Motorists will get to experience the Mount Washington Auto Road like never before this summer.
For the first time in its 160-year history, the popular summer attraction will be fully-paved, top-to-bottom, helping to create a smoother ride for the tens of thousands of visitors who make the journey each year to the 6,288-foot summit, the highest in all of New England.
Anybody who has ever driven the 7.6-mile Auto Road understands the nerves that certain steep or narrow sections of the drive can produce. Paving of the road, a project spearheaded to help alleviate some of that anxiety, actually started in the early-1970s and has been done piece-by-piece ever since.
Now, a half-century later, the Auto Road’s Five-Mile section has become the final section of gravel to be paved. It is the first true portion of the roadway in the subalpine (what the National Parks Service defines as “a transition zone from dense forest below to alpine tundra above treeline”). It is a section of the roadway that is not all that particularly steep, but it does cut across a section of the mountain that is relatively precipitous.
“While there is some nostalgia for the gravel section, it will certainly make it much more-friendly for cars and sports cars that have a lower clearance,” said Lisa McCoy, the Mount Washington Auto Road’s events and marketing director. “It’s also now much more appealing to motorcyclists. Many motorcyclists would never want to travel the [bumpy] gravel section.”
The lower mile-and-a-half of the Auto Road was paved just last summer, and, as you might imagine, there is real effort that comes with paving the windiest and steepest roadway in the Northeast. Pavers could only bring a half load of asphalt with them each trip up the mountain, so everything becomes more complicated. The job takes longer, is more challenging, and needs a favorable window of pleasant weather in which to work properly. At the home of some of the most unpredictable climate conditions in the world, that can be a challenge onto itself.
Even though the work is less than a year old, road repairs have already been made on the lower section where rocks underneath popped through the asphalt and made large bumps.
“This road does see lots of traffic in winter time with snowcats going up to the observatory,” McCoy said. “We’ve already got wear and tear.”
There have been some whispers that suggest top-to-bottom paving might prompt motorists to travel at a higher, more dangerous, speed. But it’s fair to say Auto Road workers won’t miss the gravel, which took a lot effort to maintain. McCoy pointed out that the Auto Road will actually save greenhouse gases from their diesel dump trucks not having to go up and water the gravel surface twice a day so it stays nice and firm. “If it rains they have to repair it,” McCoy said. “The gravel section was a huge source of resources and manpower. If it’s paved, we can focus efforts on the rest of the road.”
Despite the historic change, the Auto Road, one of the region’s most recognizable attractions, remains an iconic destination during the summer months. Things may be different than they were back in 1861 when the Auto Road opened for business, but it still delivers the same majestic view from the summit of Mount Washington that it did in the beginning.The same unpredictable weather. The same rocky vistas. The same connection to your surroundings that every visitor has felt on one trip or another.
Yet, it never fails to be different either.
“Even if you drive the auto road every day — and yes, there are some people who do, not just our employees,” McCoy said, “the most incredible thing is that it is never the same drive. Even for our staff, for the guests, even if you drive like our tour drivers and you drive it multiple times in a day. No trip is ever the same because you notice different things on the way up and, of course, the ever-changing weather. It’s something that people who come and visit us year after year, that is their biggest remark. It’s always a new experience.”
Visitors are, of course, welcome to drive the road in their own vehicle (some restrictions apply; see website for details) or they can sign up for one of several tours that whisks guests up the mountain. The two-hour guided tours include your own personal Auto Road historian (stage drivers, as the Auto Road still calls their drivers, harkening back to its beginnings), some of whom have been working there for three decades. Tour guides bring with them a tremendous amount of knowledge about the road, including how Airplane Gully got its name, or inside information about the observatory. Each has his or her own passed-down knowledge and stories from the oral tradition of the auto road.
“Because we limit the amount of people in the van to eight, you really get this intimate experience with a driver,” McCoy said. “You get to look out the window instead of driving your own car.
Tours take a half hour to reach the summit, where guests can then spend a full hour at the summit to explore the weather, the museum by the observatory, and to take pictures.
Tours are held throughout the day and reservations can be made at mt-washington.com/guided-tours/2-hour-guided-tours. Adult round-trip tours cost $51 during peak times. Children (ages 5-12) are $31. Specialty guided tours, including the popular sunrise tour, are also available.
If you’re driving your own vehicle, the cost is $45 during peak periods for the car and driver. Each additional adult in the car runs $20; $9 for children.
Reservations and complete information about this year’s schedule can be found at mt-washington.com.
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Eric Wilbur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.