Thursday, July 18, 2019

A Hiker's Ride up the Mt Washington Auto Road

Lately I’ve found myself explaining this one a lot: I’m an avid hiker who prefers to explore on foot but I’m also the proud holder of a Mt Washington Auto Road season pass. I do love being a contradiction...!

Snow in June... that's a contradiction!
Admittedly, I used to roll my eyes at the mention of the Cog or Auto Road - the motorized methods of transportation to the summit of the northeast’s tallest peak. But simple things, like working for a travel agency and watching Tango truck on through lessening body awareness and muscle strength, softened my view and helped me acknowledge what I knew deep down: however one gets to the beloved summit, there is tremendous value in the fact that visitors invest their time and money to get there.

Summit structures
Pulloff shortly below the summit
While, yes, I still go crazy from some of what I see on my way up and at the summit and never make a trip without trying to politely, even lightheartedly, impart a little LNT knowledge, it's a wonderful trip.  And I acknowledge that vehicles allow people who might not otherwise have the means (time, gear, stamina, health, etc.) to access a summit that holds the power to mystify them, wow them with sweeping vistas, and make them more emotionally connected to the landscape.  We, as a society, need that for so many reasons.

View north from the observation deck
Little flowers, big attraction
One of the beautiful views attained by less than a quarter mile 
of descending the aptly nicknamed 'rockpile' (summit cone)

As Tango approaches his 12th birthday, I’m presented with two facts:   

1. I love Mt Washington and the alpine zone. It is my happy place, my Disney World, my heart’s home.

2. Tango’s lower back weakness betrays his otherwise youthful trail smiles. A properly choreographed hip check from a dog friend and he’s in a sit faster than any rally dog… just nowhere near as clean.

So how do I get to continue to share my “happy place” with both my dogs/not exclude Tango because of something that’s beyond his control? Enter a perfectly timed birthday and family that understands that my dogs’ happiness is my happiness - the gift of the Mt Washington Auto Road Pass.

2019 pass #4!
Since our first visit a couple of years ago, the Mt Washington Auto Road has really grown on me.  The itinerary options for a visit are much broader than they seem at first glance. I’ve found the state park (accessible only via the auto road, cog railroad, or on foot) to be a wonderful way to get our non-hiking friends out for a unique experience while challenging Tybee and not being too taxing on Tango.

Although not representative of the hiking experience as a whole, the availability of hot food and “real" bathrooms helped ease our greener companions into hiking and contribute to their positive experience. Moreover, I thought, surely, the appreciation for the work associated with summiting on foot would be lost of our companions. Not so! I made a point of stopping and getting out of the car every 1500 feet or so for us to acclimate to the changing temperature and wind gusts. The drastic change from the valley floor was well understood and the rock hopping off the summit cone isn’t a cake walk, so even the shortest of hikes offered a reasonable challenge for them.

Not a walk in the park!

The classic summit picture is at the cairn in the background.
Usually, there's a line of people waiting their turn.  
Another benefit of the auto road is the ability to combine a visit to my favorite summit with other activities. So far, that’s allowed us to see a whole lot of lupines, kick back at Chocorua Lake on the way home, and more!

Finally, there's something intrinsically satisfying about the chance to enjoy the trails and support the local economy at the same time.  The truth is, I sort of pride myself on finding cheap adventures around this incredible little state, usually away from the crowds.* On the other hand, I also wholly appreciate the value in supporting NH businesses.

The auto road and state park are dog friendly.  Ty loves when I
open up all the windows for the ride, especially the hatch!

Sure, there are concerns like carbon emissions, and yes, if you got there on foot, you should totally get to cut the line at the summit cairn, but I see the auto road & state park as a joint opportunity for regional visitors and residents to connect with what we hikers get to see and experience regularly. The truth is, we need as many advocates as we can get to continue to protect these places as our world changes. 

Our friend taking in Carter-Wildcat Ridge from a pulloff
shortly before the subalpine zone withers into talus

From my perspective, the auto road folks are dedicated advocates for Mt Washington, demonstrated through a number of earnest green initiatives and support of scientific studies.   And they’re always up for a good time, hosting a bunch of niche events to bring out the community, from runners to ATV’ers, and are a part of the Mt Washington Valley community at large. The way these guys tie all that together into a successful business is impressive and all the more endearing to someone who is selective about where she spends her money.

A day visiting George, supporting a local business I respect, engendering a greater appreciation and respect for nature in our friends, and making both puppers happy all at once proves what a great experience the Mt Washington Auto Road can be for anyone from the casually interested to diehard hikers.

*I recommend an early start, visiting towards the shoulders of their open season, or (to some degree - summer is still tourist season) a weekday visit if you and/or your dog prefer a less crowded experience.

Final Note: regardless of how you summit, Mt Washington is no joke.  Check the forecast, prepare for cooler temps, and pack a bag.  One should be prepared for even the smallest of adventures!  Lastly, the cafeteria is cash only, plan accordingly.