Take the Mount Washington Cog Railway to the highest point in the Northeastern US
When I picked up tickets to take the Cog Railway up to the top of Mount Washington in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, I had no idea that the Cog was the world’s first passenger cog railway. Opened in 1869, except for a couple of years during World War II, the Mount Washington Cog Railway has taken visitors to the summit of one of the world’s unique mountains and the ever since.
You can still take the Mount Washington Cog Railway to the summit of Mount Washington, the highest point in the Northeastern US, in an old-fashioned steam engine, and that’s just what I did. You can, too, and this post gives you what you need to plan your own incredible day trip!
Mount Washington Cog Railway
I love a good ride with a view—but I’d never taken the Cog
If you’re a regular reader, you know that I love a good ride with a view. Cable cars, wild roads, putting the fun in funicular—that’s my jam. Somehow, though, I had never actually taken the Cog to the top of Mount Washington, despite having grown up in New England and living most of my life here. This summer as part of my Summer Bucket List, I decided to rectify this situation. I’m so glad I did.
An awe-inspiring day trip for your must-do New England list
Dear Reader, this awe-inspiring day trip was worth the wait, and I now consider it a must-do when you travel to this part of New England. Mount Washington’s rocky summit is stunningly beautiful, with 360 views of the White Mountains, several states and Quebec in Canada on a clear day, and the Cog is a perfect way to see it.
The Mount Washington Cog Railway is about a three-hour drive from Boston, easily accessible from I-93 and a stunning drive through Franconia Notch in New Hampshire’s White Mountains, and it’s an easy drive from the New Hampshire’s Lakes Region.
New Hampshire’s White Mountains
Mount Washington towers above New Hampshire’s majestic White Mountains and is the highest peak in the Presidential Range. These rugged mountains are part of the northern Appalachian Mountains—the Appalachian Trail crosses the summit of Mount Washington.
A long history
Indigenous peoples lived in these mountains for over 10,000 years before white settlers began to colonize the region in the mid-seventeenth century. The mountains were used for a mix of agricultural and logging purposes, with recreation beginning in the nineteenth century.
White Mountain National Forest
In the early twentieth century, the US Government established the White Mountain National Forest to help protect the land from exploitation, and today, the White Mountains welcome visitors from all over the world. Mount Washington is part of the White Mountain National Forest, and its summit is a New Hampshire State Park.
About Mount Washington
Mount Washington Ecozones
On your hour-long ride on the Mount Washington Cog Railway to the summit, you’ll pass through four ecozones. Mount Washington’s Alpine ecozone is at a considerably lower elevation than mountain ranges out West. This is due to its geographical location at the intersection of weather and wind patterns.
Mixed Northern Forest
Typical forest in Northern New Hampshire
Also known as “snow forest,” it is characterized by coniferous trees
This is above the tree line, where some trees may grow, but they are incredibly stunted by wind and adverse conditions
Alpine zones are above the tree line. In New Hampshire, you’ll see this above 4,800 ft/ 1,463m
Mount Washington—a unique mountain with some of the world’s wildest weather
As a New Hampshire Native, Mount Washington looms in the imagination, even if it is a relatively small mountain. While 6,288 feet/1,917 meters in height pales in comparison to the majestic Rockies and other ranges out West, not to mention other mountain ranges in the world, we Granite Staters have something to be proud of in our little old mountain. Our little Mount Washington just happens to have some of the world’s wildest weather.
Mount Washington Observatory
Yes, it’s true—a mountain in New Hampshire can lay claim to some of the Worst Weather in the World. One of the highest windspeeds ever recorded on Earth was recorded by the Mount Washington Observatory in 1934. The MWOBS, as it’s known, performs weather and climate research and educates the public and has operated since 1932. You’lls see their weather station at the summit. If you’re interested in wild weather, you’ll want to catch their daily reports, especially in the winter!
Mount Washington’s summit has a tundra climate
The summit of Mount Washington has a tundra climate, or subartic climate. The highest temperature ever recorded on the summit of Mount Washington was 72F/22C (by contrast the highest temperature ever recorded in New Hampshire is 106F/41C). The lowest temperature ever recorded on Mount Washington was -50F/45.6C. Wind up on top of the mountain is intense, with hurricane-force winds taking place on average about 110 days per year.
“An arctic outpost”
On Mount Washington, the Alpine zone is at a lower elevation than mountains in the western part of the US. This is due to the unique intersection of weather and wind patterns that it intersects. The peak of Mount Washington in winter becomes an “arctic outpost in a temperate climate zone.” In winter, Mount Washington has arctic temperatures and winter conditions that rival that of Everest.
Different ways up Mount Washington’s summit
Mount Washington has some of the oldest continuously maintained hiking trails in the United States, and it is a popular climb. It is also a very dangerous one, with rescues and deaths reported nearly every year. The unprepared often underestimate Mount Washington, and the mountain catches them unawares.
A punishing hike
Like most Northeastern hikes, the trails are punishing—switchbacks? We don’t need no stinkin’ switchbacks!—and the terrain rough. I’ve had several friends who are hikers hike it and love it, but to a person they say that it’s one of the more challenging hikes they’ve done. Personally, my hiking days are behind me, and, while I hiked a few of the Presidentials in the White Mountains back in the day, I’d never considered attempting Mount Washington.
There’s also the Mount Washington Auto Road that will take you to the summit and can be an accessible choice for those in wheelchairs and those with small children requiring strollers. Those who drive the road to the top—no guardrails!—and back get a famous/infamous bumper sticker that reads, “This Car Climbed Mount Washington.”
Take the Cog
And then there’s the Mount Washington Cog Railway. I’m a bit biased, but I think it’s the best choice for getting to the top of Mount Washington in style. Less sweaty, anyway.
About the Mount Washington Cog Railway
Highlights of the Mount Washington Cog Railway
The journey is a destination in itself. Don’t miss these cool highlights on your trip!
Waumbek Passing Loop
Here you'll pass trains heading down the mountain and have an opportunity to step onto the platform and snap a photo
This shed for railway workers is level. You, however, are NOT!
Jacob's Ladder is the steepest and second-highest railraod trestle in the world. The trestle curves as well!
In inclimate weather, the train can be hard to see. This frog rock helps railway workers, and there are cairns near the summit to help hikers orient themselves to the trail
The Mount Washington Cog Railway
The Mount Washington Cog Railway was the first mountain-climbing cog railway in the world, opening on July 3, 1869, according to a sign near the ticket counter. A cog railway opened in Switzerland in 1871. In true New England fashion, it took no shortcuts up the mountain, and the railway has an average grade of 25%, with the steepest grade of over 37%.
Still one of the steepest cog railways
Today it remains an engineering feat and the second-steepest cog railway in the world. To give you some perspective, you pass a small hut hallway up that looks like a tilted house from some fairy tale. It’s perfectly level. You aren’t, as you chug past.
Sylvester Marsh’s vision—borne out of experience with Mount Washington’s weather
The Mount Washington Cog Railway was the brainchild of a singular individual, Sylvester Marsh. A New Hampshire native, Marsh had spent most of his career in Chicago in the meat packing and grain drying business. He retired to Boston a wealthy man.
Marsh had hiked up Mount Washington and got caught in one of its frequent bouts of unpredictable, dangerous weather, barely making it to the Tip Top House at the summit (you can see what remains of the Tip Top House). He’d come to New Hampshire’s White Mountains from Boston, because his doctors had prescribed fresh air and exercise to help him with his digestion.
There had to be a better way
While grateful, I’m sure, to be alive after his harrowing adventure, Marsh decided that there must be an easier way for people to experience Mount Washington, and so he decided to build a railway to the top.
“Train to the Moon!”
When Marsh proposed the cog railway project to the New Hampshire State Legislature, the chamber erupted with laughter. New Hampshire granted the charter (a required permit at the time for construction of a rail project), but they advised him to keep going to the moon once he reached the summit, not exactly a vote of confidence for successful completion. And so the “Train to the Moon” began construction.
Riding the Mount Washington Cog Railway
Here’s what to expect when you ride the Mount Washington Cog Railway. For specific information, including a link to book your tickets, see the planning section below. Here’s the most important points for planning:
- Book in advance, especially if you want to ride the old-fashioned steam engine
- Make sure that you arrive on time for your scheduled departure. The trains do not wait
- Pack warm clothing for the summit, even on a glorious summer’s day. It’s . . . different up there
Arrive and pick up your tickets
Arriving just around the 45-minute window before the train ride, as recommended, will give you enough time to pick up your tickets and tour the small museum before you head out to catch your train. You pick up your tickets on the lower level of the Marshfield Base Station and signs will point you in the right direction. Note that as of this writing, the only “e-ticket” available was to print out your ticket at home, so, if you don’t have a printer, you will need to pick one up from the station—it makes a nice souvenir.
The base station has a cafeteria, restrooms, gift shop, and the Mount Washington Cog Railway Museum.
Don’t miss the museum at the Marshfield Base Station
You’ll learn all about the history of and the technology used for the cog railway at the small Mount Washington Cog Railway Museum at the Marshfield Base Station. You’ll see examples of the “Daredevils” that workers used to zip down the mountain at the end of the workday. Part of me thought, “WOW! What fun!” and the other part of me reminded me that I am indeed mortal. Alas. There’s also some great film footage of the early Peppersass prototype, building of the railway, and early trips to the summit.
Prepare to board—and snap some photos
Be sure to head out to the boarding area about fifteen minutes before your scheduled departure, and make sure to get in the correct line. If you opt for the old-fashioned steam engine, yours will be the last (and obvious). If you have a question about which line to get in (it will not be not printed on your ticket), just ask at the ticket counter.
The signs say to stay behind a line, but, as everyone else was walking around snapping photos of the trains, I didn’t shy away from doing the same. However, when you hear train operators start to round everyone together, make sure that you are in your correct line! The trains do not wait. Seating is assigned on your ticket, so I wouldn’t worry too much about being at the front of the line. The seats are very cozy, so don’t be surprised if you’re really rather close to someone!
Once on the train, the brake operator (who acts as the guide for the trip—talk about a very specific skill set!) will explain a few rules. Our most engaging brake operator mentioned that, should we open the windows, we should take care not to stick our phones, our heads (or arms, or babies—yes, someone really did this) out the window, as anything lost will be left (I do wonder if anyone would leave a baby, but you get the idea). He also cautioned about some ash from the steam engine potentially landing on you—I saw this happen. You might not want to wear white for this trip!
The engine’s behind you—and you climb slowly
You’ll notice that the engine is behind you for the trip up—It’s a bit of a strange feeling, looking out of a railcar as you’re being pushed up the tracks. On the way down, the engine will be in the front, and the seats will have been turned around for you.
On the steam engine built in 1908 and maintained on the premises, we would climb at a rate of 3–5 miles per hour (4.8–8 kilometers per hour) and would then descend at 6–8 miles per hour (9.7–12.9 kilometers per hour). It would take us between an hour and an hour and fifteen minutes to go up and we would get back down in about 45 minutes.
And we’re off!
With the preliminary information out of the way, we were off! We crossed a small railroad bridge over the Ammonoosuc River, and then the ride truly begins, as you climb slowly and steadily up the mountain. For the first part of the trip, you’ll mostly see the track, lined by trees, and the biodiesel engines chugging ahead of you. Don’t panic—the scenery is coming, and the ride is a lot more scenic on the way down.
Climbing to Waumbeck Passing Loop
If you ride the steam train, you will occasionally see big puffs of smoke, black at first and then fading to gray. The engines run on coal, as they did back in the nineteenth century. You’ll continue to climb until you reach the Waumbek Passing Loop. We saw trains awaiting the all-clear to head down the mountain here.
As we waited for a brief moment at the loop for our steam engine to top off the water levels from the tank, the brake operator allowed us to get out onto the train platform and look around. I noticed that we were at an incline—it can be a bit disorienting!
Passing into the Boreal ecozone and the Halfway House
Back on a single track, we continued to climb. This is when we pass into the Boreal forest, or snow forest. From here, we’ll only see a few tree species. Our brake operator pointed out the halfway house to the right of our car, hugging the track. It looks like the most crooked house you’ve ever seen in your life, like something out of a storybook about a world gone crooked. The Halfway House is perfectly level. It’s us on the train that is at a tilt.
Into the Krummholz ecozone and Frog Rock
A bit higher, and we enter the Krummholz ecozone, where the trees look like little scraggly baby trees, because they are so beaten by wind and rain. In reality, they can be much, much older, some well over a century, but they just grow at stunted angles due to the harsh climate.
Higher and higher the little train chugs along, eventually reaching Jacob’s Ladder. There’s a little rock known as a “Frog Rock,” which helps orient workers in the fog and snow and entertain train passengers on nicer days.
When you’re going over Jacob’s Ladder, the brake operator will be significantly higher than the back of the car—you’ll notice this more when you go down. The track is really something, and if you can—this is a good time to sneak a peek from the middle of the train car, as you’ll get a good view of the chasm you’re crossing and the curve of the track. It’s most impressive! See the video for more on Jacob’s Ladder.
Cross into the Alpine ecozone
You’ll cross into the Alpine ecozone and see where the Granite State gets its name (I’m not sure if it’s all granite, but it certainly is rocky!). This is a good time to put on your warm clothes, as you’ll likely notice a temperature drop, and it’s better to have your stuff on before you hop off the train at the top and get shocked by the wind.
Arriving at the summit of Mount Washington
Look to your right, as you’ll get your first peek of the tower and the Mount Washington Observatory. You’re nearly at the top! Once your train is safely parked, you’ll have about 55 minutes at the summit (this depends on how long it takes your train to reach the top). Follow the instructions of your brake operator. I advise setting an alarm for 5–10 minutes beforehand to make sure that you are not late. The trains do not wait, and you do not want to be stuck up there!
The summit of Mount Washington!
The view from the summit of Mount Washington is absolutely breathtaking. On a clear day you can see five states and Canada, but what’s most beautiful is the sea of blue mountains rolling endlessly down. You also might see another train making its way up to the summit, as I did. You’ll also see the top of the Mount Washington Auto Road—notice that there aren’t any guardrails! Yikes!
There is a visitor’s station right there with restrooms, a cafeteria, a museum on extreme weather that your ticket will get you into for free, as well as a gift shop, US Post Office, and other amenities. Be sure to sign your name in the guest book! This is a good spot to warm up after experiencing the . . . breezy . . . summit. If the weather is truly wild, you can still get good views from the visitor’s center.
Tip Top House
Also be sure to check out the Tip Top House. It’s the original hotel at the summit, and it’s believed to be the oldest existing hostelry at the top of a mountain the world. Today it operates a small museum. It wasn’t open when I was there, but it would be fun to take a peek inside.
Climb (a little rocky ways) to the actual summit
The actual summit is a short climb (very rocky—they make you earn it). There’s often a line. I went part way up and decided that it was a bit too rocky for me—I had good boots on, but I have a talent for stumbling at inopportune times. You can wind up using a lot of your time for a photo, but a good photo it is! The views are better from the pavilion near the Observatory.
Holy wind! Hold onto your hat!
HOLY WIND! Dear Reader, Mount Washington’s reputation for wild weather is richly deserved. This wasn’t even hurricane force wind, and I felt like I was going to blow off the mountainside! I brought my camera, hoping to get some shots from the summit, but I didn’t dare use it. My phone nearly flew away! Also, my hat was not up to the wind. If you want to wear a hat, and it’s a good idea, I’d suggest getting something that fits very close to your head—a runner’s headband would work nicely.
Sign marking wind speed record
Be sure to check out the sign making the recording of the windspeed, located near the stairs to the Auto Road at the location of the original Observatory. This record has been broken, but it’s still the second-highest. Not bad for a little mountaintop in New Hampshire!
The time goes by in a flash!
Your 55 minutes at the top goes by in a flash. Your departure will be announced, but, again, I really advise setting yourself an alarm. You won’t miss the crowds queueing up for their trains, as the summit is not that big, but you need to be there if you don’t want to miss your train!
On the descent, you’ll see the brakes in action, as the brake operator turns two wheels, one to control the front brakes and the other the rear. Our brake operator, who did not spend a lot of time talking to us on the way down (he had to concentrate!), called braking the train a “delicate dance.” I can tell you that he’s a good dancer—I had a brief thought that things could go very wrong as we headed down the mountain, but the thought faded as we rode safely down. Do note that on the decent you can’t move around, as it’s too steep, and you could easily fall.
Stunning views and journey’s end
Views on the way down are stunning, especially because you might have discovered what to look for. Instead of craning your neck to see the mountain scenery, as you would need to do on the way up, views on the way down spread out before you. You might see a few hikers before you descend too far—I have pictures of a few taking pictures of us on the train!
The descent on the steam engine goes much faster than the climb, and soon, you’ll be back down at the station, full of stories of wind and fun atop one of the world’s more unique mountains.
Plan your trip on the Mount Washington Cog Railway!
Here’s what you need to know to ride the Mount Washington Cog Railway.
Booking and time to allow for the trip
- The trip to the summit of Mount Washington and back takes approximately 3 hours.
- Book in advance! Trains fill up fast, and you want to make sure that you have a good seat. See tip below.
- Trains run year round, but the old-fashioned steam trains run from Memorial Day in late May through Indigenous People’s Day in October. Note that in winter, the biodiesel trains run to Waumbek Station (not the summit). See the website for details.
- For the best views of the White Mountains, book a window-seat on the left-hand side of the train (you’ll be on the same side for both trips). These are three-seaters (C,D,E). For solo travelers: note that you will be sitting with others, and it gets cozy.
- Bring prepared for winter weather, even in summer! The weather at the summit is highly unpredictable, intense winds are likely, and winter weather is possible. I went in late August, and the wind whipped. While the temperature was in the 50sF/11C, the windchill was much, much colder. Earlier that morning it snowed!
- I brought my cashmere turtleneck and my raincoat/windbreaker, as well as stretchy gloves for a trip in late summer. They pack nicely, and you won’t have a lot of room.
- I brought a hat, but it wasn’t going to stay on my head in the wind. Runner’s headbands would work really well, I think, to protect your ears.
- Wear sturdy shoes, boots with good treads are better, if you want to reach the actual summit (a very short, but fairly rocky, hill).
- Speaking of the wind, you might do better with just a cell phone camera at the top. I brought my camera, but I didn’t dare use it, given the wind.
- Everything you bring needs to fit on your lap. The seats are cozy and the trains are usually full, especially the steam engines.
- There is a visitor’s center at the summit, should you find yourself underdressed and freezing.
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- Arrive at the station at least 45 minutes early to allow for picking up tickets and touring the museum.
- BE ON TIME FOR DEPARTURE! The trains do not wait.
- There are restrooms at the base and the summit, but not on the trains.
- Note that travel to the summit is contingent on weather. If the wind speed is too strong, your train may stop at a viewpoint further down the mountain (this is also where trains stop in winter months).
- You can move around on the ascent, and I recommend getting a view of the tracks from the isle. You cannot move around on the way down, because it is too steep.
- The views are better going down than coming up.
- Visitor’s center at the summit:
- The visitor’s center at the summit has restrooms, a cafeteria, gift shop, and viewing platform out of the wind.
- You can also tour the Mount Washington Observatory Museum. Your railway ticket includes admission. I didn’t go there, as I was more interested in touring the summit.
- You can mail a postcard from the visitor’s center at the little US Post Office.
- Be sure to sign the visitor registry at the main desk!
- BE ON TIME to get back down! They leave right on schedule, and they will not wait for you. The conductor will make an announcement a few minutes before you’re due to descend, but I advise setting an alarm for 5 minutes before.
- Remember to tip! Bring cash for a tip, split between the three-person crew.
Solo Female Travel
This is an ideal trip for solo female travelers. The summit of Mount Washington can be dangerous for solo adventurers, due to the unpredictable weather, and the group setting helps to make this safer. Plus, it will be easier to score a ticket on a crowded train (do note that the railway reserves the right to move seats).
Trains have accessible seating, but this is more for people who are able to walk, but require some light assistance from people in their party (I did see staff offer a little help to a man with a cane). On the steam engines, there is no wheelchair seating, and riders are required to take steps into the train.
Note that there is an auto road to the summit of Mount Washington that might prove a better choice for persons with disabilities.
Have you taken the Mount Washington Cog Railway?
Have you been on this journey, or did this post inspire you to take it? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
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