After a good warm-up hike on Wildcat the day before, we decided that the second day of our White Mountains trip should be spent in the Presidential Range, trying to summit one of the crown jewels of the White Mountains. After carefully studying the maps, and taking into account a lacking form and possible fatigue, I decided we should go ahead and climb Mount Washington and Mount Monroe. While it seemed like it might be a struggle coming off of a tough day before and a recent back injury, I couldn’t help but notice that the trail from Ammonoosuc Ravine seemed rather forgiving, at least based on the contour map. My guess was that it wouldn’t actually be an overwhelming ascent despite Washington’s massive elevation. Plus, I thought it would be a pretty nice cap to the weekend trip to stand on top of the highest peak in the Northeast!
We left the hotel we were staying at in North Conway at about 7 AM in order to get an early start to the day. We managed to find a decent spot to have breakfast on the way to the Base Road where our trailhead was. The road up to the Ammonoosuc Trailhead is also the road that leads to the Cog railway that can bring you up to the summit of Mount Washington the easy way. We had the intention of earning the summit the hard way though, and parked at the parking area about 2/3 of the way up the road. From there we would have about a 3 mile ascent to the col between Monroe and Washington where the Lake of the Clouds Hut is located. From there it should be a simple ¼ mile up to Monroe one way and a relatively gentle mile and a half up to the summit of the famed Mount Washington the other way.
We got to the parking lot a little before 9 and luckily found that there were a decent amount of spots left. If we had been going to the Garden Parking Lot or even the ADK Loj parking lot on a day like that we could assume there may not be any parking spots left, but in the White Mountains there’s actually a decent amount of access points to the mountains, which makes parking just a little bit easier. After gathering our gear we set off on the trail at about 9 AM on quest for Mount Monroe which would be roughly 3.5 miles uphill from there.
The first mile of the trail actually paralleled the road to the base of the Cog Railway, which allowed us a great opportunity to warm-up before the hard climbing could start. As we got further down the trail we could actually hear the sound of the railcar taking off, bringing pedestrians up to the summit for a somewhat hefty fee. I understand a lot of people simply can’t get up a tough climb like Washington for many different reasons, but from an economical standpoint, I much prefer to climb the mountain than pay to be brought up (but, to each their own). After about a mile, we hit a junction, where the trail lead off to the parking lot at the railway base and we took a right hand turn there to start our steep 2 mile ascent to the hut at the base of Monroe.
Once we turned onto the real ascent, we realized quickly that we would be paralleling the Ammonoosuc Ravine pretty closely as we continued uphill. The trail really began to remind me a lot of the ascent along the Opalescent River as you head towards the col between Mount Redfield and Cliff Mountain. Both trails have very similar features and are simultaneously easy to follow and easy on the feet. Despite us needing to ascend a considerable amount of elevation, it didn’t really seem like we were doing too much work because the gradient was rather consistent early on. About half way up we ran into a group of people who were emerging from a side trail, and they mentioned there were some pretty cool waterfalls down the path. We had just stopped at a waterfall pool about two tenths of a mile back, but since the climb was starting to wind-up and get fairly steep, I thought it would be a nice idea to stop and check out the view, while catching my breath a little bit too.
The waterfall section was very picturesque, definitely some of the best we’d seen in the White Mountains thus far, but I was mostly just happy for the excuse to stop for a second. Once you hit the first waterfall the climbing becomes a little bit steeper and more relentless. At no point does the climb get unbearable, but the last mile there is a bit tough, and we could definitely see the results as we passed and leap-frogged a bunch of different groups on the open part of the steep section towards the top. As the trail opened up at elevation we began to see some cool views to the north and west, including the railway going up to the summit. At that point the trail up to the ridge basically transitioned out of the woods and onto steep flat rock slabs.
The rocky section was relatively easy to follow, as we meandered around few small trickles of water going down the mountain, and we were able to make good progress on the last little kick. After Chris and I spent a good 15 minutes trying to figure what ripple in the background could be our mountain, the 3 of us finally reached the plateau at the base of Monroe, where we finally could see not only the hut and the Lake of the Clouds, but also the two mountains we would be summiting.
The scenery at the hut was amazing, as we could get a close-up view of just how massive Mount Washington really is, and also get to take in a large alpine zone with some unique characteristics. The plateau is over 5,000 feet in elevation and features a pair of ponds, and with the view of the mountains behind it, I can safely say it’s one of the most-interesting spots in all of the Northeast 115. We stopped at the hut to re-group for a moment and quickly headed up to the summit of Monroe, which we could see pretty clearly just to our south. The Appalachian trail section just past the summit trail towards Monroe was closed for repairs, and the signs warned that there could be a pretty hefty fine or jail time for anyone who trespassed on the trail maintenance zone. Luckily, we had no intention of ever taking that trail around anyway, and instead took a right and trudged up a quarter mile of rocks and boulders until we finally reached the rocky summit of Mount Monroe!
Monroe was exactly the kind of picturesque mountain-top summit that we’ve become used to in our hiking travels. The summit was completely rocky, thanks to its high elevation, and provided 360 views of the lower part of the Presidential Range and the valleys below. It’s a relatively quick side-hike if you’re planning on summiting Washington, and since it offers some views (and some serenity) that you don’t quite get on Washington, I’d highly recommend taking a second to climb up to Mount Monroe. The 3 of us took a few minutes to enjoy the summit and the cooler weather up top, and quickly retraced our steps to start up to our final destination of the day; Washington.
We got back to the hut in very short order, with Washington in our sights. It would only be about a mile and a half up to the summit, and we could see the entire ascent from where we were standing as the trail zig-zagged up the rocky mountain. We first started navigating around the two small lakes on the plateau, one of which had a scientific research area at its shore.
The weather up in this altitude has been billed as wild, and I’ve seen countless videos online of people struggling in severe weather on Washington, but that wasn’t anything we were able to verify on that day. The weather was perfectly calm as we made our way up to the top of Washington, much to our surprise. We climbed steadily without too many problems, stopping only a few times to chat with other people who were coming up and down the tough parts. For a large climb, the Washington ascent was actually quite steady, without any scrambles or technical spots, and the only real concern going up was navigating some loose rock on the trails. As we got closer to the top, we started seeing all the other trails coming from other directions intersect the Appalachian Trail section we were on, and soon after we saw the sign for the trail leading up to the weather tower on the summit, marking our final destination. Besides having to watch our footing for loose rock, we made it up to the top with relative ease, finally reaching our summit just before 2 PM.
The summit of Washington was a much different experience that any of had seen in the High Peaks thus far. We’d run into crowds on summits before, but this was the first time we’d climbed into a major tourist attraction. There’s an entire summit center up top, equipped with restrooms, a gift shop, a cafeteria, and even a post office! In the back of my mind, I knew there would be amenities at the top of the mountain because of the highway and railway up to the top, but seeing it with my own eyes and seeing the crowd of well over 100 people on top was mind-blowing! There were so many buildings up top that it was nearly impossible to get an uninterrupted 360 view on top of the mountain, which was a bit of a shame. However, if you manage your way around the large summit area, you get amazing views from every direction, especially if you climb it on a great weather day like we did. The cool thing about the summit attraction was we were able to use a restroom and get a fresh lunch on the summit, something that’s not available to us on any of the other 114 peaks we’ll visit. We enjoyed a quick lunch at one of the few spots on the summit not mobbed by tourists, and then tried to find as many scenic spots as possible. Once we got all the pictures we wanted, we decided to flee the crowds and head back down the summit, where we would hopefully have a quick 4.5 mile descent to the car to end our weekend trip.
The trip down Washington was really quick and uneventful, thanks to the steadiness of the trail. We were able to get down to the hut in no time, stopping there for a few minutes to check the place out before heading down the steep parts of the ascent around the base of Monroe. Even though getting up to edge of Monroe was a slight struggle, the smooth rock on the trail made for a really quick descent, and it wasn’t very long until we were back under tree line and back at the cascading waterfalls that signaled the end of the tough part. It wasn’t until we got down past the first waterfall pool that we were able to get a feel for how hot it had actually gotten outside. Despite the fact that we’d spent a good 3 hours in the sunlight, the high elevation counteracted the heat very nicely, and made it feel very pleasant for the majority of our day. But, the last hour or so of our hike out was at a low enough elevation for us to really get a good feel for the heat of the day. But overall it wasn’t too uncomfortable, and once we could hear the river to our right, we knew it wasn’t too much further, as we continued on steadily on its banks until we got to our last turn-off. As it tends to seem when we’re hiking, it felt like we had to go a lot further to get to that turn-off than we had remembered, but that’s probably attributable to the fatigue of two peaks and over 3,500 feet of elevation gain! That signboard was a very welcome sign after a long day in the sun, and we made it quickly over the flat last mile back to the parking lot. Overall, despite the crowds on Washington, it was a very enjoyable day in the White Mountains, and an absolutely perfect weather day to summit what’s considered one of the most extreme weather climates in not only the northeast but the world! I wouldn’t recommend the climb to casual hikers since it is a lot of work, but anybody who loves hiking, and loves the challenge of high peaks climbing should make their way to New Hampshire and summit these two majestic mountains!
Views: Monroe – 10, Washington – 10 (if you can ignore all of the buildings, the views are sensational)
Difficulty: Monroe – 7, Washington – 8 (would be a 10 in bad weather conditions though)