If you’re looking to boldly hike where no explorer has gone before, the Tuckerman Ravine Trail isn’t for you. On the contrary, Mt. Washington is a major New Hampshire tourist destination. People flock to the summit of this massive mastiff to admire the views from the highest point in New England (elevation 6,288 feet), visit the Mount Washington Observatory, home to the “world’s worst weather,” and attend or participate in one of the mountain’s many signature events. There’s no shortage of routes to the top, either, with the Mount Washington Auto Road and the Cog Railway popular options. For those inclined to bipedal transportation, the Tuckerman Ravine Trail handily beats the Appalachian Trail and other routes in a popularity contest.
Put it all together and the Tuckerman Ravine Trail is the White Mountains’ version of hiking Disneyland. This isn’t to say you shouldn’t do it. Quite the opposite, in fact. Mt. Washington and the Tuckerman Ravine Trail offer a truly unique New England hiking experience that should be conquered by anyone remotely interested in the sport. If for nothing else than to say you’ve done it. Consider it required reading for hiking.
The trail begins behind the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center just after the bathroom facilities (running water and flush-able toilets, truly hiker chic). Soon thereafter there’s a bridge crossing the Cutler River, followed further along by a decent river viewing spot at a 90 degree bend in the trail. Just keep an eye on where you’re going as there’s plenty of off-chutes and side trails to distract those prone to getting lost. To stay on track simply follow the wide, rocky road. Ice cream not included. It’s a good thing, too, because the first 2.4 miles is a pedestrian, gradual climb that will barely burn the calories from a cone of rocky road. Overall this stretch is great for tourists with children, but it’ll get serious hikers wondering, “Where’s the beef?” Patience being a virtue I don’t have an abundance of, I found myself exiting stage right for the instant gratification of the Lion Head Trail.
Those who stick to the Tuckerman Ravine Trail will soon pass the Hermit Lake Shelters and reach the base of the ravine. There’s a modest waterfall here good for cooling off on hot days—then again, climbing the mountain works too. From the base to the top of the headwall the trail is narrow but well worn. The climb isn’t nearly as steep as one would think, the switchbacks keep it relatively easy. Trickling streams cross the trail in a few spots, creating the potential for slippery rocks, but there aren’t any truly treacherous spots so long as you stay the course. Off-trail shenanigans could be disastrous. And of course take extra care in foul weather.
One thing to really be careful of when climbing the Tuckerman Ravine headwall is to not step too close to the down-mountain side of the trail. There are many rocks that can easily be knocked loose, endangering hikers below. Though I should have known better, I stupidly made this mistake when yielding to oncoming hikers. Despite a heart-pounding moment where I watched a rock roll free, it soon settled into some debris causing no harm. Thank God. Lesson learned.
From a distance the Washington cone looks benign. Up close and in person, this final-mile stretch of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail is challenging and steep, seemingly climbing a foreign planet of alien rocks. To conquer this section continue past the Alpine Garden Trail on to the Tuckerman Junction intersecting the Southside Trail, Tuckerman Crossover and Lawn Cutoff. While the Southside Trail connecting to the Crawford Path (also the Appalachian Trail) is a viable (and I think easier) route to the summit, the official Tuckerman Ravine Trail takes a 90 degree turn to the right at the junction. The Lion Head trail soon rejoins Tuckerman for the final push to the auto road parking lot and staircase climb to the summit and visitor center. Try not to laugh at any tourists who are short of breath climbing the steps from the parking lot. It’s borderline rude.
Take care in the last push from the Lion Head junction to stay on the trail, marked by cairns and painted rocks. I somehow made the mistake of getting off-target, which in fair weather was a no-harm, no-foul mistake as the summit was a can’t miss. In foul weather this mishap is likely more troublesome. Washington isn’t home to the “world’s worst weather” for nothing, after all. Which brings me to the you’ll-think-your-mother-wrote-it segment of the post. Always consult the weather report before attempting this hike and pack plenty of water, dry-wick and warm layers, and rain gear (even on good days). In late spring and early fall make sure to first check the report on trail conditions in the Pinkham Notch Visitor Center as sections are often closed due to snow and ice.
The views from the summit of Washington are unparalleled. Mt. Madison, Mt. Adams, Mt. Jefferson and other statesman of the presidential range are all lined up as if posing for a post card. Should you get the urge to actually send one, there’s a gift shop and post office inside the visitor center. Then again, if it’s ice cream you’ve got a hankering for, you just might be able to reward yourself at the snack bar. It’ll taste much better than if you drove the auto road.
From the North take Route 2 into Gorham and connect onto Route 16. The Pinkham Notch Visitor Center is on the right shortly after the turn for the Mount Washington Auto Road and Wildcat Mountain ski area. From the South take Route 302 North from North Conway to connect onto Route 16.
View of the Tuckerman Ravine Trail climbing the headwall as seen from the Lion Head Trail.
Waterfall near the base of Tuckerman Ravine.
The Tuckerman Ravine Trail can be a little wet and slippery near the base of the headwall, but clearly nothing to worry about.
The trail is fairly easy on the ravine headwall thanks to the switchbacking.
View of Lion Head from atop the Tuckerman Ravine headwall.
Tuckerman Ravine Trail cairns on the final approach to the Mt. Washington cone. It doesn’t look like much, but this section can take its toll.
Better get an early start to see the summit like this. Otherwise, chances are you’ll be waiting in line to take a picture.
Had I known there was a Post Office in the summit visitor’s center, I would have brought my Netflix movie. Just because.
A Cog Railway train on the summit. For those who aren’t hiking, this is a fun (albeit pricey) route to the top.
The Mt. Washington Auto Road snaking its way to the top.