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Auto roads make peaks accessible

  • A certificate that serves as a memento of the drive up the Mount Washington Auto Road.

  • The scene atop Mount Washington at sunrise. The Mount Washington Auto Road opens before dawn several times each summer, allowing visitors to witness sunrise from the highest peak in the Northeast. (Valley News -- Ernie Kohlsaat)

  • Eleanor Kohlsaat navigates the Mount Mansfield auto road. (Valley News -- Ernie Kohlsaat)



Valley News Staff Writers
Monday, August 19, 2019

Years ago, we used to plan ambitious hikes that involved 40-pound backpacks, many nights in a tent and significant climbs. One of our goals was to get above treeline, to break out from the forest and into the sun and — if we were lucky — take in a magnificent 100-mile vista.

In November 1990, for example, on the backpacking trip when we got engaged, we climbed out of the Great Gulf Wilderness and up the headwall of Mount Washington, with its 1,600-foot elevation gain in less than a mile.

Not everyone’s up for something like that, of course, and truth be told, we’re not anymore, either. But we still like our altitude fix. So these days, when we’re planning a visit to the mountains, we make sure to see if there’s an auto road that can get us to a peak.

Some might consider it cheating to drive to a summit instead of getting there under your own steam. And it’s true that there’s something pure and noble (not to mention ego-boosting) about hauling yourself and your gear up a steep, rocky trail.

But the mountains are there for everyone — young and old, able and less so — to enjoy, and to be awed by. Auto roads, many of them built or improved during the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), make it possible for anyone to enjoy some of the world’s most spectacular landscapes.

Our favorite, no surprise, is the venerable Mount Washington Auto Road. Built before the Civil War, it brought tourists in horse-drawn carriages to the 6,288-foot summit, and to the hotel and observatory that were built to serve them. Today, a museum, cafeteria, gift shop and world-famous weather observatory surround the actual peak — look for the people lined up to take a “summit selfie” — and there are lots of places to soak in the stunning 360-degree panorama.

We’ve driven up Mount Washington numerous times, including two “Sunrise Drives,” which are offered on a few special occasions during the summer. The view at the top is spectacular, of course, but it’s also thrilling on the way up and down. We often pack sandwiches and folding chairs and stop for lunch at one of the auto road’s many pullouts.

This adventure is not exactly cheap — about $40 for the two of us; other major auto roads charge similar fees — but we never grow tired of these trips, even on days when the visibility isn’t all it could be.

We’ve also made multiple vehicular ascents of Vermont’s Mount Mansfield, and recently added Whiteface in New York and Mount Greylock in Massachusetts to our list. All have great hiking or exploring opportunities once you’ve arrived at the top. Some smaller peaks also have roads leading to or near their summits. Each one offers an opportunity to enjoy the outdoors in its own way.

Ready to head for the hills? Here are a few of our favorite auto roads in New Hampshire, Vermont and farther afield. Access is always weather dependent, and the hours and operational dates will vary. It’s advisable to check first. If you hike, remember the terrain up there is fragile. Stay on the trails.

Mount Washington

6,288 feet

Route 16, Pinkham Notch, N.H.

Open May 25-Oct. 20, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Car and driver, $31; adult passenger, $9; child, $7; under 5 free. Motorcycle and operator, $17.

Mtwashingtonautoroad.com

603-466-3988

The sign at the start of the 7.6-mile Mount Washington Auto Road warns: “If you have a fear of heights, you may not appreciate this driving experience.” It’s true. The Northeast’s highest peak is a vertiginous place, and getting there is not for timid drivers (or passengers). The truly adventurous might want to try a “Sunrise Drive,” which means arriving at the base of the mountain at 3 or 4 a.m. and driving up in the dark. Witnessing dawn from the “roof of New England” is an experience with few equals. (The last Sunrise Drive this season is scheduled for Aug. 25.)

Bit of history: The first motor vehicle to climb the auto road, in 1899, was steam-powered and driven by none other than Freelan O. Stanley (he of the famous Stanley Steamer). Today, more than 45,000 vehicles a year climb the road.

Fun fact: The famous “This car climbed Mt. Washington” bumper sticker has been spotted on a motorcycle in Key West and on a Lamborghini with California plates.

Not-so-fun fact: The trip is not without risk. Three people have died on the auto road in its 150-year history. The first, in 1880, involved a drunken stage driver. The second, in 1984, was the result of brake failure, and a motorcyclist was killed in 2009. (For comparison, about 150 people have died over the years hiking the mountain.)

Mount Mansfield

4,393 feet

Route 108, Stowe, Vt.

Open June 1-Oct. 20, 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (closed Aug. 25)

Car and driver, $24; passenger, $9; under 4 free. Trailers, RVs and campers are prohibited, as are motorcycles, bicycles, mopeds and scooters.

stowe.com

802-253-3000

You can’t drive to the summit of Vermont’s highest peak, but you can get close. The mostly unpaved 4½-mile auto road climbs to a parking area at 3,850 feet. From there, if you’re appropriately motivated and equipped, you can hike about 1.3 miles — almost all of it above treeline — to the summit. Don’t let the short distance or minimal 600-foot elevation gain fool you: This is a challenging stretch of mountain along a “knife-edge” ridgeline that is completely exposed to the weather. But the views of Lake Champlain and the Adirondack Mountains to the west are marvelous. The area features about 200 acres of rare alpine tundra and was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1980.

Fun fact: Mount Mansfield has five subpeaks, known as The Forehead, Upper Lip, The Nose, Lower Lip and Adams Apple. (The summit is The Chin.) Some accounts say the mountain got its name from its resemblance to a man’s face. The more likely explanation is that the area’s original settlers hailed from Mansfield, Conn.

Mount Ascutney

3,144 feet

Route 44A, Windsor.

Open May 17-Oct. 13, 2019, 10 a.m. to sunset

Cost is $4 per adult; $2 for ages 4-13. No vehicles over 24 feet long.

vtstateparks.com/ascutney

802-674-2060

The 3.7-mile Mount Ascutney Parkway winds from the park entrance on Route 44A to a parking lot short of the summit, a climb of nearly 2,300 feet. A mile-long trail leads from there to the summit and its many viewpoints. The road (along with other park facilities) was built by the CCC between 1933 and 1938 and offers three picnic areas, one with a stone shelter and restrooms.

Fun fact: Mount Ascutney is one of the most popular hang gliding sites in New England. If conditions are right on your summit visit, you may get to see these intrepid fliers take wing.

Note: The parkway will be closed on several days in September for utility maintenance and on Sept. 21-22, for a private event. Call or visit the website for more information.

Mount Kearsarge

2,937 feet

1066 Kearsarge Mountain Road (off Route 103), Rollins State Park, Warner, N.H.

Open May 11-Oct. 20, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

www.nhstateparks.org/visit/state-parks/rollins-state-park

603-456-3808

Admission: $4 adults; $2 for children 6-11; 5 and under free. New Hampshire residents 65 and over also free.

A 3½-mile auto road ends at a parking and picnic area. A sometimes-steep half-mile-long trail leads to the summit, which has views of Sunapee, Cardigan and Ragged mountains, as well as Mount Monadnock and Mount Ascutney. On clear days, you can catch a glimpse of the White Mountains, the Green Mountains, the Atlantic Ocean and even Boston.

Fun fact: This auto road was built by permission from the New Hampshire Legislature in 1873, but by the early 1900s it had fallen into disrepair and was impassable. In the 1920s, the Troy Hill Women’s Club raised money to repair the road. The CCC established a camp in Warner in 1935 to finish rebuilding the road, as well as the trail to the summit.

Cathedral Ledge

700 feet

579 Cathedral Ledge Road, Bartlett, N.H.

Open mid-May to late October. No admission fee. No facilities at the summit.

www.nhstateparks.org/visit/state-parks/cathedral-ledge-state-park

603-356-2672

A mile-long auto road leads to the top of the ledge, a slab of rock scraped clean by glaciers that now looks out over the Saco River Valley and the White Mountains. A somewhat rickety chain-link fence keeps visitors back from the edge, so be careful if you have youngsters along. An accessible hiking trail leads to a view of the valley.

Fun fact: If you were around in 1899, and had $1,000, you could have bought Cathedral Ledge. That’s what 22 folks from the surrounding towns did (along with nearby White Horse Ledge) and then deeded the land to the state. The area was permanently protected in the 1940s and today is part of Echo Lake State Park.

Mount Equinox

3,848 feet

Route 7A, Sunderland, Vt.

Open daily 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., weather permitting

Cost: $20 car and driver; $5 per each additional passenger; under 10 free. Motorcycles $15.

www.equinoxmountain.com/skylinedrive_tollroad

802-362-1114

Construction on the 5.2-mile Skyline Drive began in 1941, was suspended during World War II and then completed in 1947. The vertical gain of 3,248 feet offers views of the Green, White, Adirondack, Berkshire and Taconic ranges.

Fun fact: The road is privately owned by the monks of the Carthusian monastery in Arlington, Vt., who built and maintain the St. Bruno Scenic Viewing Center at the summit. There is a chapel and informative displays about the history of the order and the mountain, along with restroom facilities and indoor and outdoor picnic tables.

Mount Greylock

3,491 feet

30 Rockwell Road, Lanesborough, Mass.

Open June 15-Oct. 20, daily 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Out-of-state visitors $10, Massachusetts residents $5

www.mass.gov/locations/mount-greylock-state-reservation

413-499-4262

The summit of the tallest mountain in Massachusetts offers a visitor center with food and restrooms, the rustic Bascom Lodge, built in the 1930s by the CCC, and the imposing 93-foot-tall Veterans War Memorial tower, which honors the state’s World War I veterans and recently underwent $2.6 million in repairs.

Fun fact: The tower’s beacon, under the right conditions, can be seen from Boston.

Whiteface Mountain

4,867 feet

5021 Route 86, Wilmington, N.Y.

Open daily May 24 through Oct. 14, 8:45 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Vehicle and driver, $16; passenger, $9; 6 and under free. Bicycle: $11.

www.whiteface.com/activities/whiteface-veterans-memorial-highway

518-946-2223

The 5-mile paved Veterans’ Memorial Highway rises more than 2,300 feet to a parking area just below New York’s fifth-highest peak. There, visitors will find a stone castle, a restaurant, a gift shop — and a 400-foot long tunnel that leads through the mountain to a newly renovated, glass-sided elevator to the summit. There’s also a quarter-mile stone stairway for the 300-foot ascent to the top and its 360-degree views of the Adirondacks and Lake Placid.

Fun fact: The road to the summit, which predates the famous ski area by two decades, was dedicated by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1929, when he was governor of New York. When the road opened in 1936, Roosevelt returned for the ceremony, this time as president.

Mount Philo

968 feet

5425 Mt. Philo Road, Charlotte, Vt.

Open Memorial Day weekend- Oct. 20, 8 a.m.-sunset

Admission: $4 per person. The road cannot accommodate RVs.

vtstateparks.com/philo.html

802-425-2390

The owners of the nearby Mt. Philo Inn built a carriage road to the summit in 1903. The area became Vermont’s first state park in 1924, and the indefatigable CCC built the auto road and other structures in the early 1930s. There’s a picnic area and small campground at the summit. A lodge with electricity, grills, tables, chairs and restroom is available for rent.

Fun fact: The summit, which offers great views of the Champlain Valley and Adirondacks, is an awesome spot to watch raptors, and bird lovers flock to the site during migration season.

Owl’s Head

1,958 feet

Groton State Forest

Route 232, Groton, Vt.

Day fee (for park use): $4 for adults; $2 children; under 3 free.

fpr.vermont.gov/groton-state-forest

617-642-5740

A short road (built by the CCC, of course) and a shorter hike lead to a stone lookout on the summit of Owl’s Head and fine views of the ponds and bogs of the 26,000-acre Groton State Forest. The second-largest piece of public land managed by the state of Vermont, its history is one of intense human use — railroad beds, cellar holes and even a sawdust pile from an old sawmill are still visible — and a number of devastating forest fires. Today, the forest is home to seven state parks and several state-designated natural areas and offers all kinds of recreational opportunities for its 75,000 annual visitors, including camping, hiking, biking, boating and swimming. Boulder Beach, on Lake Groton, is a gem.

Fun fact: Groton’s first sawmill was built on Ricker Pond by one of the town’s first settlers, Capt. Edmund Morse, who arrived in 1783. A sawmill was still operating at the site in the early 1960s.

If you go

Here are a few tips for your auto road adventures:

Check your vehicle: Don’t attempt a big auto road in a junker. If your brakes are sketchy and your cooling system hasn’t been looked at in a while, don’t tempt fate.

Watch your speed: Auto roads are often narrow and winding and in some cases lack guardrails, so tailgating or trying to pass are no-nos.

Save your brakes: Drive down the mountain in the lowest gear you’ve got. If your brakes start to overheat, stop and let them cool down.

Keep your eyes on the road: Have we mentioned the awesome views? Stop and enjoy them. Don’t gawk when you should be driving.

Don’t spoil the scenery: Pull off the road, park, hike or picnic only in designated areas. If you packed it in, pack it out.

As long as drivers and their passengers remain respectful of the fragile environment around them, we think auto roads can be an effective way to build and maintain public support for protecting these unique and beautiful areas for everyone.