As editor of Drive magazine and its sister publication Drive Performance for Subaru, I travel to some interesting places. On a recent trip, I spent five days driving up and down Mount Washington in east-central New Hampshire. The event that drew me there was part of the 150th anniversary celebration of the Mt. Washington Auto Road.
The 150-year timing might cause comparisons with the anniversaries currently being celebrated by various vehicle manufacturers. There are a number of 100-year-old companies and one that's 125 years old. But no matter how hard you try, you won't find any cars or trucks powered by internal-combustion engines from 150 years ago.
The Mt. Washington Auto Road was built for horse-drawn carriages.
With an elevation of 6,288 feet, Mount Washington is the tallest peak in New England and the northeast. Because of its geographic position at the confluence of three storm tracks, the mountain has earned the reputation of being the Home of the World's Worst WeatherSM.
The mountain averages more than 250 inches of snow per year, and snow is possible every month. (As I write this at mid-day in early August, the temperature at the top of Mount Washington is 46 degrees.) The highest land wind speed ever recorded was at its peak on April 12, 1934 -- 231 miles per hour.
Even though Mount Washington isn't as high as mountains in the west, a portion of it stands above the tree line, which ranges from 4,500 to 5,000 feet above sea level. It's interesting to visit for both climate and geology.
The threat of miserable weather hasn't prevented people from wanting to take advantage of the view from the mountain top on a clear day. Hence, the Mt. Washington Carriage Road was completed in 1861.
Later to be renamed the Mt. Washington Auto Road, it's 7.6 miles long and has an average grade of 11.6 percent. The road starts at 1,527 feet above sea level and ends at 6,145 feet. Pavement covers 6.6 miles, and the other 1.0 mile is hard-packed gravel.
A number of buildings have been constructed at the top -- some held in place by log chains. These include hotels, observation decks, and a weather observation station. Subaru of America, Inc. is a partner of that station -- the Mount Washington Observatory. (For more about it, go to www.mountwashington.org. Also, read about the observatory in the cover story of Fall 2005 Drive at www.drive.subaru.com.)
There are a couple things that you might want to consider relative to the Mt. Washington Auto Road.
The first is that, at 150 years old, the Auto Road is claimed to be the oldest man-made attraction in North America. Although that surprises me, I cannot think of anything else purpose-built to be an attraction that would be so old.
The second is that it doesn't take too long and you don't have to travel that far (vertically) to reach a dangerous environment on the mountain. Unstable weather, encroaching rock structures, and severe drop-offs make driving the road an adventure, no matter what the sophistication of your transportation.
The weather at various vantage points along the Mt. Washington Auto Road proved as mercurial as this portrait of the mountain and its environs would suggest. I encountered sunshine, rain, fog (the same cloud as rain), and cooler temperatures than at the base.
I was lucky the first day. On my drive to and from the top, the weather was pleasant, as can be seen by this video that shows the initial portions of the climb. (The waterfall is Glen Ellis Falls, which is near Mount Washington to the south.)
Day four: Our vantage point was to be half-way up the mountain. As we ascended the mountain in the shuttle, we drove into a cloud. Then, part-way to our destination, we cleared that cloud to find ourselves between clouds both below and above. It remained that way most of the day.
Day five: For the last day, we took the shuttle almost to the top -- to the gravel portion of the road. Again, we were between layers of clouds. Throughout the day, portions of the lower layer rose and put us in fog and mist at times. The views were stunning all day long.
The feelings of peace brought about by being on the mountain were subtle at first. I didn't really notice. But then I didn't want to descend either of the last two days because I thought I didn't want to miss any of the ever-changing views. But it wasn't the views that called to me as much as being able to put things in my mind to rest for a while.
-- Ric Hawthorne