Alpha Guide: Day Hiking Mount Washington

 

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

The region’s tallest peak, Mount Washington is a prize of the Northeast and one that can be climbed over and over by numerous different routes. 

A long and notable history, the distinction of being New Hampshire’s tallest peak, and a reputation for being the “home of the world’s worst weather” are just a few reasons Mount Washington tops many peakbaggers’ lists. And, with routes varying from serene to scary, there are plenty of different paths to the peak.

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Turn-By-Turn

Most Mount Washington day hikes start on either the east or west side. For starting on the east side with the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, Lion Head, or Boott Spur, hikers should park at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center in Gorham, just north of Jackson on Route 16. It’s about a 25-minute drive from North Conway to Gorham.

For a west side hike, such as the Ammonoosuc Ravine and Jewell Trails, hikers should park at the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trailhead. From Route 302, turn onto Base Road at the intersection of Bretton Woods and Fabyan’s Restaurant. The parking lot is on the right, several miles down the road. Confused? Just follow the signs for the Mount Washington Cog Railway.

Pro Tip: Get an early start. On most weekends, the lots at Pinkham Notch and the Ammonoosuc Trailhead fill up quickly. For Pinkham, there’s overflow parking just south of the Visitor Center and additional parking on the street.

The summit from the top of Tuckerman Ravine. | Credit: Tim Peck
The summit from the top of Tuckerman Ravine. | Credit: Tim Peck

East Side Trails

Tuckerman Ravine Trail

Quick Facts

Distance: 8.2 miles, round trip.
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty:★★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: May through October.
Fees/Permits: None
Contact: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/whitemountain/recarea?recid=78538

Of all the routes to the summit, an ascent via the 4.1-mile, one-way Tuckerman Ravine Trail is perhaps the most sought after, as it climbs directly up the notorious glacial cirque and backcountry ski destination. Because snow and ice may cover the terrain from late fall to early summer—making it more of a mountaineering route than a hike—and due to its popularity, this trail may be busy when in prime condition.

Starting just behind the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, the Tuckerman Ravine Trail begins rather benignly. The wide-yet-rocky trail gradually works its way up the roughly 2.5 miles to Hermit Lake and the base of Tuckerman Ravine. As a note, this section may be particularly busy, as Hermit Lake is a popular destination itself. Above Hermit Lake, the trail climbs a series of narrow, steep, and often slippery switchbacks that deliver hikers to the top of the ravine.

From here, the tops of the summit buildings come into view, and it may seem like the difficulty is over. However, you still have a long way to go. Arguably, the final mile of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail is its most challenging, as it involves as much rock-hopping as it does hiking. As you near the top, the sounds of the Auto Road get increasingly louder, and eventually, the trail runs into the road. Here, hikers tackle the ascent’s final challenge: a steep staircase that deposits you near the summit sign. Because of the trail’s steep and slippery nature, hikers should descend via the Lion Head Trail.

Crossing the Alpine Garden. | Credit: Tim Peck
Crossing the Alpine Garden. | Credit: Tim Peck

Lion Head Trail

Quick Facts

Distance: 8.4 miles, round trip.
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty:★★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: May through October.
Fees/Permits: None

The Lion Head Trail is a popular alternative to the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. The trip offers hikers less exposure, gives you a bird’s-eye view of the ravine, and gets you to the peak when the Tuckerman Ravine Trail’s conditions aren’t ideal. The trip up actually follows the Tuckerman Ravine Trail for large portions; however, it veers off to skirt the ravine’s northern edge, rather than ascend directly up it. Commonly thought to be one of the “easier” routes to the summit, the Lion Head gains roughly 4,200 feet of elevation along its 4.2 miles, and is challenging for even seasoned hikers.

Before leaving home, make sure you know which version of the Lion Head Trail—Summer or Winter—is open by checking the Mount Washington Avalanche Center’s trail information. While both leave from the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, the Winter route branches off shortly before Hermit Lake, and the Summer route starts at Hermit Lake. The latter is less steep and a bit quicker than the former. However, it also crosses an avalanche path, and is only open when there is no possibility of the snow sliding. Want to learn more about the Lion Head in winter? Check out this goEast article about it.

Above treeline, the Lion Head Trail affords an incredible view of Tuckerman Ravine from its granite ledges—if the weather allows, that is. If the weather doesn’t cooperate, and especially if it’s windy, be careful. A good gust could blow an unsuspecting person into the ravine. Yes, the trail is that close to the ravine’s rim! The Lion Head Trail rejoins the Tuckerman Ravine Trail at a well-marked junction for the final 0.4 miles to Washington’s summit.

Looking down on the Boot Spur. | Credit: Tim Peck
Looking down on the Boott Spur. | Credit: Tim Peck

Boott Spur Trail

Quick Facts

Distance: 10.8 miles, round trip.
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty:★★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: May through October.
Fees/Permits: None

Looking for a little bit longer and less crowded hike up Washington’s east side? Check out the Boott Spur Trail, which climbs the ridge forming the southern side of Tuckerman Ravine. Once above treeline, hikers get spectacular views of Hermit Lake, Tuckerman Ravine, and, in the distance, Mount Washington’s summit cone as they ascend the steps of the Boott Spur, a 5,500-foot sub-peak of Mount Washington.

To access the Boott Spur Trail, hikers begin at Pinkham Notch and hike an easy 0.4 miles on the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. The Boott Spur Trail begins at a signed junction where the Tuckerman Ravine Trail makes a sharp right turn and begins climbing uphill. Hikers will quickly cross the John Sherburne Ski Trail and then climb forested terrain up the ridgeline. Above treeline, the trail summits Boott Spur and then traverses along the edge of Tuckerman Ravine, until it joins the Davis Path. From there, there’s approximately two miles of rock-hopping to the summit. Overall, climbing Washington via this route is 5.4 miles, with an elevation gain of 4,654 feet. And, since so much is above treeline, make sure to save it for a nice day.

The Pinnacle and the Huntington Ravine Trail. | Credit: Tim Peck
The Pinnacle and the Huntington Ravine Trail. | Credit: Tim Peck

Huntington Ravine Trail

Quick Facts

Distance: 4.5 miles, one way.
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty:★★★★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: May through October.
Fees/Permits: None

One of the White Mountains’ hardest and most dangerous trails, the Huntington Ravine Trail should only be attempted by experienced hikers who are comfortable with exposure. To get there, follow the Tuckerman Ravine Trail 1.3 miles to the junction with the Huntington Ravine Trail and then follow the trail 2.1 miles as it climbs 2,450 feet to the Alpine Garden. The trail initially climbs through forested terrain, before it reaches a junction with the Huntington Ravine Fire Road. It then enters Huntington Ravine, gradually transitioning from a trail to rock-hopping through the bottom of a huge open boulder field called “The Fan.” Navigating up, over, and around these boulders is fun and challenging.

After working through The Fan, continue on the Huntington Ravine Trail as it ascends steeply toward the top of the ravine. Some portions of the upper section require scrambling and rock climbing-like moves to ascend. These sequences have serious exposure and may be difficult to reverse if you get stuck or the weather deteriorates, so only attempt this route on nice days when the trail is dry. On a clear day, though, this section offers a fantastic perspective of the Huntington Ravine.

At 2.1 miles, the Huntington Ravine Trail exits the ravine and intersects with the Alpine Garden Trail. Hikers heading for the summit should continue on this moderate section for 0.3 miles until it ends at the Mount Washington Auto Road and the junction with the Nelson Crag Trail. From there, it’s 0.8 miles of rock-hopping on the Nelson Crag Trail to the summit.

Pro Tip: The Huntington Ravine Trail is hard enough to ascend. Don’t use it as your descent route.

Lake of the Clouds and Mount Madison from Washington's summit cone. | Credit: Tim Peck
Lakes of the Clouds and Mount Monroe from Washington’s summit cone. | Credit: Tim Peck

West Side Trails

Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail

Quick Facts

Distance: 9 miles, round trip.
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty:★★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: May through October.
Fees/Permits: Ammonoosuc Ravine Trailhead is $5 a day

The Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail (“The Ammo”) is the quickest route up to the Lakes of the Clouds Hut (3.1 miles) and a beautiful way to start a hike to the summit of Mount Washington (4.5 miles). The trail follows a crystal-clear stream up the ravine, eventually climbing steeply as it passes several waterfalls. A little way before Lakes of the Clouds, the trail pokes above treeline, crossing a series of open ledges to the hut. These ledges offer hikers fantastic views of Washington’s summit cone and back west, and are a great place to catch your breath.

At the hut, refill your water bottles, grab a snack (the hut crew’s baked goods are delicious), and enjoy the views. When you’ve recovered, take the Crawford Path 1.4 miles up Washington’s summit cone. This portion is above treeline and open to the elements, so before you head up, reassess the weather and layer up. If the weather is deteriorating or you’re just too tired, the summit of Mount Monroe is a relatively easy, 0.3-mile side hike in the opposite direction. The views are almost as good, and it’s a lot less crowded.

Pro Tip: With replenishment opportunities at the Lakes of the Clouds Hut and again on the summit proper, this is the route for hikers looking to carry a lighter pack.

Descenting the Gulfside Trail. | Credit: Tim Peck
Descending the Gulfside Trail. | Credit: Tim Peck

Jewell Trail

Quick Facts

Distance: 10.2 miles, round trip.
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty:★★★
Scenery:★★★★


Season: May through October.
Fees/Permits: Ammonoosuc Ravine Trailhead is $5 a day

Another popular west-side route to Washington’s summit is the Jewell Trail to the Gulfside Trail. Although it’s a tad longer than the route via the Ammonoosuc Ravine (5.1 miles one way versus 4.5 miles) and has a little more climbing (4,000 feet of elevation gain versus 3,800 feet), overall it is a slightly easier route, as the Jewell Trail is neither as difficult nor as steep.

The Jewell Trail begins at a trailhead directly across the road from the Ammonoosuc Ravine parking lot and climbs gradually on moderate terrain (at least by Mount Washington standards) up an unnamed ridge on Mount Clay. Near treeline, the views dramatically improve, and the trail gets a little rockier as it nears the intersection with the Gulfside Trail at 5,400 feet.

From the junction, hikers have another 1.4 miles on the Gulfside Trail to Washington’s summit. After skirting Mount Clay, the Gulfside Trail hugs the upper rim of the Great Gulf, a massive east-facing glacial cirque framed by the summits of Washington, Clay, Jefferson, Adams, and Madison. Since it holds the Great Gulf Wilderness, New Hampshire’s smallest and oldest wilderness area, hikers should definitely stop to check it out.

The Gulfside Trail with the Northern Presidentials. | Credit: Tim Peck
The Gulfside Trail with the Northern Presidentials. | Credit: Tim Peck

Longer Options

If a simple ascent of Mount Washington isn’t challenging enough, you have numerous popular ways to incorporate summiting Mount Washington into larger hiking objectives. The most notable is the Presidential Traverse, the White Mountains’ classic point-to-point hike.

Of course, if a full Presidential Traverse seems too daunting, half Presidential Traverses are also popular. Typically, half Presidential Traverses start from the north (at Mount Madison) or the south (at Mount Jackson or Pierce), and hikers will work their way across the range, which culminates in an ascent of Mount Washington.

Another longer, more off-the-beaten path way is via the complete Davis Path. Originally built in 1845 as a bridle path, the Davis Path fell into neglect and disrepair before being re-opened as a footpath in 1910. Today, the Davis Path takes hikers roughly 14 miles over Mount Isolation, crossing over Boott Spur, and eventually joining the Crawford Path beneath Mount Washington’s summit.


Washington and Lake of the Clouds from Mount Monroe. | Credit: Tim Peck
Washington and Lakes of the Clouds from Mount Monroe. | Credit: Tim Peck

The Kit

  • It’s not uncommon for an ascent of Mount Washington to take longer than anticipated. So, bring a headlamp to avoid having to make a death-defying descent in the dark. We like the Black Diamond ReVolt.
  • Spending time on Mount Washington involves a lot of above-treeline hiking, which often leaves you exposed to the sun. The Black Diamond Alpenglow Sun Hoody (men’s/women’s) is an easy way to avoid getting sunburned on your trip.
  • Mount Washington has a well-deserved reputation for being “home to the world’s worst weather.” Prepare for the worst by bringing a lightweight insulated coat, like the EMS Feather Pack Down Jacket (men’s/women’s).
  • The record high temperature on Mount Washington’s summit is 72 degrees. Be prepared for a chilly summit by bringing a winter hat (we like the Smartwool NTS 250 Cuffed Beanie) and gloves (like the Black Diamond Midweight Windbloc Fleece), even on summer ascents.
  • A cold Coke and a slice of pizza from the summit’s cafeteria have saved more than one trip for us, so don’t forget to bring your wallet with cash. Keep your outdoor cred and distinguish yourself from those who drove up or took the train with The North Face Base Camp Wallet.
  • All of the trails on Mount Washington are rugged. Because of this, we always pack trekking poles, like the Black Diamond Distance FLZ (men’s/women’s), for added stability and to reduce the wear and tear on our joints.

The Gulfside Trail. | Credit: Tim Peck
The Gulfside Trail. | Credit: Tim Peck

Keys to the Trip

  • It’s easy to get disoriented on Mount Washington, especially above treeline. Get the Waterproof White Mountains Trail Map, study your route beforehand, and then bring it along—just in case.
  • After a big day on the Rockpile, east-side hikers can cool off with a cold pint from one of Barley & Salt’s 32 drafts on tap in North Conway, while west-side hikers can find cold brews at Fabyan’s Restaurant, conveniently located on the way back to Route 302.
  • Or, stop into a local store, and pick up a six pack of Tuckerman Brewing’s aptly named Rockpile IPA to celebrate when you get home.
  • Let your friends and family know about your successful summit by sending a postcard from the post office located on Mount Washington’s summit.
  • If you’re leaving from Pinkham Notch, make sure to sign the climbing register inside the visitor center, just in case something goes wrong.
  • Any trip to Mount Washington is going to be influenced by the weather. Check the Mount Washington Observatory’s Higher Summit Forecast to know what weather to expect, and read up on how to interpret their predictions.

Mount Washington's Summit. | Credit: Tim Peck
Mount Washington’s Summit. | Credit: Tim Peck

Current Conditions

Have you hiked Mount Washington recently? Which route did you use? Post your experience and the conditions (with the date of your climb) in the comments for others!


The MWOBS Staff's Must-See Mt. Washington Highlights for Seek the Peak

The White Mountains, and Mount Washington in particular, are one of the region’s most densely-packed trail areas. This means you have several options when you head up for Seek the Peak. But, to figure out your route, what’s better than to start with advice from the folks who spend day after day working on the mountains? So, check out the favorite trails and sections from these Mount Washington Observatory employees—the guys who know the region better than anyone.

Credit: Tom Padham
Credit: Tom Padham

Mount Jefferson via Caps Ridge Trail

By Tom Padham, Meteorologist/Education Specialist

While not a hike up Mount Washington, this trail has so much to offer: great views, a relatively short length, and some interesting rock scrambles. The trail starts on Jefferson Notch road at roughly 3,000 feet—the highest of any trailhead in the White Mountains. As such, things open up only a mile or so into the hike, and after a short while, unobstructed views of the Presidential Range and Mount Washington emerge.

The “Caps” section consists of three short rock scrambles. It’s nothing requiring technical gear but enough to offer a great change of pace—and may be the first time you use all four limbs to climb a mountain! Overall, this hike is far shorter than many of the other routes to summit a Presidential Peak, but it still offers some challenges, with nearly 2,700 feet of vertical gain in only 2.4 miles. This is my favorite hike, because it manages to pack so much into just a few short and very beautiful miles!

The view from the Southern Presidentials. | Credit: Sean Greaney
The view from the Southern Presidentials. | Credit: Sean Greaney

Davis Path

By Brian Fitzgerald, Director of Education

Totaling roughly 14 miles from Crawford Notch to the summit of Mount Washington, the Davis Path is one of the oldest and longest approaches to the Northeast’s highest peak. Constructed back in 1845 as a bridle path, this trail is an exhausting ridge hike for an ambitious day-hiker, and a very pleasant multi-day approach for backpackers. Along the way, hikers get stunning views as they summit Mount Crawford, Stairs Mountain, Mount Davis, Mount Isolation, and Mount Washington itself.

The Westside Trail

By Brian Fitzgerald, Director of Education

At over 5,500 feet in elevation and just below the peak of Mount Washington, the Westside Trail is one of the best places to escape the crowds on a pleasant summer day. At 9/10ths of a mile, the trail follows the mountain’s contour, providing excellent views to the west between the Crawford Path and Gulfside Trail. For staff who live and work on the mountain, this is the perfect loop to run when you want to get outside!

Looking North from the Bootspur trail towards Mt. Washington. | Credit: Matthew Charpentier
Looking north from the Boott Spur Trail towards Mt. Washington. | Credit: Matthew Charpentier

Ball Crag via the Nelson Crag Trail

By Ryan Knapp, Meteorologist

After you summit Mount Washington, this can be made into a spur hike or an alternate route down (via the Nelson Crag Trail). While Ball Crag’s technically not a summit and is instead classified as a subsidiary of Mount Washington, the rise in land does come to an elevation of 6,066 feet, based on the Washburn map. From the summit, take a 0.18-mile hike down the Nelson Crag Trail, which will bring you to this rise in land. Here, get sweeping views of Pinkham Notch to the east, the Great Gulf to the west and north, and a unique perspective of Mount Washington to the south.

Boott Spur Trail

By Ryan Knapp, Meteorologist

If you’re looking for a more intimate mountain experience on the east side, away from the crowds on the Tuckerman Ravine/Lion Head Trail, Boott Spur Trail is an excellent choice. This 5.7-mile, one-way trail is a longer route to and from the summit and can be significantly more challenging for hikers. For those willing to put in the time and effort, it provides great views, with plenty of flora and fauna to take in the entire time.
This trail puts hikers above treeline quickly, and for a large portion of the trip, you’ve got those great views. However, you will also be exposed to the elements for significantly longer. So, check the forecast and pack and prepare for any changes in the weather you might experience over the course of a day. And, since this route is longer, it requires more time to ascend and descend.
Mount Washington from Madison. | Credit: Tim Peck
Mount Washington from Madison. | Credit: Tim Peck

Mt. Madison via the Valley Way Trail

By Taylor Regan, Weather Observer and Research Specialist

Weather and fitness permitting, this route could be the start of a Presidential Traverse or simply a nice and fairly challenging hike on its own. Mount Madison via the Valley Way Trail rises relentlessly from the Appalachia Trailhead, gaining over 4,000 feet of elevation in roughly 3.8 miles while passing close to several detour-worthy cascades and waterfalls. This sustained effort brings you to the outermost edge of the Northern Presidentials, with sweeping views of Mount Washington and the ribbon-like Auto Road tracing its way upward in the foreground. The summit of Madison is easily one of my favorite vista points.

Mount Washington via the Tuckerman Ravine Trail and Lion Head Route

By Taylor Regan, Weather Observer and Research Specialist

The Lion Head summer route begins along the Tuckerman Ravine Trail out of Pinkham Notch. Two of my favorite sections actually bookend this hike. Shortly after leaving the parking lot, take a slight detour to Crystal Cascade: a stunning waterfall with a total drop of 100 feet, split in two by a small pool. Much farther along, once you’ve crested Lion Head, views open up along a relatively flat traverse flanked by the Alpine Garden on your right—check for rare alpine flowers—and Tuckerman Ravine, often with snow and ice remnants along the headwall, on your left. The summit proper is then only a moderate scramble away.


Alpha Guide: Mount Washington via the Lion Head Winter Route

alpha Guides | Better than beta.

Take on a genuine mountaineering challenge by going for a winter ascent on the Northeast’s tallest peak. 

Mount Washington is the pinnacle of winter mountaineering in the Northeast, and the Lion Head Winter Route is the trail of choice for many looking to summit this iconic mountain. Although this is the least technical way to summit the “Rock Pile,” mountaineers will be challenged by everything from the route’s steep, icy terrain to the mountain’s notorious “worst weather in the world.” Depending on the day, you could find yourself huddling behind one of the summit’s buildings, trying to escape the wind, or proudly posing in front of the summit sign while taking in grand views of the Presidential Range.

Quick Facts

Distance: 8.2 miles, out-and-back
Time to Complete: 1 day
Difficulty: ★★★★
Scenery:★★★★★


Season: November through March
Fees/Permits: None
Contact: https://www.fs.usda.gov/recarea/whitemountain/recarea?recid=78538

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Turn-By-Turn

Parking for the Lion Head Trail is at the Appalachian Mountain Club’s Pinkham Notch Visitor Center in Gorham, just north of Jackson on Route 16. It’s about a 25-minute drive from North Conway or Gorham.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Gearing Up

The Pinkham Notch Visitor Center (44.257320, -71.253052) is a great place to get ready. The gear room, in the basement, has tables and benches that are perfect for getting organized, tying your boots, and doing those last-minute gear checks. It also has bathrooms and a water fountain, and snacks and meals can be purchased upstairs.

Equally important, the AMC posts the Mount Washington Observatory’s daily Higher Summits Forecast and the Mount Washington Avalanche Center’s daily avalanche forecast on a cork board in the visitor center’s basement. Make sure to read both! And, while you’re there, sign the winter hiker register, too.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Starting Out

To get on the trail, leave the basement, and follow the sidewalk towards the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center’s main entrance. Continue past the entrance and around the back of the building to the large sign marking the beginning of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, which you’ll take for the first 1.7 miles and more than 1,000 feet of elevation.

The easy-to-follow Tuckerman Ravine Trail begins as a very rocky dirt road and is wide enough to allow side-by-side hiking. Depending on the weather, trail conditions range from ice-covered rocks to packed snow. In most cases, starting out in MICROspikes is usually a good idea.

From the Visitor Center, the trail is moderate for the first few minutes, and then begins to climb consistently. As it climbs, an occasional path cuts off to the left, heading over to the Sherburne Ski Trail. A bit higher up, there is also a signed cutoff to the right for the Huntington Ravine Trail (44.261887, -71.269882). Hikers should ignore all of these cutoffs.

Trees protect this portion of the trail, keeping the wind and wind chill at bay. And, although the trees also limit the views—especially compared to the awesome ones you’ll get once you’re above treeline—the Tuckerman Ravine Trail does pass a few key scenic spots as it climbs out of the valley. The most notable are the two bridges that cross the Ellis River and the Cutler River and the waterfall—or icicle, in this case—Crystal Cascade. It might be tempting to dig the camera out, but don’t stop. You have a long way to go, and the days are short this time of year.

If the weather permits, you’ll also get a preview of the Lion Head as you move up the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, giving you an appreciation for the route’s expansive scale and how much distance you have left to travel.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Cut Off

After about 1.7 miles, the junction with the Huntington Ravine fire road (44.263844, -71.277946) is on the right. The junction is well-marked, with a sign pointing toward the base of the Lion Head Winter Route. The wide, flat fire road makes for easy hiking. Take it a short distance to a junction (44.264603, -71.279106). Look for a rescue cache on the trail’s opposite side for confirmation.

The flat area at the Winter Route’s base is a great spot to grab some food and water and add a layer. Most people, too, put their crampons on here and get their ice axe out.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Rock Step

The steeps on the Lion Head Winter Route come pretty quickly. Climbing along a tree-lined trail, the route gains almost 1,800 feet in elevation.

While most of the climbing is on steep but easy snow, there is a short, 30-foot, rocky section near the beginning that has some exposure. Almost all the guided parties carry a short section of rope to use as a hand line, but it is probably unnecessary if you are comfortable climbing in crampons.

Pro Tip: The Lion Head Winter Route is the Whites’ most popular guided winter route, and there is sometimes a bottleneck at the rock step. So that you can maintain your pace, try to stay ahead of guided groups, if you see them gearing up at the base.

Above the rock step, the route continues up, staying in the trees until it eventually breaks treeline. Around treeline, you’ll find numerous spots along the side of the trail to take a break (44.264332, -71.286575) and enjoy the excellent view of the Wildcat Mountain Ski Area across the notch. Since you’ll be fully exposed to the wind from here on, now is a great time to don your above-treeline gear. On windy days, remember full-face protection, including goggles.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Lion Head

From treeline, the trail continues up over open, rocky terrain towards Lion Head proper (44.264.042, -71.291275). As you climb, you’ll probably feel the wind speed increasing. And, be on the lookout for another steep and exposed section just before the Lion Head. It’s easy, but you don’t want to fall.

As you approach the Lion Head, you should evaluate the weather, the wind, and your group’s motivation. If the wind’s too strong, the weather’s getting worse, or it has taken longer to get here than anticipated, this is a good place to turn around without significant consequence.

Crossing the Alpine Garden

Above the Lion Head, the trail continues along the edge of Tuckerman Ravine, crossing the Alpine Garden. If it is a nice day, enjoy the view of the ravine in all its splendor. But, don’t get sucked too far left, especially if it’s windy. You don’t want to get blown in!

This section is also likely to be one of the hike’s windiest segments. Since the trail here is mostly flat, it’s a great idea to hustle across as quickly as possible. The prevailing wind is west to northwest; so, once you are in the shadow of the summit cone, you’ll likely get a brief reprieve.

After a short time, the trail intersects with the Alpine Garden Trail (44.265045, -71.295603). Some scrub here makes a passable wind break, but you’ll probably want to keep going. From the junction, continue straight on the Lion Head Trail.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Split Rock

The trail begins climbing again after the junction, crossing a couple of open snowfields on the way towards Split Rock (44.265850, -71.301437). Since there are few landmarks here, route finding is critical. Moreover, the consequences of a sliding fall on this section are significant, so make sure to have your crampons on and ice axe ready.

Split Rock is easily identifiable: As the name implies, it’s a large boulder that is split in half. Split Rock is also the last place that offers passable protection from the weather before you reach the summit. Many parties choose to take advantage of the flattish area and windbreak to grab a snack, make a final determination of the weather, and prepare for their summit push before following the trail through the boulder itself. Once you’re ready, the next junction (44.265980, -71.302155) is just a few minutes ahead.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Summit Cone

The Lion Head Trail traverses west for a short ways before connecting with the Tuckerman Ravine Trail at a large cairn. From here, turn right and follow the cairns uphill on the final 0.4 miles to the top. Frequently, this section provides a respite from the wind. Enjoy the break, as the wind will only increase as you near the top.

The Tuckerman Ravine Trail leads to the first sign of civilization—the Auto Road (44.269550, -71.302048). Shortly thereafter, you’ll pass the tracks for the Cog Railway, before you come to the final small hill leading to the summit (44.270424, -71.303375).

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Summit Pose

If it is a nice day, spend some time to enjoy the summit view of the Presidentials and the surrounding White Mountains. More likely though, ripping winds and cold temperatures will have you taking shelter by the buildings and putting on an extra layer before you make your way to the summit sign to get the requisite shot.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Getting Back in One Piece

To quote the world-famous mountaineer Ed Viesturs, “The summit is just a halfway point.” Although getting back to Pinkham Notch is as simple as reversing course, you have ample opportunities to get lost or disoriented above treeline, especially when the weather is at its worst. So, take the time at trail junctures to ensure you’re descending in the right direction, and look for memorable landmarks. Most notable are the large cairns marking the Tuckerman-Lion Head junction, Split Rock, the scrub at the Alpine Garden Trail junction, and the flat area on top of the Lion Head. As you make your way towards treeline, look for several sets of reflectors attached to the trees for descending at night or in deteriorating conditions.

The final crux for hikers will be reversing the rock step and the terrain just above it. Once again, many guided parties use a rope here, but those comfortable climbing in crampons should be fine simply downclimbing.


Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

The Kit

  • The Lion Head Winter Route is steep and often icy. Because of this, an ice axe and crampons are essential equipment. The Black Diamond Raven Ice Axe and Contact Crampons are great choices.
  • The combination of high winds, snow, and ice often necessitates the use of goggles, like the Smith I/O 7, to protect your eyes and maintain vision. We suggest bringing a second pair in the event one freezes.
  • Summiting Mount Washington in the winter is a long day even in the best conditions—not to mention, the days are shorter this time of year. A headlamp like the Black Diamond Revolt helps prevent getting caught in the dark and provides peace of mind if you fall behind schedule.
  • It’s easy to get disoriented or lost above treeline on Mount Washington, especially if it’s snowing and the wind is howling. A route plan, pre-set waypoints on a phone-based mapping app like GAIA GPS, and a map and compass as backup are all extremely valuable when you’re trying to stay on course no matter the weather.
  • A heavy puffy coat, like the Black Diamond Stance Parka (Men’s/Women’s), and summit mittens, such as the EMS Summit (Men’s/Women’s), are must-haves for extreme cold. Using chemical hand warmers is also a great way to keep your hands warm.

Credit: Tim Peck
Credit: Tim Peck

Keys to the Trip

  • Mount Washington’s reputation for the “world’s worst weather” is well-deserved, and weather conditions play a huge role in any successful ascent via the Lion Head Winter Route. Before you head out, make sure to read the Mount Washington Observatory’s Higher Summits Forecast. If the conditions don’t look right (for instance, high winds are forecast or the temperatures at higher elevations are just too cold), consider a different trip for the day: A hike up to HoJo’s at the base of Tuckerman Ravine or skiing the Sherburne Trail is a nice alternative that never leaves the protection of the trees.
  • Similarly, if the weather starts to turn during your hike, bailing is a smart decision. After all, the weather rarely gets better the higher you go, and the “Rock Pile” isn’t going anywhere.
  • Before leaving the Visitor Center, take a moment to make sure the Lion Head Winter Route is actually open. Its opening depends on the amount of snow received, and in recent years—like the 2017-2018 winter season—it has not opened until late December.
  • Early starts on Mount Washington are par for the course. The AMC’s Joe Dodge Lodge is a great place to stay if you want to roll right from bed to the trail. Accommodation options include private and bunk rooms, with most options encompassing breakfast and dinner.
  • Not confident doing this journey yourself? Consider a guided ascent of Mount Washington with the Eastern Mountain Sports Climbing School. EMS guides have climbed the “Rock Pile” hundreds of times each winter, and have the skills and knowledge to get you up and down the mountain safely. And, if you’re looking for more than just the up-and-back, consider combining a guided climb with an overnight at the Mount Washington Observatory.
  • Moat Mountain Smokehouse & Brewing Co., or simply The Moat, is the place for Conway-area climbers to eat, grab a pint, and brag about everything from their successful summits to just how bad the weather was above treeline.

Current Conditions

Have you hiked the Lion Head Winter Route on Mount Washington recently? Post your experience and the trail conditions (with the date of your hike) in the comments for others!


The Crux: The NE 115's Toughest Winter Climbs

Climbing all of the Northeast’s 115 4,000-footers is a serious challenge on its own, even for the region’s most experienced hikers. But, how can you take it to the extreme? Simple: Do them all in winter. Joining that elite (and very short) list of hardy hikers requires a special skill set, gear closet, and determination that many lack. Depending on the weather, trail conditions, and other factors, any of these peaks can be perilous to climb in winter. So, here are a few of the biggest challenges, and some tips to make it to the top.

Credit: Lucas LaBarre
Credit: Lucas LaBarre

Katahdin

Baxter State Park, Maine

Katahdin is a steep granite cirque in Maine’s Baxter State Park that includes a few different summits, the highest of which is Baxter Peak. Tagging Maine’s highest peak in winter means slogging through a grueling two-day, 13-mile approach across the park’s closed access roads (typically with expedition sleds) to Roaring Brook, and then another 3.3 miles uphill to Chimney Pond. Be prepared for consistent sub-zero temperatures and frequent avalanche danger.

To increase your chance of success, plan early to obtain reservations at the bunkhouses in Roaring Brook and Chimney Pond, rather than tenting. Have a strong group, and give yourself enough time in the park to wait for a favorable weather window to attack the summit. Use the Saddle Trail or the more challenging Cathedral Trail to ascend from Chimney Pond. If your endurance and the weather allow you to summit, you will reach one of the East Coast’s most beautiful mountains.

Courtesy: Matt's Hikes
Courtesy: Matt’s Hikes

Mount Redington

Carrabassett Valley, Maine

Home to one of the least-traveled of the Northeast’s unmarked trails, Redington is a difficult enough climb in the summer. While not especially challenging in terms of bushwhacking, reaching the summit involves a few key unmarked turns and forks on old logging roads. In the winter, you should bring a GPS or a friend who has climbed it before.

The closure of Caribou Valley Road to cars in winter means you should either ski to the crossing of the Appalachian Trail or start where the AT meets Route 16. Either way, you will travel the AT to South Crocker Mountain before beginning the 1.2-mile unmarked trek off the AT to Redington’s summit. Read the stretch’s description carefully in the AMC’s Maine Mountain Guide. To make sure you have arrived, look for an old white canister strapped to a tree on the summit.

Trail signs on the top of Mount Adams. | Credit: Ryan Wichelns
Trail signs on the top of Mount Adams. | Credit: Ryan Wichelns

Mount Adams

White Mountains, New Hampshire

While Mount Washington is the King of the Presidential Range and home to some of the nation’s worst weather, its neighbor to the north, Mount Adams, is another worthy challenge. And, in winter, climbing the exposed summit requires the same precautions and gear. You will ascend nearly 4,500 feet, with almost 1,000 feet of that above treeline. Climb the steeper Air Line Trail from the AT in order to take in the majestic views of King Ravine. Then, descend using the easier Valley Way Trail.

Courtesy: Wayfarer
Courtesy: Wayfarer

Owl’s Head Mountain

White Mountains, New Hampshire

A trip to this peak involves over 18 miles of travel. This trek may include sometimes-dangerous water crossings, unmarked bushwhack approaches, and a slide climb, so make sure river conditions are good and you’re comfortable on steep and icy terrain. Many prefer to utilize the Black Pond bushwhack route on their approach. Be sure to proceed the additional 0.2 miles north from the old summit clearing to the new summit proper to make it official.

The one saving grace here is the flat and very well maintained (but rather boring) 2.6-mile section of the Lincoln Woods Trail. You’ll pass through when you start and finish your journey from the trailhead at the Lincoln Woods Visitor Information Center. Overall, Owl’s Head has a very remote wilderness feel to it that makes the long day worthwhile.

Courtesy: LakePlacid.com
Courtesy: LakePlacid.com

Allen Mountain

Adirondack Mountains, New York

Allen offers a little bit of everything. There are several river crossings, winding meadows, woods climbing opportunities, and a steep slide climb finale. Due to its roughly 18-mile round-trip distance, it’s sometimes confusing to approach. As well, because of the deep snow often faced on Allen Brook’s final, very steep slabs, this one can be challenging. Luckily, the DEC recently replaced a long-destroyed bridge over the Opalescent River, alleviating a fording concern.

In addition, the state purchased new lands surrounding the peak. So, future hikers should stay tuned to new routes potentially opening up. For now, start at a trailhead located a mile from the end of Upper Works Road, off Tahawus Road. Follow the trail to Flowed Lands via Hanging Spear Falls for just under four miles. Soon, break right onto the unmarked but well-traveled and obvious herd path to the base of the slide and straight up to the summit ridge. Enjoy the beautiful views of Panther Gorge and the High Peaks to the north from a lookout located just beyond the formal summit.

Courtesy: LakePlacid.com
Courtesy: LakePlacid.com

Seward Range

Adirondack Mountains, New York

Any time of the year, the Sewards are a challenging hike, but the closure of Corey’s Road adds 3.5 miles each way. Depending on conditions, consider skiing this long stretch in and out. Added to this are the Western Adirondacks’ deep snows and some sparsely marked trails, and these peaks, as a result, become a major challenge. You should plan an early start, use the Calkins Brook approach, and be sure to research the route.

The Calkins Brook approach will bring you to the ridge near Mount Donaldson. This path allows you to “T” the ridge, tagging Emmons to the right (south), and Seward to the left (north). The range’s isolation and remoteness have a wonderful feel in winter, but their rewards demand a long day of effort. Unless you are exceptionally fit or planning an overnight, avoid the temptation to add nearby Seymour Mountain.

Credit: Lucas LaBarre
Credit: Lucas LaBarre

Basin Mountain

Adirondacks, New York

Basin lies deep in the Eastern High Peaks’ Great Range. This means there are only a few ways up, and all involve long approaches and very rugged terrain. In addition, several steep ledges, frozen ladders, and frequent ice bulges make this trek particularly difficult in winter. As with many of these peaks, it’s valuable to carry a general mountaineering ice axe to assist with some tricky sections.

For a greater challenge, consider adding Saddleback Mountain to create a larger loop hike. Or, for the expert HaBaSa route, include Haystack within your itinerary. Be aware, though, that this will add obstacles to an already-difficult trek up Basin Mountain: for instance, Saddleback’s cliffs and Little Haystack’s icy ledges. Typically, an approach starts from the Garden Trailhead, travels past Johns Brook Lodge, and then climbs past Slant Rock, and on up the Great Range Trail. If the skies are clear, some wonderful views of the likely-more-crowded Mount Haystack and Mount Marcy, along with many other High Peaks, are yours for the taking.

 

Do you have another peak that you think is even harder? Let us know in the comments!