Imagine riding a train with a top speed of nearly 5 miles per hour. That same train takes you to a place with the “world’s worst weather.” Although it may not sound enticing so far, do not walk away. The Mount Washington Cog Railway is one of the most fun adventures Julie and I have ever taken. We will share our experience and cover what you need to know about the train ride to the clouds.
Disclosure: I received gifted products from adidas that I am sharing in this post. All opinions are my own.
First of Its Kind
The Mount Washington Cog Railway is a rolling museum in the beautiful White Mountains of northern New Hampshire. Founded in 1869, “the Cog” became the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway.
Do not fret. Although the train still utilizes cog technology, neither the rails nor the trains are the originals.
The train takes you to Mount Washington’s summit, the highest elevation point in the Northeastern United States at 6,288 feet. Slowly chugging along an average grade of 25%, the train takes nearly an hour to reach the summit. Along the journey, you get a fascinating history lesson and breathtaking views of the White Mountains.
What is the Cog System?
The Mount Washington Cog Railway utilizes a system similar to a bicycle chain and sprocket, enabling trains to climb steep grades safely. Placing the rack in the center rather than on the rails generates less friction.
For any train, the show’s star is the locomotive. Biodiesel engines power most of the rides. For a more authentic experience, the railway runs two coal-fired steam engines in summer.
Do Trains Run Year-Round?
Trains run year-round, even in winter. However, there are a few essential details to cover. Mount Washington State Park at the summit closes in late fall to early spring. Accordingly, trains run but stop at lower elevations during this time.
Near the beginning and end of the cold-weather season, trains typically climb to the Skyline at around 5,300 feet. For most of the winter, trains stop at the Waumbek Station, about 4,000 feet above sea level.
Visitors can hang out in warming huts or huddle around a fire, savoring a hot beverage and roasting hot dogs and s’mores. It is an excellent bonding experience and still delivers breathtaking views.
How Long is the Train Ride?
During the warm-weather season, the entire excursion comprises about three hours. Your ride each way is nearly an hour, giving you about an hour to explore the top of the mountain and the state park facilities.
Skyline trips take 90 minutes in winter, while round-trip rides to Waumbek Station take an hour.
Booking a Train Ride
We suggest you visit the Mount Washington Cog Railway site to verify rates and availability. Although the railway is open all year, the train schedule, pricing, and types of excursions vary seasonally. Trains frequently sell out in advance, so we recommend reservations.
The great thing about a slow ride is that you have ample time to savor the breathtaking views. And the views are stunning!
While driving through the state, the White Mountains did not strike me as being so extensive. During the train ride, I gained a much deeper appreciation for the size and scope of the mountain range. Mount Washington seems to stretch into eternity.
Are the Tracks Clear?
It may surprise you to find the engine in the back of the train. Rather than pull, the engine pushes the train up the mountain.
During the climb, the brakeman lets you in on a little secret. The engineer, who is in the back, cannot see the tracks. He relies on the brakeman to be his eyes.
After sharing this news, he casually tells tales as the ride continues. It is unsettling at first. You quickly realize that you are in capable hands.
Other Ways to Conquer the Mountain
There are other ways to climb Mount Washington if the engineer’s lack of visibility concerns you. Experienced hikers can crest the summit by trekking part of the Appalachian Trail.
We witnessed a hiker slogging up the mountain against a stiff wind. Despite the train crawling at a snail’s pace, we quickly left the hiker in our dust. I can only imagine his sense of accomplishment when he finally reached the peak. However, he appeared miserable during our brief encounter.
You can also drive the Mount Washington Auto Road from mid-May through early November. The scenic drive offers stunning views within the comfort of your car.
Car vs Train
Although you do not need reservations for the 7.6-mile scenic drive, it is a toll road. During peak season, it costs $45 for the car and driver. Each additional adult passenger is $20, and kids ages 5 through 12 cost $10 each.
How does this compare to the cost of a train ride? The Mount Washington Cog Railway charges from $72 to $86 a seat for adults. Reduced fares are available for children and seniors.
The car ride costs less and provides more privacy, comfort, and control. However, you miss the opportunity to experience history by riding the rails. You can drive a car daily. Riding the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway is a unique and memorable adventure.
Marshfield Base Station
Your journey starts at the Marshfield Base Station, where you will discover a fascinating museum highlighting the railway’s history. Entrance to the museum is free.
The station, named for Sylvester Marsh, the Mount Washington Cog Railway creator, also houses an extensive gift shop and a food court. Outside, you gain excellent views of trains ascending and descending the towering mountain.
Yes, the expedition is a slow ride but a blast. The history lesson from your brakeman is fascinating. Your views are breathtaking. I can’t quite explain it, but the ride through history brings pure joy. You can feel the excitement in the car and see the awe on everyone’s faces.
The Cog’s original billing as “the railway to the moon” is an exaggeration. However, “train ride to the clouds” is accurate.
Although views are spectacular year-round, autumn provides the legendary New England colors you often hear about. It is spectacular!
Every other year, bright red mountain ash berries brighten the landscape. We were fortunate to observe the colorful berries during our October 2023 visit. Bears supposedly love the tart berries. It could be another reason to ride the rails rather than hike.
As you climb the mountain, you will cross Jacob’s Ladder, a 300-foot-long trestle with a grade of nearly 38%. It is the steepest part of your journey and the world’s second-steepest rack railway, second only to Switzerland’s Pilatus Railway.
As you continue past the tree line, lichen-covered granite boulders dominate the landscape with a few sparse alpine grasses and flowers. The rugged terrain contrasts sharply with the lush trees observed during most of the ride.
You pass through three climate zones on your way to the top of Mount Washington. Brisk air immediately greets you upon exiting the train.
Mount Washington Weather
At the journey’s beginning, your brakeman jokingly quips that you will experience the world’s worst weather. All jokes aside, the conditions at the summit can change quickly and go from one extreme to another. With all significant weather systems flowing through the area, you can experience any weather at any moment. Snow is possible in summer.
On April 12, 1934, wind speeds at Mount Washington’s peak hit 231 miles per hour, the strongest ever recorded on the Earth’s surface. The record stood for many years.
Wind gusts in Barrow Island, Australia, during Cyclone Olivia on April 10, 1996, topped 253 miles per hour. Ironically, the record was not validated until 2010, fourteen years later.
Mount Washington maintains the highest recorded wind speed unrelated to a hurricane, tornado, or cyclone.
What to Expect at the Summit
Since the weather is highly unpredictable, we suggest you bring a backpack with light layers. Prepare for cold, windy weather. You can add or shed layers as conditions change.
During our visit in October, we experienced wind at 30 to 40 miles per hour. You could literally see and feel clouds blowing around your body. It is a surreal experience. Although it was cold and gusty, I could not help but smile. Standing in the clouds was something I had only dreamed about.
Due to the chilly conditions, Julie and I wore some layers under our outer shells. We love the various options adidas offers, including track jackets and quarter zip tops. These are thin and comfortable yet provide warmth. On the adidas site, you can browse the men’s coats and women’s jackets. We love their gear and wear it often, whether at home or traveling.
Mount Washington State Park sits at the summit. The good news is you can take shelter in the park’s visitor center. You can also grab a bite to eat, explore the weather museum, purchase souvenirs from the gift shop, and enjoy the view from the observation deck.
Remember to take a picture beside the sign noting Mount Washington’s elevation. Yes, you will need to brave the winds to document the occasion. It is worth it!
A Change of Scenery
The powerful winds change your view every second. If you see a perfect shot, you must snap the picture immediately. Otherwise, it disappears in thick cloud cover in the blink of an eye. Conversely, a gorgeous blue sky can appear anytime if your view comprises only gray clouds. Keep in mind that it likely will only stay for a short time.
New England Road Trip
Julie and I experienced Mount Washington as part of a road trip. New Hampshire is a beautiful and often overlooked state that offers many things to do. We found many unique adventures while exploring Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts.
The New England region is rich in American history, natural beauty, and recreational opportunities. You will find plenty to do whether you seek relaxation or adventure. Vermont offers the beautiful Green Mountains, quaint towns, covered bridges, delicious maple syrup, and more.
Massachusetts is chock full of history, allowing you to explore Boston’s Freedom Trail and the infamous witch trials in Salem. Another of our favorite adventures was exploring the historic Cape Cod lighthouses.
Plan Your Train Ride to the Clouds
The Mount Washington Cog Railway is the best way to appreciate the beauty of the White Mountains. Riding to the highest peak in the Northeastern United States is a thrilling adventure full of history and breathtaking scenery. Seeing and feeling clouds blow around your body at the summit is an experience you will never forget.
Featured image credit: Miles with McConkey
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