Tips for Driving the Mount Washington Auto Road

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The Mount Washington Auto Road is one of our all-time favorite adventures in New Hampshire. You can actually drive your own car to the top of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the Northeast US!

There are several ways to experience the Mount Washington summit — you can hike your way to the top, take the excellent Mount Washington Cog Railway, or take the SnowCoach in winter. But nothing compares to the freedom you get when you drive up the 6,288-foot mountain yourself.

On top of that, it’s one of the most spectacular drives in New Hampshire, along with the Kancamagus Highway. It’s a feast for the eyes as you drive through four distinct climate zones, from lush forests at the base to a barren, moon-like summit.

The Auto Road opened in 1861, making it the oldest man-made attraction in the US. Back then, people took their horse-drawn carriages up, called stages. And it’s just as popular today.

If you’ve seen hundreds of “This Car Climbed Mount Washington” bumper stickers around New England in your lifetime and you’re wondering whether it’s time to earn one of them yourself, read on!

Cars driving down a narrow road surrounded by rocks and brush leading down a mountain,

Mount Washington Auto Road FAQ

How long does it take to drive up the Mt. Washington Auto Road?

It takes most people about 30 minutes to drive the 7.6-mile road up and around 30-45 minutes to drive down, depending on traffic and how long you stop to cool your breaks and take photos.

How much does the Mount Washington Auto Road cost?

Driving up the Mount Washington Auto Road starts at $39-45 for a car and driver, with additional costs for adult and child passengers.

Can you take a tour up the Mount Washington Auto Road?

Certainly! Mount Washington offers a variety of guided tours if you don’t want to do the driving yourself.

What is the season for the Mount Washington Auto Road?

You can drive up Mount Washington from mid-May through late October. The Mount Washington Snowcoach is an option from December through March.

Can you ride your bike up the Mount Washington Auto Road?

No, unfortunately. Only cars and motorcycles are permitted. ATVs are restricted to specific days only.

A man leaning against a sports car and looking out over the mountain range.

Is the Mount Washington Auto Road safe?

We can understand feeling nervous about driving the Mount Washington Auto Road — it’s a route up the mountain with a 12-degree incline and no guardrails! But you should know that thousands of people drive the Mount Washington Auto Road safely each year.

It does require a conscientious level of driving — you may not be as agog at the scenery as your passengers — and the road is quite narrow, as it was designed for stagecoaches, not SUVs. If you have a fear of heights, you might prefer taking a guided tour instead.

But has anyone died on the Auto Road? Here’s a direct quote from them: “Over more than 150 years, there have been three fatalities on the Auto Road. In 1880, a stage overturned (in the hands of a drunk driver), and a passenger was killed. In 1984, a vehicle experienced brake failure about a mile up the road and was unable to make it down safely. And a motorcyclist suffered a fatal crash in 2009.”

Is driving the Auto Road safe for your car?

Driving up Mount Washington is safe for your car as long as you follow the tips: drive up the mountain in regular gear (D) and drive down the mountain in low gear (either 1, L, or L1). Pump the breaks repeatedly instead of pressing and holding them, which keeps them cool. Use the pull-outs to stop for a bit and cool your breaks.

(But here’s a tip from us — if you’re planning to sell your car, remove your “This Car Climbed Mount Washington” bumper sticker first.)

A small wooden toll house with a man waiting outside to let cars through.

Our Experience on the Mount Washington Auto Road

First off, we drove up Mount Washington on the best day possible — October 7, 2022. Foliage in Pinkham Notch was at its peak, just a bit brighter and deeper than a few miles south, and we got to experience the brightest, most vibrant oranges going up and down the mountain.

We set off in the morning after having breakfast at Peach’s in North Conway. While it was drizzling a bit, we were confident that the weather forecast would clear.

We arrived at the Toll House and paid for our entry with our Chase Sapphire Preferred card for the points. “Drive down in low gear. Have a great time!” the worker told us cheerfully, handing us our bumper sticker.

With no need to stop at the restrooms or gift shops at the base, it was time to drive up! The scenery changes continuously as you make the 30-minute, 7.6-mile journey up the Auto Road.

A car driving on a paved road surrounded by bright orange trees.
The beginning of the Auto Road: lush and filled with so many trees.
A road running past a few orange and green trees.
Over time, the trees become fewer and further between.
A road running past short scraggly trees that are about knee-height. More like bushes than trees.
Soon you hit treeline and the trees become short and scraggly like this.
A road running through a zone with no trees, just rocks at this elevation.
Soon there are no trees in the Alpine Zone — just brush and rocks.

Finally, we reached the summit of Mt. Washington! We parked our car and took the final staircase up.

First things first — it was time to take the quintessential photo!

A line of people standing on the rocks, waiting to take photos at the summit.
A man and a woman standing on a pile of rocks next to a sign reading "Mount Washington Summit."
NHW editor Kate and her partner Charlie at the summit of Mount Washington.

The nice thing about driving the Mount Washington Auto Road is that you have as much time as the summit as you’d like. Enough time to take pictures of views over the Presidential Range, enjoy a hot cocoa at the Sherman Adams Visitor Center, see the Tip-Top House, and check out Mount Washington Observatory.

You can enjoy spectacular views in every direction. If it’s an especially clear day, you can see all the way to Canada and the Atlantic Ocean.

(It’s also nice that you can avoid the crowds of Cog Railway passengers. The summit gets crazy-busy right after the train pulls in.)

A view of layers of mountains topped in bright orange foliage. You can see a resort in the distance illuminated in light.
We loved this shot of the Omni Mount Washington Resort lit up in the distance!
A stone building reading "Tip Top House" next to a tall electrical tower on the mountain summit.
A line of round mountains covered in orange foliage underneath a cloudy sky.
The Presidential Range, as seen from Mount Washington
Extreme Mount Washington

We also took the time to visit Extreme Mount Washington — the museum at Mount Washington Observatory. Admission is included to people who take the Auto Road or the Cog Railway. It’s a nice little museum with information about the extreme environment.

(We asked the museum staff if we could meet Nimbus the cat, who lives at the observatory 24/7. Unfortunately he was very busy taking a nap. We hope to meet him next time!)

Then it was time for the drive down. The weather got even better, and we enjoyed blue skies most of the way.

An overview with a rocky pass leading to mountains covered with yellow and orange trees.
Rock cairns serve as guides for Mount Washington hikers.

Guided Tours Up Mount Washington

Don’t want to do the driving yourself? We totally understand. Mount Washington offers several guided tour options in eight-passenger vans driven by “stage drivers.”

The standard two-hour guided tour is a popular option that gives you time to explore the summit.

If you’re into birding, you might be interested in the Bicknell’s Thrush Tours, which take you to the breeding grounds of the extremely rare Bicknell’s Thrush. These tours leave early — at 6:00 AM.

And if you’re an even earlier riser, consider the sunrise tour, with incandescent views across the Mount Washington Valley.

There is also a hiker shuttle up and down the mountain — though consider that it’s first-come, first-served. Just because you climb Mount Washington, that doesn’t guarantee you a ride down!

Gorgeous, brilliant red, orange, and yellow trees surrounding a paved road.
HOW BEAUTIFUL is this foliage??

When to See Fall Foliage on Mount Washington

Generally speaking, early October is the best time for fall foliage in the White Mountains — and that was certainly the case for us. We visited on October 7, 2022, and the foliage was at its brightest, most vibrant peak. It was an absolute treat to drive the Auto Road on a day like that!

Keep in mind that peak foliage season is the busiest and most expensive time to visit the White Mountains. We recommend booking as early as possible, especially if you have your heart set on a certain B&B.

For more foliage spotting, check out our guide to New Hampshire fall foliage and our favorite things to do in New Hampshire in the fall.

A wooden staircase leading up a Rocky Mountain face.

When is the Mount Washington Auto Road open?

The Mount Washington Auto Road is open from mid-May through late October, occasionally into early November if the conditions permit. The road is also closed whenever weather conditions and road conditions warrant. (A light rain won’t close the road, but a severe thunderstorm will.)

You can check the road status here. And for full details, see their hours and season page.

If you want to visit in the winter, the Mt. Washington Snowcoach is an option. This is a van that runs on treads instead of wheels. It doesn’t take you all the way to the top, but it does take you to the treeline at 4,200 feet.

A long paved road running through a lunar landscape.

Mount Washington Auto Road Cost

The cost of the Mount Washington Auto Road varies depending on how many people you have in your car.

The cost of a car and driver is $45 during peak season and $39 outside peak season. The cost of a motorcycle and driver is $25.

Additional adult passengers are $20 during peak season and $14 outside peak season. Child passengers age 5-12 are $9 and children under 5 are free.

Cash and all major credit cards are accepted.

Season passes are available, too! The cost is $199 for a car and $99 for a motorcycle. Season passes include access to two sunrise drives.

A car driving down a narrow paved road lined with bright orange and green trees.

Tips for Driving the Mt. Washington Auto Road

Here are some tips that we found most valuable:

Keep an eye on the weather and plan your drive for the clearest day of your trip. While Mount Washington’s weather can be unpredictable, slightly better weather can make a huge difference in your views.

Download the Auto Road app before you go. This tells you a lot of the history as you go up and down the mountain, and it’s an interesting listen.

Stay off the plants in the alpine zone. This is a very delicate zone and needs to be protected. Stick to paved areas and existing, well-marked hiking trails.

Remember to bring your ticket with you so you can visit the museum for free. We forgot to bring ours, but had taken a photo of our receipt earlier, so that got us in.

If there’s a big crowd at the summit, wait a few minutes. Many of the big crowds come from Cog Railway passengers and will disperse shortly.

Listen to the employees and take it easy on the way down. That means drive down in low gear and stop at every pull-out to cool your breaks.

Don’t bring your drone. Droning is not permitted on Mount Washington due to the delicate environment. Yes, even if you see someone breaking the rules with their drone, that doesn’t mean it’s okay.

We recommend stopping at every pull-out, both up and down the mountain. Just because you can’t be sure the weather won’t be worse on your way down. Get the good pics in while you can!

Hit up Glen Ellis Falls after the Auto Road. Glen Ellis Falls is a five-minute drive south of the Auto Road, and it’s a beautiful place to stop briefly. Keep your eyes peeled for the parking lot sign; it’s easy to miss. Tips and full details here.

A hiking path leading to mountains in the distance.

How to Get To the Mount Washington Auto Road

The Mount Washington Auto Road is on Route 16 in Pinkham Notch. It’s between the towns of Jackson and Gorham, and it’s close to Wildcat Mountain Resort.

Use “Mount Washington Auto Road” as your destination on Google Maps.

Please keep in mind that the Auto Road’s location is NOT near the Mount Washington Cog Railway, which departs from Bretton Woods, about a 45-minute drive away. MANY travelers make this mistake — don’t be one of them!

A line of red-painted shops with old-fashioned signs in downtown North Conway.
North Conway makes a great base for Mount Washington.

Where to Stay Near Mount Washington

The Mount Washington Valley is home to some of the best places to stay in the White Mountains. We recommend staying in the eastern part of the White Mountains (Pinkham Notch to North Conway) for easier access to the road. You can also get there pretty easily from Bretton Woods and Crawford Notch, though we think Lincoln and Franconia Notch is a bit too far.

North Conway is the most popular resort town in New Hampshire, with so many cool things to do, great restaurants, and some of the best B&Bs in the White Mountains. North Conway is a 35-minute drive from the entrance to the Mount Washington Auto Road.

Best Places to Stay:

A woman in a pink jacket and a man in a black jacket take a selfie holding a "This car climbed Mt. Washington" sticker while sitting in a car.
It was so worth earning the bumper sticker!

Is the Mount Washington Auto Road Worth It?

We certainly think the Mount Washington Auto Road is worth it! It’s a unique opportunity to explore the fascinating environments that make up the White Mountains. And you feel so proud after you’ve done it.

We also highly recommend the Mount Washington Cog Railway, and we think both should be done once in your life. Doing both in the same trip might be a bit overkill, especially if you have limited time, but if you’re a regular visitor to the White Mountains, be sure to try both.

We hope you have an amazing time on the Mount Washington Auto Road!

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Have you done the Mount Washington Auto Road? Any tips to share?

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