Tips for Planning a Hike Up Mt. Washington, New Hampshire

At 6,288 feet, Mt. Washington is not especially tall by global standards, and in summertime, the peak is scalable by anyone with enough patience and planning. Still, Mt. Washington is the highest peak in the northeastern United States, has nearly the highest recorded windspeed in the world at 231 mph, and casually claims to have the world’s worst weather. In winter, the peak is used as Everest training by some mountaineers. In addition, Mt. Washington can kill the unwary either with cold, avalanche, or ice crevasses. If you fall into a ice crevasse on Mt. Washington, no one’s going to come get you…until spring.

The short summer season is a different animal, and the risks on Mt. Washington are significantly reduced. Any multi-mile hike into the White Mountains of New Hampshire at any time of the year demands planning and care, and Mt. Washington as much as any. Approaches to the summit are miles long, generally quite steep, done completely above treeline for significant portions, and subject to changes in weather that can be sudden and dramatic. In that context, here’s an augmented version of some thoughts I shared with a friend who’s planning a hike up fairly soon.

  • Don’t underestimate the amount of water you might want to carry. I sweat rather a lot, and drank about a gallon of water on a ~10 mile hike recently that took roughly 6 hours. Of course, Mt. Washington is rare in that you can get more water at the summit. Water is a really important part of hiking, though – I remember walking over an experienced, fit Appalachian Trail thru-hiker last summer in the Wildcat range who was so dehydrated he was delirious. A rescue team was coming to get him.
  • Having a dry shirt and socks to change into once you summit could be a highlight of your day.
  • If your scalp is exposed, don’t forget a hat. While you can get away without a hat when you’re in the woods, you can’t hide from the sun on a bright day above treeline.
  • Wear a decent pair of shoes. Some folks think they have to have radical hiking boots to go on the trail. I’ve done hundreds of miles in the White Mountains now, and I disagree. You need comfortable, durable shoes; you don’t need boots, especially not when you’re day hiking with a relatively light pack. When hiking Mt. Washington or several other peaks in the New Hampshire Presidential range, consider that the higher-elevation terrain is almost all rocks. Your feet & knees will take a pounding. My feet are wide; having tried several pair over the last 3 years, I am finally happy wearing Moab Ventilators as my 3-season shoe.
  • This is a long hike. You’ve got to pace yourself. So very many people charge up the mountain at first, run themselves out of gas, then have nothing left, dragging themselves to the top. Once you’re at the summit, you’re only halfway done your day! You’ve still got to come back down, and that’s just about as hard as going up. Going down any mountain, especially when it’s steep, is not easy. Unless you’re in good athletic shape already, your body really feels the stress of a long hike.
  • Mt. Washington summit weather could be anything on any given day, is subject to rapid change, and will most likely be different from the weather at the trailhead. Specifically, it will at the very least be colder, and probably windier. So, make sure you get a good forecast for the summit of Mt. Washington before you head up and have a clear idea of what the summit conditions are like. Then pack accordingly. “It’s 85F at the trailhead! I won’t need a fleece!” You might be right, but are you sure about that? Don’t assume. Get the summit forecast from the Mt. Washington Observatory.
  • Mt. Washington is a NH State Park, and there’s a visitor center at the summit with full facilities in summer – food, bathrooms, etc. So, if you  get caught in bad weather, the summit buildings offer respite, again, in the summer. In the winter, these buildings are not open and cannot be counted on for shelter, although the summit observatory is manned year-round. Still, consider that there’s an awful lot of time you’ll spend above treeline with no shelter from the elements at all. It’s not fun getting caught out in the rain and wind unprepared, which makes for a cold, wet, miserable trek towards the summit. There’s something about being able to see Mt. Washington’s summit bristling with antennas from far away that makes a bad weather hike seem that much longer.
  • On a clear day, the views are worth it. Period. Just pick a trail. It’s hard to go wrong. From experience, I hiked Tuckerman’s Ravine many years ago; the views you get from the east towards the Wildcats and Carters are impressive. As you gain elevation, you’ll have views north and south to the rest of the presidential range with some well-defined peaks. At the summit, the views are extraordinary on a clear day with sight lines into Canada, New York, Vermont, Maine and the lakes region of New Hampshire – more square miles visible to your eye than anywhere else I can think of in New Hampshire, in fact.

To illustrate my point about the weather, here’s a couple of pictures from a July 2011 multi-day Presidential range hike I did with my wife. Quite the contrast from one day to the next.

Here’s one day, with Mt. Washington still ahead of us (I believe that’s it in the background in the right). It rained most of the day. The summit was so miserable, I don’t even have summit shots from that day. We got in the summit building to change our clothes, warm up, and head down to Lake of the Clouds AMC hut, where we were staying that night. I seem to have “put on a happy face” in this shot.

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And here’s the next day, with Mt. Washington behind us. It was just beautiful, and quite a bit warmer.

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6 thoughts on “Tips for Planning a Hike Up Mt. Washington, New Hampshire

  1. I have a question, I am not sure you will reply but I am hoping to do the presidential range this summer! About 2 summers ago I did Mt Washington. My first hike ever. I did it in four hours and I hated it but I really would like maybe some advice for the range 🙂 Could I complete it in 2 days? Or should I take a day off from work?

    • Hi, Haley. In part, it depends on what you mean by “the range”. Are you planning a traverse of the entire Presidential range? That’s my guess since you’re thinking about doing it in a day or possibly two. If so, during the traverse, do you mean to bag all of the summits, or skip certain ones (possible, depending on trail selection). In any case, it’s a serious hike. Lots of miles and elevation gain and loss, most of the miles above treeline where weather is a concern, running water scarce, and the terrain underfoot large, loose stones for many miles. Experienced hikers in good shape can get that hike done in a day, but that’s asking a lot for most people.

      For long distance hikes in the Whites, you should review Chris Dailey’s accounting of his “endurance hikes.” Chris has completed several Presi traverses at different times of the year.
      http://dailey7779.blogspot.com/p/endurance-hikes.html

      Beyond all of this, further advice depends greatly on what sort of physical condition you are in. I would give different advice to athletes looking for a new challenge than I would to someone in average condition seeking a wilderness experience.

  2. Hello, Ethan. I’ve enjoyed reading through your site. I have been interested in Mt. Washington for many years, but never was in good enough shape. They years are going by; I’ll retire in June; and my kids are urging me to hike it, since they’ve done it already. I’m 66, 20-30 lbs overweight, but motivated and enjoy the outdoors. I’m walking 1 hour daily on an indoor track and plan to get down to 190 by the end of June, when I retire after 40 years in the classroom. I would like to hike Mt. Washington this summer. I have read everything I can find about this; books, blogs, websites, etc. But, I’m worried that these bum knees might not let me do this. Is this something I can work up to, or will I have to be content taking the railway to the top?

    • Greg, my instant reaction is that most of the top hikers I know are retirees. There are several people around your age I consider to be White Mountains hiking royalty. They do miles and vertical feet in a year that I can only dream of. Age isn’t an issue, and 20-30 pounds overweight is far from as bad as it could be. Hiking is wonderful in that you can go as fast or as slow as you like. Need a breather? Take one. Hike your own hike.

      Washington, believe it or not, isn’t the most difficult hike you could attempt in the Whites–neither the longest in mileage nor steepest in approach (unless you seek the most difficult Washington trails, which you wouldn’t). Washington is, of course, the highest in the area, and that’s what concerns me about your knees. You’re doing a lot of vertical to attain the summit, and then a lot of vertical yet again to return to the bottom. My knees usually feel it the most on descents. My workout program is built in part around strengthening the muscles around my knees to protect them on rough hikes.

      Considering your knee issues, I think you’d be wise to test your mettle against some shorter hikes. See how you do. I would also consider trekking poles. Trekking poles will transfer some of the load from your knees to your arms and shoulders. Shorter hikes will also help you figure out how much of a pack you need to carry. With knee issues, you especially want your pack to be a light as possible while still containing everything you need to be safe. Most folks new to hiking tend to over pack, and every ounce counts.

      Shorter hikes that would help you work up to Washington include…
      – Morgan & Percival loop in the Squam Range
      – Welch & Dickey loop
      – Tecumseh (from the Waterville Valley Ski area side)
      – Chocorua (Champney Falls approach is lovely)
      – Sandwich Dome (a personal favorite hike with many approaches, but try Sandwich Mountain Trail)
      – Cannon (quite steep but short if approached from the northern terminus of Kinsman Ridge Trail)
      – Jefferson (an “easy” Presi when approached from Caps Ridge).

      I wrote those approximately in order of difficulty. Taken in aggregate, these are all hikes that offer similar terrain (rocky and a bit rough, ledgy in spots, open and exposed areas) to what you’ll face on Washington, so you’ll get a fair assessment of your fitness and impact to your knees. From there, you should be able to infer your ability to tackle Washington or any of the other more strenuous peaks you’ll find on the list of 48 4,000 footers.

  3. Dear Ethan, thank you very much for your thoughtful and encouraging reply. This just might happen! Some further thoughts: I tend to be extremely cautious, and I have read all about the weather and terrain on Mt. Washington. My son summited this past fall and has told me all about it (and brought me a souvenir rock from the top). I will first get checked out thoroughly by my doctor. I will continue to walk 1 hour a day on the Y indoor track, and will go from my current 221 lbs to under 200; my goal is 180 and I think I can do it. I will consider your recommended hikes. I had planned to hike Blue Hills here in Milton, MA, then Mt. Monadnock, with my son. My plan is to spend the night at Pinkham Notch with my son and son-in-law, hike the mountain early the next day, stay the night at LOTC, hike down the next day, then drive back to Boston. I have a brand-new pair of Timberland boots that my kids gave me for Christmas; will they suffice, or should I get special hiking boots?

    • I’m not familiar with Blue Hills, but I’ve climbed Monadnock a few times–an outstanding hike!

      I like your strategy of staying overnight at Lakes. That really gives you as much time as you could want both on the ascent and then descent the following day. Lakes is a little out of the way from the Pinkham Notch side of Washington, but that’s what Tuckerman Crossover trail is there for.

      As far as footwear, I don’t wear boots myself these days, except in winter. Most of the year, I hike in trail runners. My current three season shoe is the low (not mid) Altra Lone Peak 3.5. I look for comfort (good fit for my particular foot) and traction (good grip on the endless rocks in the Whites). Altra’s offer a wide toe box while still being narrow enough in the heel to not slip too much, which is ideal for my particular foot. They also have a rock plate inside as well as a decent toe bumper, so they are more rugged than the average sneaker without being heavy or clunky. Altras are popular with the long distance hiking community–my wife just did 2K+ miles of the Pacific Crest Trail in Altras.

      Footwear (including socks) is a highly individual decision. You’ll want footwear that you know will allow your foot to swell a bit and that won’t cause blisters or hotspots. You can’t know how shoes will work for you until you’ve had the chance to put some miles on them. If the Timberland boot offers the comfort you need, then that’s your shoe. But I don’t believe boots are a necessity. Most of the hikers I know wear trail runners these days.

      Socks are also a surprisingly big deal to get right. Many folks like heavier wool socks. I wear a two-sock system, with a base layer Injinji toe sock liner, and ultra thin sock on top of that. Not heavy wool socks. My sock system works for me, but wouldn’t for everyone.

      My point on socks and boots/shoes is to prove your footwear before two days on Washington. When you finally tackle the big W, bring a change of socks or two, as fresh socks can make a great difference if your feet are bothering you. You might also investigate TrailToes, a product you apply to your feet before a hike to help cope with friction and hotspots. It’s just no fun if your feet are sore or raw and you’ve got miles ahead of you. Happy feet = a happy hiker.

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