There's More Than One Way to Seek The Peak: A Mount Washington Route Guide

On Saturday, July 16, 2016, hundreds of outdoor enthusiasts of varying abilities will take on Mount Washington as part of the largest organized hiking event in the country, all in the name of supporting the legendary Mount Washington Observatory’s efforts. Having done more than 100 ascents of Mount Washington over the past 15 years, I’ve discovered there are many options for climbing up, other than the extremely well-known and traveled main routes. Below, I’m offering some suggestions to help hikers find the right one for their skill, experience, and ability, along with perhaps seeking a little solitude on what might be the mountain’s single busiest day.

First, the two big classics:

Tuckerman Ravine Trail

Without a doubt, this is the east side’s most crowded option – and for good reason! Starting from the bustling AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, the first two miles are relatively gentle. After Hermit Lake, a common resting point which will undoubtedly have lots of hikers milling about, the trail gets a little steeper as you work your way up into the large glacial cirque affectionately referred to as “Tucks.”

After entering the ravine’s floor, you’ll find things really steepen up. While the views get more impressive, some hikers might want to focus more on their foot placements, as a few narrower sections of the route require extreme attention. Then, as the the trail becomes more gradual and segues into the alpine zone, the remaining .7 miles and 1,000 feet of elevation gain to the summit make you think, “We must be almost there” for awhile, before you finally step onto the auto road and reach your goal.

Protips: From the mountain’s east side, this is the shortest and one of the easiest trails. Being the most crowded, it might be best for those seeking a social hiking experience. For something different on your way back, descending via the Lion Head Trail makes for a nice loop hike that returns you to the Tuckerman Ravine Trail a few hundred feet below Hermit Lake.

Lakes of the Clouds Hut as seen from Mount Washington's summit come. [Credit: Ryan Wichelns]
Lakes of the Clouds Hut as seen from Mount Washington’s summit come. [Credit: Ryan Wichelns]

Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail

The most popular option from the west side, and the easiest trail to the summit, this route has the benefit of starting 600 feet higher than the Tuckerman Ravine Trail. While it has less total elevation gain, it’s also much more interesting, so to speak, for the first couple miles.

 

It climbs very gently at first, until you reach the scenic “Gem Pool.” From here, the hiking steepens considerably, with the next mile being a relative “stairmaster.” The views come quickly, though, as does the treeline after crossing a few open slabs and reaching the AMC Lakes of the Clouds Hut. This beautiful mountain location is another popular resting spot, which often sells fresh baked goodies and juice at their counter. From here, the nearby Crawford Path climbs up to the summit, offering some of the same “almost there” spots along the way.

Protips: If your legs are feeling strong once you reach the top, and you have plenty of daylight left, descending via the Jewell Trail lets you have a different view during the return trip, although it does add an extra mile.

Boott Spur Trail

Back on the east side of the mountain, and also departing from the AMC Pinkham Notch Visitor Center, the Boott Spur Trail offers a less-crowded option. While adding a little over a mile to the ascent, it spends more time above the treeline, so this is a great route on a stable weather day for those with a bit more experience.

Protip: Here, too, descending via the Lion Head Trail takes you around the Tuckerman Ravine Cirque, allowing you to view it from almost all possible angles.

Huntington Ravine Trail

For the truly adventurous and those not faint of heart, the iconic Huntington Ravine Trail offers a very steep climb up Tuckerman’s more jagged neighbor. The two overlap during the first hour, but then, you break off onto a nice narrow trail that crosses the Cutler River and climbs up into the ravine.

Sections of the headwall will feel like actual rock climbing, and as a result, people get stuck here every year, because they underestimated the exposure or their own level of comfort in steep places. This is also a poor choice for those traveling with canine companions. However, when the weather is nice, and the hiking shoes are “grippy,” it can make for an exhilarating ascent.

Protip: It is much easier to go up steep trails than to go down them, so also consider descending via the Lion Head Trail, especially if there is any chance of rain!

Alternatives

For days when the weather looks poor, for those with limited hiking experience still wanting to climb Mount Washington, or for those with very small children, there is an excellent trail network around Pinkham Notch with much less committing trips than the four I have listed above.

Some recommendations: Take the Square Ledge Trail, which is about one hour round trip and has a stellar view of Mount Washington at the top. You can combine this with the Lost Pond Trail and a trip to the amazing Glen Ellis Falls if you wish to keep hiking. Or, on the west side of Route 16, where you should have parked, Liebeskind’s Loop with a trip out to Lila’s Ledge offers a very family-friendly hike with a pleasant view through the notch.

For more information on these trails, pick up a copy of The AMC White Mountain Guidebook.