Hiking Mount Washington!

Here in the Northeast we only have a small number of snow-free months. So we try to take advantage of them! Fortunately, we’re near the beautiful White Mountains. One of those is Mount Washington, situated in its very own Mount Washington State Park. The mountain is in northern New Hampshire, and it’s the tallest in the eastern half of the U.S. – although it’s only 6,300 ft! Not much compared to the Rockies out west. But, it’s known for its nightmarish weather, so that’s something! Really – the world’s strongest winds were measured at the top. And the windchill drops below -100F in the winter. Ouch!

But in the summer, it’s beautiful. Hiking Mount Washington is a perfect weekend trip from New York or Boston – and even better in the fall, maybe late September or early October, when the leaves are changing. The only downside: you need a car to get there. We are really city-dwellers at heart and shudder at the thought of owning a car, so a rental it was. TIP: if you live in NYC, rentals are EXPENSIVE! But if you take the Metro North train up to Stamford or even New Haven, they are much, much cheaper. Like 1/2 or even 1/3 the cost.

While there are hotels up in the White Mountains, you’d be missing out on the best part – camping! We generally aren’t big campers, but even we can’t help but love camping in the mountains.

Where to camp near Mount Washington?

There are loads of campsites to choose from. We stayed at the Sugarloaf sites, which are part of the White Mountains National Forest and only 20 minutes away from Mt. Washington. You can book these for $20-$30/night here on recreation.gov – but if you’re going on a summer weekend, book in advance! The campsites sell out.

These are pretty basic campgrounds with just a spot for a tent, a firepit, water, and bathrooms. Which is all we need – especially when they’re just down the road from a few restaurants and shops in case you get tired of cooking on your own fire (read: dropping your tasty dinner INTO the fire!).

Our cozy tent in the White Mountains!
Our cozy tent!

We have only recently gotten into camping, and so have been trying to find the right set of gear to bring along. Right now we are traveling with these, which work great.

  • Handy camping LED light bulbs: these things are ridiculously useful. We hung them from tree branches when we were cooking. Too easy, and they’ll help you avoid the embarrassing discovery that even when camping you need your phone because you CAN’T SEE without its flashlight. Doesn’t make one feel very intrepid.
  • Basic sleeping mats: actually surprisingly comfortable. And waaay less annoying than bringing an airbed! I thought these things were only for doing yoga but turns out you can sleep on them too, which seems a much better option to me.
  • Cheap but cozy sleeping bags: surprisingly comfy when you put them on top of the sleeping mats above. And you can zip two of them together to make one giant sleeping bag!

Obviously if you’re planning on camping in the winter in the Northeast, you’re going to need some strong winter gear. But for fall, these things worked great for us.

Note: Make sure to wear insect repellent when tromping around the woods! Lyme disease is a a thing up in this part of the world, and besides the nasty ticks there are a surprising number of vicious mosquitoes.

Taking the Jewell Trail up Mt. Washington

You can either hike up the eastern or the western sides of Mount Washington, and the hikes vary greatly in difficulty. If you’re like us, and just looking for a pleasant and not too difficult day hike, the Jewell Trail on the western side is definitely the way to go. It’s basically just a walk in the woods, about 5 miles each way, at an incline. You don’t need any special hiking skills or equipment, which is good because we don’t have any!

NOTE: if you just want to get to the top of the mountain without climbing, you’re in luck! You can take the Cog Railway, a historic train that takes you to the summit in a couple of hours. Or, if you hike to the top and find yourself dreading the return, you can take the train one way back down to the visitor’s center. You can also drive up the Mount Washington auto road, although do note that this begins on the eastern side of the mountain, about an hour’s drive from the Cog Railway.

The trail is a little hidden. The best way to get to it is to drive to the Cog Railway and park in the hiker’s parking lot there (remember to pay! You have to drop an envelope with cash into a dropbox in the parking lot). From there, walk to the visitor’s center and look for the train tracks to the left of the building. You’ll see a sign across the tracks for the Jewell Trail. Cross the tracks at the sign, and the first thing you’ll come to is a small stream, which has a couple of places you can cross it on rocks or wooden planks. After that, the trail is easy to follow!

sign at the start of the jewell trail
Sign to the start of the Jewell Trail behind the Cog Train tracks

It took us about two hours to get to the tree line at around 4,600 ft, but it was a quite pleasant walk in the woods. It’s a steady incline (the trail starts at around 2,000 ft, so it’s a climb) but it’s not too steep. When we went, we’d pass other hikers every 10 minutes or so – not crowded, but not empty either.

Most of the hike is in fairly dense forest – so you don’t have much of a view. But eventually you get to the tree line, where at first the trees become shorter and then disappear altogether. It happens quite suddenly, and once above the tree line, you have an amazing view of across the White Mountains.

Above the tree line on Mt. Washington
Made it above the trees!

While it was about 75 degrees at the start of the trail, it was in the 40s once we got to the tree line! So remember to bring a coat, even if it’s warm when you start. We stopped at the cloud base, which was just above the tree line – from then on it would have just been cold, clammy, and windy inside the clouds. Seems like that’s pretty typical on Mt Washington, but if you’re lucky and get a clear day, it’s maybe another hour of hiking to the summit (and the Mount Washington observatory) from the tree line. But even if you don’t get all the way to the top, the views are pretty nice!

The hike back down took maybe 1.5 hours. We got back to the visitor’s center just in time to go get a tasty pizza at Catalano’s, a 20 minute drive from the trail! On the way back to our campsite we bought some wood for a cozy fire and settled in for the night. All around a great trip, and if you’re looking for some hiking and camping in the Northeast, we’d highly recommend it!

Fire at our campsite
Our warm and cozy fire

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