It’s a beautiful day in Mount Washington State Forest, at the height of autumn, and its mountainous landscapes are decorated with rainbow-coloured leaves on trees, which attracts visitors in droves.
The state park is also bordered by quaint towns, beautiful hiking trails, charming historic inns, and this: the world’s most terrifying drive.
Well, ok, I might be exaggerating slightly, and I hadn’t the faintest notion of what I was in for until some fellow tourists warned me against driving the road on my own the evening before I was due to attempt it.
America’s first man-made attraction, Mount Washington Auto Road opened in 1861, climbing 6,288 feet to the summit.
It all starts innocently enough. Sunlight lights up the autumn leaves which create a colourful canopy over the road I have to myself.
But as the road gets higher, and seemingly narrower, and it breaks into gravel. the safety barrier of the trees slips away as the road goes above tree-line and there’s not much between you and jaw-dropping ravines and I’m mightily relieved drive is on the left hand side.
But we’re not there yet. I get the feeling that we’re in an incredibly steep place, but I cannot actually see as the car plunges into thick fog. For the first time I understand how people must feel on Bolivia’s infamous Death Road, and I thank my lucky stars there are no crappy buses carrying villagers and llamas from which I’d have to veer dangerously close to the road’s edge to give way.
After driving for about 20 minutes I reach a carpark with half a dozen other cars, so I assume it’s the summit. I can’t see the summit, of course. I throw on my lightweight ethicall- made goosedown jacket, grab my keys and jump out of the car. But nothing prepares me for what happens next.
OMFG. I’ve just stepped into a blizzard. The wind is howling, the car door nearly blown of its hinges, and I’ve never been so cold in all my life, like a slap in the face. I can’t actually see where I am supposed to be going, and half-expect a polar bear to emerge from the ice and clouds, growling and hungry. I sprint to a set up stairs I see, with gale force winds making it feel much like scaling The Game of Thrones’ Wall, and make for the closest door. Once inside, I take a moment to recover from the shocking cold which has left me breathless.
The building I’ve found is Mount Washington Observatory, which is thankfully warm, and offers things like hot drinks for sale for those who were smart enough to bring all their money.
Once I can feel my fingers, I explore the Mount Washington “Extreme Museum”, which gives you information on the history of its weather and a sterling, 360 degree view of nothing, today, from it’s womb like warmth inside. You’ll have to admire the panoramas they have on the walls of the observatory instead. I check the weather – minus seven degrees. Is that all? It feels at least minus twenty. While you’re gathering your wits, you can learn how the weather is observed and recorded here, and virtually pilot a snowcat.
Unsurprisingly, Mount Washington’s weather rivals that of Mount Everest and the polar regions. But worse. It’s actually known for being the home of the worst weather in the world. Visitors don’t just come up here for the pretty views – they come to experience this terrible weather, first hand. Why didn’t anyone warn me?
Once I head back out, this time a little more prepared for the freezing cold, I pause for the longest two seconds of my life to read the sign attached to a small building I missed on the way to the observatory. “The highest wind ever observed by man was recorded here,” it reads. It was 231 miles per hour. I am not surprised.
Typically, as I make my descent, the clouds start to break up and the above tree-line views are sensational. Three’s plenty of pull-outs on the road if you want to brave the cold and take photos; but they’re also handy for giving way to traffic coming uphill – which thankfully is not often early in the morning.
Just as I’m gaining confidence descending the steep road – which has an average grade of 12 per cent – the smell of burning rubber wafts through my hire car. Another issue of climbing a mountain so steep is that brakes tend to overheat coming back down, which forces drivers to stop every ten or so minutes. More or less a chance to take in the spectacular views of deep valleys covered in October’s fall foliage, hardly a terrible thing.
Nonetheless, I am super glad when me and my poor rental dive into forest canopy once again signalling the end of the road was nigh. I’d survived the world’s worst weather and hadn’t managed to plunge over a cliff. I return to the highway, feeling slightly elated.
Five other incredible adventures to have in New Hampshire
1. Drive the Kancamangus Highway One of the best ways to experience fall foliage in the state, the popular 35 mile scenic highway cuts through the New Hampshire Mountains with plenty of hiking opportunities and pull-offs for photos. kancamagushighway.com
2. Hike Frankenstein Trestle, Crawford Notch State Park No scary monsters, just a pleasant short hike through forest that ends on a high 1893 trestle bridge with magnificent views across the mountains. conwayscenic.com
3. Visit Littleton Nestled alongside the White Mountains, this picturesque riverside town is home to a covered bridge, a brewery, cool shops and eateries.
4. Stay in its historic inns Take in the views over lunch at the iconic, red-roofed Omni Mount Washington Resort. Adair Country Inn (adairinn.com) is a classic New England bed-and-breakfast with huge rooms, expansive grounds and old-fashioned hospitality. Most convenient alongside Mt Washington Auto Road’s entrance is the The Glen House, a brand new hotel with mod cons and friendly, helpful staff, theglenhouse.com.
5. Ziplining through fall foliage Moderately-paced, rather than heart-failure inducing drops, ziplining at Bretton Woods is a fun way of zooming over the top of fall foliage, with knowledgeable instructors and incomparable views from the treetops, Bretton Woods Adventure Center.
The writer was a guest of Discover New England