Top of the World
If you’re ever anywhere near New Hampshire, do yourself a favor and make the drive north to the White Mountain National Forest. There, you’ll find the Presidential Range, a 12-mile-long rocky ridge of eight sky-piercing mountains. And at the center of this natural wonder is Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England.
If you’re lucky, as I was just last week, you’ll have clear skies, calm winds, and the time to make your way up to Mount Washington’s 6,288-ft.-tall summit. There are four basic ways to the top: hiking, driving, taking a guided van tour, or riding the train. That’s right, there’s a mountain-climbing train. With a little apprehension I boarded the one o’clock train, and boy am I glad I did. It turned out to be one of the most thrilling, scary, amazing, breathtaking rides of my life.
The train is called the Cog Railway and it’s unlike any train I’ve ever seen. The track has two rails like a standard train, but there’s also a center rail that has teeth, similar to those you’d find on a gear. The train’s axle is fitted with a ratcheting cog that locks onto each tooth of the center rail as the train powers its way up the mountain. As a result, it’s impossible for the train to slide back. The design is brilliantly simple and perfectly executed. Oh yeah, did I forget to mention, the train is 140 years old!
Back around 1860, Sylvester Marsh and a friend decided to hike up Mount Washington. A fierce storm trapped the two hikers on the mountain overnight, nearly killing them both. Once safely back home, Marsh—who apparently had a lot of free time on his hands—began to think that there must be a better, safer way to the summit. In 1866 he started designing and building the now-famous Cog Railway, which officially opened for business on July 3, 1869.
There’s an informative little museum at the base of the mountain that explains in great detail all of Marsh’s trials, tribulations and eventual triumphant. The train runs from about mid-May to late-November, depending on the weather, which can be unpredictable and unforgiving. (During my first visit to the summit several years ago, which was in early-October, the mountain was blanketed in ice and the air temperature was minus 25 degrees with 45-mph winds.)
At the summit is an extensive weather observatory that’s staffed year-round with meteorologists. In fact, the highest wind speed ever recorded was on Mount Washington on April 12, 1934. The wind reached a sustained speed of 231 mph!
When the train stops at the top, you can get out and walk around—well away from the edge—to enjoy the amazing 360-degree views. On a clear day, you can see the glistening Atlantic Ocean to the east, Canada to the north, and west across Vermont’s green mountains, all the way to Mount Marcy, New York’s highest point.
So, as I said, if you’re ever in the area, visit Mount Washington and catch the Cog Railway to the summit. You won’t regret it.