants, and cooler temperatures.
It had been our intention to "tag" the summit, visit the famed observatory, and hike back down, but when we were in view of the top and a hiker near us said, "That's weird, I thought I heard applause," we realized that we had arrived on the same day as the annual foot race. About 1,000 runners were sweating their way up the grueling 7.6-mile toll road while hundreds of spectators awaited their arrival. So during our snack break on Lion Head, a relatively flat, boulder-strewn spot that offers a great vista for watching skiers trudge up Tuckerman's headwall, we vetoed the summit.
In order to avoid the racers, spectators, cog railway passengers, drivers, and the ant trail of hikers making slow progress to the summit, we turned heel and headed down Boott Spur trail. A longer route back to Pinkham (5.4 miles), Boott Spur allowed us to successfully dodge the crowds; compared with the 100-plus hikers we had crossed paths with on the way up, we saw fewer than a dozen on the way down. Boott Spur is beautiful. Much of it follows a barren, rocky ridgeline marked by rock cairns, giving it the feel of a remote peak in a Gaelic netherworld.
We were down by 4 p.m., having kept a fairly leisurely pace. Many hikers choose to stay overnight in one of the AMC's high mountain shelters, either taking more time on Mount Washington, or traversing from peak to peak among the Whites.
Our feet were sore and our knees ached, so we drove over to my favorite swimming spot, about three miles down River Road outside of North Conway along the Saco River.
On Sunday, since neither of us had ever driven the toll road, we decided to visit the famed observatory, where the earth's fastest surface winds -- 231 miles per hour -- were recorded on April 12, 1934. We were lucky. Mount Washington is shrouded in clouds 60 percent of the time, but we had incredible vistas. There are several buildings on the top, including Tip-Top house, the oldest, built in 1853. Meteorological measurements have been taken on Mount Washington since 1870, and the observatory set up permanent shop in 1932. With an average annual temperature of 27.1 degrees, and over 100 days where the winds exceed hurricane force, Mount Washington is a tough place to live. According to Andrea Grant, who has worked and lived in the close confines of the observatory for a year, "The physical force of the wind can feel like someone's hitting you with a baseball bat."
Grant brought us up to the very top of the observatory, where the pilot anemometer measures surface wind. The views were glorious. The wind was a mellow 20 miles an hour. Mountains and ravines spread out rocky or green, far into the distance. And everything, everything, for hundreds of square miles, was down there, below us. At that moment, as far as the Northeast goes, we were standing on top of the world.
Beth Greenberg is a freelance writer who lives in Boston.