- Is the Mount Washington Cog Railway Worth It? (2023) - September 6, 2023
If you’ve found yourself here, chances are you’re intrigued by the idea of riding the Mount Washington Cog Railway in New Hampshire.
This isn’t just any train ride; it’s a journey on one of the world’s oldest mountain-climbing cog railways, scaling the steep slopes of Mount Washington in New Hampshire! With an average grade of over 25% and a maximum of 37.41%, it’s a feat of engineering that promises an adventure unlike any other.
But let’s be real—adventures like this come with questions. How do you go about getting tickets? What should you wear for a mountain that’s notorious for its rapidly changing weather? And perhaps the most pressing question of all: Is the experience worth the investment?
I can offer some firsthand insights. In August 2021, my family, a friend, and I took this iconic ride to coincide with watching the Climb to the Clouds car race from the summit. The event starts at the base of the Mt. Washington Auto Road and culminates at the 6,288-foot summit.
And if the train ride up wasn’t exhilarating enough, we chose to hike back down which took us about 4 hours. It was challenging and I was quite sore the next day, but it was absolutely worth it—the views were nothing short of breathtaking.
So, whether you’re an adrenaline junkie, a history enthusiast, or someone who just wants to take in the epic vistas of the White Mountains in New England, you’re in the right place.
Mount Washington Cog Railway: What You Need to Know
The Mount Washington Cog Railway isn’t just a train ride; it’s a journey through time and nature. Established in 1869, it’s one of the world’s oldest mountain-climbing cog railways.
The train uses a cogwheel design that allows it to climb steep grades, making it a marvel of 19th-century engineering that’s still jaw-dropping to witness and experience today.
The Mount Washington Cog Railway was the brainchild of Sylvester Marsh, who faced skepticism when he first proposed the idea. Legislators laughed at him when he applied for a state charter with his wind-up model, but Marsh persevered.
His determination paid off when the railway was completed in 1869. On July 3 of that year, “Old Peppersass,” the first locomotive, ascended to the summit with Marsh onboard. This inaugural ride silenced skeptics and set the stage for a new era in mountain tourism.
The Cog was one of the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railways, sharing the spotlight with other projects like Switzerland’s Vitznau-Rigi Railway. Nonetheless, the railway’s success remains a significant milestone in the history of mountain tourism and engineering.
Over the years, the trains have evolved, transitioning from coal-fired steam engines to biodiesel. Today, the railway continues to be a testament to human ingenuity and an enduring legacy in mountain tourism.
How to Get Tickets
Tickets can be purchased online or at the Marshfield Base Station, (603) 278-5404. During peak season, it’s advisable to book online well in advance as the rides often sell out.
Not only is Marshfield Base Station the spot to secure your tickets, but it’s also where your adventure begins—the trains depart from here. It is advised to arrive 45 minutes prior to departure time!
The station is conveniently situated off of Route 302 near the Omni Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods, on the mountain’s western side. Be cautious if using GPS, as it can sometimes lead you to the eastern side of the mountain, causing you to miss your train!
Pro Tip: While you’re soaking in the grandeur of Mount Washington, be mindful of the time. Missing the train down could lead to an unplanned hike down (I do not recommend attempting this at all if unprepared) if there is no room on the next train ride. This gets into dangerous territory, so set an alarm!
Cost of Cog Railway Tickets
The fare for a ride on the Mount Washington Cog Railway ranges from $72 to $89, depending on where you choose to sit.
If you’re a senior, you can snag a seat for a slightly reduced rate, between $68 and $82. Young adventurers aged 4-12 can hop on board for a price ranging from $49 to $63. And the littlest explorers under 4 can enjoy the journey on a lap at no cost.
What to Wear
The weather at the top of Mount Washington is famously unpredictable and extreme. It’s often referred to as having “the world’s worst weather,” with temperatures that can dip well below freezing even in summer, and wind speeds that have been recorded at over 200 miles per hour!
The summit can also experience rapid changes in conditions, including sudden fog, snow, and thunderstorms, making it a challenging but exhilarating destination.
All this being said, layers are absolutely your best friend. A waterproof and windproof jacket is a must. I recommend a puffy packable down jacket for ultimate comfort!
It can be very windy at the summit so be sure anything you wear or hold will not get blown away. As for loose-fitting baseball caps, scarves, and sun umbrellas, I wouldn’t bring them!
Sturdy hiking boots are needed if you plan to explore the summit at length. Don’t forget a warm hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses; the glare from the sun can be intense at higher elevations.
The Cog Railway Scenery
As the Cog Railway begins its ascent from Marshfield Base Station, passengers are immediately greeted with views of the surrounding White Mountains.
Our guide was incredibly entertaining and shared wonderful stories and the history of the area throughout the ride. I dare say his personality was one of my favorite highlights of the entire journey.
The train chugs past lush forests and crosses Jacob’s Ladder, a trestle bridge that’s also the steepest point of the track with a 37.41% grade. This is a heart-stopping moment where you truly appreciate the engineering genius that is the Cog Railway!
As the train makes its way up, keep an eye out for Profile Rock, a rock formation that, from just the right angle, appears to take on the shape of a human face. As you climb higher, you’ll pass Waumbek Water Tank, a crucial stop for the steam engines to refill water. It’s a nostalgic nod to the railway’s history and a great photo opportunity.
The landscape starts to change dramatically as you approach the treeline, giving way to the alpine scrub and exposed rocks that characterize the higher elevations. Once you’re above the treeline, vistas open up to reveal the Presidential Range and the Great Gulf Wilderness.
On a clear day, you can even see as far as Vermont and the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, as you approach the summit, you’ll see the Sherman Adams Visitor Center and the Tip-Top House, an original summit building from 1853 that now serves as a museum.
Exploring Mount Washington Summit
Reaching the summit of Mount Washington via the Cog Railway is like stepping into another world. The landscape is rugged and there are panoramic views that stretch as far as the eye can see—when the weather cooperates, that is.
It’s not uncommon for the summit to be shrouded in fog, which can dramatically diminish visibility and add an air of mystery to the surroundings. But even when the weather is less than ideal, there’s plenty to do at the summit.
The Sherman Adams Visitor Center is a hub of activity, housing a cafeteria, gift shops, and even a post office where you can send a postcard stamped with the summit’s unique postmark.
For those interested in the natural world, the Tip-Top House, an original summit building from 1853, now serves as a museum showcasing the mountain’s history and ecology.
Don’t forget to keep an eye out for Nimbus, the feline mascot of the Mount Washington Observatory! This charming cat serves as both a cuddly companion to the observatory staff and a furry ambassador who’s become a social media sensation.
If you’re up for a bit of exploration, there are several short trails leading around the views at the summit that offer different perspectives of the mountain’s unique geology and flora.
Just remember, the weather can change rapidly, so it’s essential to be prepared for anything from intense sun to sudden snowfall as you walk.
Hiking Down Mount Washington After Riding the Cog Railway
If you’re up for an extra layer of adventure, consider hiking down Mount Washington after reaching the summit via the Cog Railway. It’s important to note, however, that this can be a difficult and strenuous activity!
Some, like my family, choose this option to experience both the railway and the amazing views and trails. We hiked down the Jewel Trail 4.5 miles, which took us about 3.5 hours with a stop for trailside coffee and our lunch.
I don’t recommend hiking up and taking the train down due to unpredictable timing and potentially not being able to secure a ticket down from the summit. Hiking up Mount Washington is a big deal. If curious you can check out a guide by The Appalachian Club about hiking in the White Mountains.
It’s crucial to be in good physical shape for the challenging descent that will take about 4 hours with breaks. The trails are steep but some feature a series of switchbacks, making the hikes somewhat more manageable on the knees.
And let’s not forget about Mount Washington’s notoriously unpredictable weather. Be prepared for anything from sunshine to fog to a brief snow flurry—all potentially on the same day!
Packing the right sustenance is key to enjoying this challenging hike. Quality day hike food can make all the difference in your energy levels and overall experience. For a nutritious and easy-to-pack option, consider a dehydrated hummus wrap. It’s a tasty, energy-boosting meal that’s perfect for a hike like this one.
FAQS: Mount Washington Cog Railway
Here are some commonly asked questions about the Cog Railway and some helpful answers.
Does the Cog Railway go to the summit of Mt Washington?
Yes, the Mount Washington Cog Railway takes passengers all the way to the summit of Mount Washington, which stands at an elevation of 6,288 feet. The railway provides a unique and convenient way to reach the summit, where you can enjoy panoramic views, and explore the Sherman Adams Visitor Center.
How long does the Cog Railway take?
The Mount Washington Cog Railway journey typically takes about 3 hours round trip. This includes approximately 45 min-1 hour to ascend to the summit, around 30-45 minutes to explore the summit area and another 45 min-1 hour for the descent. The duration can vary slightly depending on factors like weather conditions and operational considerations.
Which side of the Mount Washington Cog Railway should you sit on?
The choice of seating on the Mount Washington Cog Railway can depend on personal preferences. Both sides offer scenic views, but the left side of the train generally provides a better view of the valley and distant peaks on the way up. Conversely, the right side offers closer views of the mountain’s rugged terrain. To get the best of both worlds, consider switching sides for the descent.
Which seats are best on the Cog Railway?
The “best” seats on the Mount Washington Cog Railway can be subjective and depend on what you’re looking to experience. If you’re keen on photography, window seats are ideal for unobstructed views. For families or groups, sitting together in the middle can make for a more communal experience. There really isn’t a bad seat; each offers a unique perspective on the journey.
Does the Cog Railway run in the winter?
The Cog Railway doesn’t completely shut down in winter. Although summit operations cease after the Mount Washington State Park facilities close in mid-October, the railway continues to offer rides. Weather permitting, trains may ascend as high as Skyline through late October and early spring. In winter, the primary destination is Waumbek Station, providing a unique Cog Railway experience.
Bottom Line: Is the Mount Washington Cogway Worth It?
The Mount Washington Cog Railway offers a cool unique blend of history, engineering marvels, and natural beauty that’s hard to match. I highly recommend it!
The experience itself is unparalleled—from the thrill of ascending one of the steepest railway tracks in the world to the breathtaking (if sometimes foggy) views at the summit.
Add to that the various activities available at the top, and you’ve got an adventure that caters to a wide range of interests.
So, is it worth it? For a one-of-a-kind journey that you’ll remember for years to come, the answer is a resounding yes.
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