Trip to the summit of Mt. Washington, New Hampshire — 2015-06-04

On June 4, 2015, the last day of the Native Orchid Conference symposium in Gorham, New Hampshire, Walter Ezell and I had 3 or 4 hours to kill before the final scheduled field trip at Tin Mountain, so we decided to take the auto road up to the summit of Mt. Washington. We would be passing right by the exit to the auto road anyway, so it was a no-brainer. The weather was splendid — clear day and moderate temperature with just a few passing clouds. Interesting that the “scheduled” field trip to Mt. Washington (we didn’t take it) was at the beginning of the symposium. On that day, the temperature in Gorham was in the low 40s F (about 5 degrees C) and pouring rain. The word was that the temperature on the summit of Mt. Washington was 28 degrees F (about -2 degrees C) with the possibility of sleet or snow. I decided that it just was not in the cards for me to take that trip in those conditions. But, all turned out well by putting it off for a couple of days.

Rather than give you the low-down on Mt. Washington in this blog, I’ll point you to the official link which has all of the pertinent information about this local landmark — Official Mt. Washington web site. Another interesting website gives the current weather conditions at the top — Current weather conditions on top of Mt. Washington.

Sign at the summit of Mt. Washington
Sign at the summit of Mt. Washington

We began the trip by checking in at the information booth at the base of the mountain. Even though the Mountain is owned by the state of New Hampshire, and is now part of Mt. Washington State Park, the road is private, and there is a $36 charge to use it to go to the summit, unless you want to take one of the many hiking trails to the top — NOT! Maybe 30 years ago, but not today. For that price, you get a nifty CD explaining what to see on the way up (we did not have a CD player in our rental vehicle). We also got a bumper sticker that reads, “This car climbed Mt. Washington”, but we decided it was not advisable to put it on the bumper of our rental vehicle. After paying the fee, we began the climb of about 7 miles (11 km). We began in an environment of mixed hardwoods and quickly entered a spruce forest. This type of woodland has always been a favorite of mine, because it is so different than the longleaf pine woodland area where I was raised. It reminded me a lot of what we see along the summit of the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina.

After a few miles, we entered another region dominated by spruce, but these are severely dwarfed by wind and cold. This area is called, “krummholz”. It comes from the German words, krumm, meaning “crooked, bent, twisted” and holz, meaning “wood”. The trees are only about 3 feet (1 meter) tall at this altitude, but the area is impenetrable. I did not take a picture at this point (I really wish I had done so), but here is a link to an image that should give you an idea about what I am describing. This area defines the tree line on Mt. Washington. Everything past this point is considered alpine.

Just above this krummholz area is what is known as the Alpine Garden section of the mountain. This is where all of the wonderful alpine flora can be found. Without a professional guide, we managed to find and identify several species of these low-growing flowering plants. They are growing in grassy sections between the boulders and rocks. Several of the species are growing directly on the rocks, making me wonder just how they manage to survive the brutal winters up there. Here is a view of the surrounding country side from a pull off just as we entered the Alpine Gardens section of the mountain:

Alpine Garden section of Mt. Washington

You can see how the terrain in the foreground is composed of rocks, boulders, and low-growing vegetation. It is in this vegetation, between the rocks, that the alpine wildflowers can be found. We parked the car at a gravel pull out, and walked back down the road a bit to check out some color we saw while driving up. Here is what I found:

Arctic Willow

Arctic Willow

This is Salix arctica or Arctic Willow. This beautiful dark red stalks are what remains of the flowers that bloomed earlier this Spring. As you can see, Arctic Willow can be found climbing around boulders and rocks on the slope. Nearby, were numerous clumps of one of the most common wildflowers on Mt. Washington — Diapensia lapponica or Lapland Pincushion Plant. It gets its common name from the rounded mounds that it forms between the rocks. This species can be found from this area almost to the top of the summit:

Lapland Pincushion Plant

Lapland Pincushion Plant

Since it is ubiquitous in the Alpine Garden section, it is common to find other wildflowers growing beside it. The next image shows it growing with the tiny pink flowers of Loiseluria procumbens or Alpine Azalea. I was amazed to find out that this was an azalea! :

Alpine Azalea

Here is a closer shot of the Alpine Azalea:

Alpine Azalea

Alpine Azalea

Perhaps the showiest of the wildflowers we found on the mountain are Rhododendron lapponicum or Lapland Rosebay. We saw numerous stunted shrubs of this wildflower growing less that 12 inches (30 cm) tall.

Lapland Rosebay

Lapland Rosebay Lapland Rosebay

While I was photographing the Lapland Rosebay, Walter was photographing me:

Walter photographing a blogger

Before getting back into the car, I wanted to photograph the scene to the east of Mt. Washington — Wildcat Mountain Ski slope. It really looks out-of-place in the spring and summer with no snow:

Wildcat Mountain Ski slope

It is now time to head up to the summit. So we completed the very curvy trip skirting the dangerous drop-offs when opposing traffic came around the corner. Finally, we made to the parking lot which was almost crammed to capacity with cars, truck, and tour vans. We climbed the wooden stairs to the level where they had built a gift shop and snack bar. From this point, I could see the summit sign, so I decided to try to take a picture of it. For the next 15 minutes, this is what I typically saw:

Typical sight at the top of the mountain

There was a very long line of people waiting to have their picture taken at the sign. Finally, there was a temporary lull in activity. That is when I captured the image that appears at the top of this blog entry. Whew! I thought I’d never get a picture of the sign without an accompanying tourist or two!

One of the iconic structures at the top of the mountain is the observatory tower. This structure appears in many of the images of Mt. Washington when it is in the throes of a harsh winter, with snow and howling winds. The record for the strongest constant wind ever recorded on the face of the earth (other than inside of a tornado) was measure on top of Mt. Washington — 231 miles-per-hour or 372 kph — on April 12, 1934! Today, it was just a light breeze at about 20 mph or 32 kph.

Observatory tower on top of Mt. Washington

Here are some other images we took while on the top of the mountain. This first one is the view looking north from the observation deck. There are still a couple of small patches of snow left in the lowest portions of the slope:

View to the north from the observation deck at the top of Mt. Washington

Above the clouds looking to the south at Wildcat Mountain Ski slope:

Looking south at Wildcat Mountain Ski slope from top of Mt. Washington

We caught a brief lunch in the snack bar area and then headed back toward the car for the trip back down the mountain. Just outside of the snack bar area, we saw a cage that was set up next to the rocks on the side of the mountain. We looked toward where the open end of the cage was pointed and saw a large, grizzly looking animal with sharp spines on its back. It was a Porcupine! I can only guess that the park staff wanted to catch it and move it down the mountain out of the way of ogling tourists. The light was terrible, and the critter was wedged behind the boulders, but here is a shot where you can see at least a few of the spines in the lower opening in the rocks:

Porcupine behind the rocks

We were fortunate that our last field trip day took us past the auto road to Mt. Washington, because we otherwise would not have taken the time to make the trip. That would have been an unfortunate lapse in judgement. So, dear readers, not all of my leisure activity is made up of orchid expeditions. However, if you consider that after we left Mt. Washington, we were headed for another orchid photography adventure, I guess I am wrong!

Stay tuned for the rest of the Native Orchid Conference field trip coverage in my next blog entry…



  • John Fowler

    Thanks for the trip report. I’ve read about Mt. Washington but have never been there. I think there’s a bicycle race up that road.

    June 06, 2015
  • Sylvain

    Great photos, you have eyes.

    June 07, 2015
  • KT

    You had some great weather for scenery shots. It’s interesting to note that the summit elevation at Mt. Mitchell NC is 6684 ft and snow has been recorded there every month of the year too. Those alpine ecosystems have some unique and interesting flora.

    June 07, 2015
  • Alan Cressler

    It is amazing that the east can have such a low elevation tree line. Love your photos and account of Mount Washington. I think it is a wonderful place.

    June 10, 2015
  • Jim, if you are not familiar with the book “Following Atticus” by Tom Ryan, you might want to read it. Seeing your pictures took me back to the book. He usually hiked to the top with his dog in the dead of winter. Your dialogue was skillfully done. Thanks

    June 23, 2015

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