The northern Presidentials and the Great Gulf are in view from Gulfside Trail on Mt. Washington. Tiny Spaulding Lake is far below.  Photo by Carey Kish

The weather forecast for the Labor Day weekend in the Presidential Range of New Hampshire’s White Mountains was near perfect, with mostly clear skies and temperatures in the 50s. This hiker hadn’t been on Mt. Washington since passing through on the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Katahdin in 2015, so I figured it was time to visit the “Rock Pile” again.

There are myriad ways to scale the 6,288-foot mass of Mt. Washington, from the routes up the steep-walled cirques of Tuckerman Ravine, Ammonoosuc Ravine, Huntington Ravine, the Great Gulf and Oakes Gulf, to the many excellent ridgeline routes, from Boott Spur, Lion Head and Nelson Crag to the Crawford Path and Gulfside Trail.

At 6,288 feet, Mt. Washington is truly the rooftop of New England.  Photo by Carey Kish

Over the years, I’ve climbed most every route on Mt. Washington in all kinds of weather – summer and winter – at least once and a handful multiple times. Some of the trails I don’t care to repeat. And there are a number of treks on the big mountain that I’m eternally grateful just to have escaped with my life. If you’ve ever experienced the awful weather Washington can throw at you on any given day of the year, well, you know exactly what I mean.

So, it was Labor Day weekend, yes, but I wasn’t much interested in the laborious task of scrambling 4,000 feet up Mt. Washington to be able enjoy the incredible terrain and great views the forecast promised. Instead, I concocted a high-elevation hiking route that would start around 5,000 feet on the Mt. Washington Auto Road, circumnavigate the summit cone, and include some time on top as well. It would be more of a picnic than an epic, all-above-treeline in the Alpine zone, and that suited me just fine.

Opened in 1861 and billed as “America’s oldest man-made (tourist) attraction,” the nearly 7-mile drive up the Mt. Washington Auto Road (open through Oct. 25) to the trailhead was exhilarating. First in line when the toll house opened, I had the road to myself and could really enjoy the trip to the parking area at the old cow pasture.

A short stint on the Huntington Ravine Trail brought me to the glorious Alpine Garden Trail, which led along the precipitous rim of Huntington’s and then Tuckerman’s, and yielded beautiful vistas ranging from Maine to Wildcat to Washington’s summit.

From Tuckerman Junction, my route crossed the awesome expanse of the Bigelow Lawn. I peeked into the Dry River Wilderness and reveled in the view of Mt. Monroe and the southern Presidentials on the descent to the AMC hut at Lakes of the Clouds. I’d expected the place to be locked up tight, but the restrooms were open and a crew member was serving cheese quesadillas out a side window. I relaxed in the warm sun near the hut’s front door, along with a small socially distanced gathering of other hikers.

A hiker strolls over the Westside Trail in full view of the northern Presidentials – Jefferson, Adams and Madison. Photo by Carey Kish

Mt. Washington’s summit beckoned, but I had more exploring to do before reaching the peak. The historic Crawford Path (also the route of the Appalachian Trail), is the oldest continuously used and maintained trail in the northeastern United States. Meandering up the Crawford, I then veered off on the Westside Trail, a remarkable contouring sidewalk of rock slabs that eventually joined the Gulfside Trail.

The panorama of the northern Presidential peaks of Jefferson, Adams and Madison along both trails was astounding, and ambling along the Gulfside, so was the view of tiny Spaulding Lake deep in the Great Gulf Wilderness. The circus showman, P.T. Barnum, once called the view from Mt. Washington the “second greatest show on Earth,” and I always figured he must have been referring to this particular grand scene.

As expected, the summit was crowded with hikers and Cog Railway and Auto Road trippers, but nonetheless, I enjoyed a fine hour on the rooftop of New England wandering about. With an advance reservation (mandatory), I was able to get into the Sherman Adams Summit Building for lunch, a delicious bowl of chili with a heckuva view.

Giving a huge, happy wave to the colorful Cog Railway trains as I descended the Nelson Crag Trail, I picked up a small lump of coal near the tracks and tucked it into my pocket as a souvenir. Wandering the last pleasant stretch back down to the car, I couldn’t have been more content with this fine day’s hike in such an extraordinary setting.

Carey Kish of Mt. Desert Island is the author of AMC’s Best Day Hikes Along the Maine Coast and editor of the AMC Maine Mountain Guide. Follow Carey’s adventures on Facebook @ Carey Kish.

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