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The Mount Washington Cog Railway is one of New Hampshire’s most epic adventures. The Cog, as Granite Staters call it, was opened in 1868 as the world’s first mountain-climbing cog railway. Yet 150 years later, it stands alone as the only cog railway in New England, welcoming thousands of visitors per year.
There are lots of ways to conquer Mt. Washington, the highest peak in the northeastern United States at 6,288 feet above sea level. You can drive the Mount Washington Auto Road (and get one of the ubiquitous THIS CAR CLIMBED MOUNT WASHINGTON bumper stickers that you see throughout New England). If you’re a skilled and experienced hiker, you can hike your way to the summit. You can even take the Snow Coach halfway up in the winter.
But the Cog is special. It’s a unique journey that is as much of a fun retro adventure as it is an impressive engineering marvel. To this day, the Cog is the second-steepest rack railway in the world, second only to the Pitalus Railway in Switzerland.
There are two kinds of trains that make the journey these days: modern biodiesel trains and an old-fashioned steam trains. Today it’s primarily biodiesel locomotives, which have run here since 2008; the steam locomotives run twice per day and are more authentic to journeys from 150 years ago.
Just don’t expect a high speed journey. You will be ascending the mountain at a brisk 2.8 miles per hour on the way up and 4.6 miles on the way down!
Our editor Kate at New Hampshire Way recently took a journey on the Cog to share with you. What’s it really like? And is it worth it? Read on to find out.
History of the Railway
The Mount Washington Cog Railway was built by Sylvester Marsh, a New Hampshire native who became a renowned engineer, inventor, and businessman. In 1857, Marsh and a friend hiked Mount Washington, got stuck in a severe storm, and made it to the Tip Top House by the skin of their teeth. Surely there had to be a safer, more efficient way of getting up the mountain, Marsh thought. Why not a steam locomotive?
Marsh brought his idea to the New Hampshire State Legislature in 1858; the lawmakers laughed at him and called him “Crazy Marsh.” Even so, he was actually granted the charter, telling him it might as well be a charter to the moon if he wanted to continue.
Marsh and his team got to designing a railroad fit for this harsh journey. Unfortunately, the American Civil War delayed construction until 1866. But as soon as they were cleared to build, they laid the first 600 feet of track and secured an engine nicknamed Old Peppersass.
They demonstrated the first part of the journey for investors and passed with flying colors. After, they finished building to the summit. The Cog took its first paying customers in 1868, and the rest is history.
In 1975 the Mount Washington Cog Railway was named a United States National Historic Engineering Landmark.
Mount Washington Cog Railway FAQ
The most important thing to know before booking the Mount Washington Cog Railway is that it departs from Marshfield Station in Bretton Woods, close to the Omni Mount Washington Resort on the western side of the mountain. This is NOT near the Mount Washington Auto Road, which is an hour’s drive away on the eastern side of the mountain.
Do not mix up these two locations — if you go to the wrong place, you could miss your time slot.
Absolutely, the Cog is so worth it, especially if you sit on the left! It’s a truly unique trip and one of New Hampshire’s best rail journeys.
Absolutely. It’s a good idea to book your tickets in advance, as tickets frequently sell out. It’s especially important to buy tickets in advance during peak foliage, the busiest time of year in the White Mountains.
Excursions last three hours: a 45-minute climb (one hour on the steam train) followed by a bit more than an hour at the summit, then the journey down.
Usually the Cog operates in all kinds of weather, including rain and snow. Very occasionally, severe weather closes the summit entirely, and when that happens, the Cog only ascends the mountain partway to Waumbek or Skyline stations.
The train up Mount Washington costs between $72 and $86 per adult, depending on the journey and seat, with reduced fares for seniors and kids.
My Journey on the Cog
I took the Mount Washington Cog Railway for the first time in late September 2021. It was a spectacularly beautiful early fall day, and I arrived at Marshfield Station an hour before my departure, with enough time to explore the Cog Railway Museum and gift shop.
It was a mid-week day, and at 37, I appeared to be the youngest person there by about 20 years. That’s September in New Hampshire in a nutshell! Kids are just back to school, so it’s mostly seniors out traveling mid-week.
15 minutes before departure, we were shuttled on board, where I sat in a wooden seat that pitched me forward. (The seats even out to a normal position as you ascend Mount Washington.)
Throughout our journey, our guide entertained us with stories of Mount Washington, and telling us about the area we passed. Over time, we went from being surrounded by forest to more barren areas. Soon we passed the Halfway House, the mark of halfway up the mountain, at 4300 feet elevation.
Soon we passed Profile Rock, evoking the memory of the Old Man of the Mountain, and we chugged along a narrow ridge, Burt’s Ravine on the left, Ammonoosuc Ravine on the right. We were beginning the steepest part of the ascent — Jacob’s Ladder, with a 37.41% grade.
The landscape became more and more barren as we ascended, and the thick green forests turned to grassy orange-brown hills interspersed with sharp gray rocks. Part of the Cog ascends alongside the New Hampshire portion of the Appalachian Trail, and we passed many hikers who gave us a wave!
The views of the Presidential Range got better and better, Mount Clay, Mount Jefferson, Mount Adams and Mount Madison rising in the distance. And finally we were at the summit.
This train had climbed Mount Washington, and we had enjoyed every minute of the ride.
Mount Washington Summit
Once you get to the summit, don’t be surprised if it’s gray, windy, and wild. This place isn’t known for good weather! There are hurricane-force winds at the summit 110 days out of the year.
That said, it was an unusually clear day during my visit, and we had extraordinary views over the Presidential Range. We could almost see to the Atlantic Ocean. The perfect place to spend about an hour before the train takes you down again.
When you arrive at Mount Washington’s summit, the first building you see is the Tip Top House. Back in the day when Sylvester Marsh spent time at the summit, he overnighted in the Tip Top House, then a hotel. Today it’s a small museum.
Also at the summit is the Sherman Adams Visitors Center, home to the Extreme Mount Washington observation deck, an interactive experience with excellent views. Admission here is an extra $2; the rest of the visitors’ center is free. There’s also a cafeteria, some gift shops, and a USPS post office. You can send a postcard direct from the top of Mount Washington.
And keep an eye out for Nimbus, the cat who lives at Mount Washington Observatory! He’s gray and fluffy, just like the clouds after which he was named. (Marty the Mount Washington cat was the previous inhabitant, who proudly patrolled the mountain until his passing in 2019.)
But the top of Mount Washington is all about the views — which are weather-dependent, of course. On my first visit to Mount Washington as a kid, we couldn’t see a thing! (Still had a blast!) But on this day, there was beautifully clear weather and the only solidly cloudy place was the actual summit with the sign.
Keep in mind that you and your fellow Cog-travelers will not be the only people at the summit — there will also be those who drove the Mount Washington Auto Road, and the intrepid hikers who conquered the highest peak in the Northeast. You might even see a few dogs!
Know that there will likely be a line for pictures at the summit. Everybody needs a photo with that sign! Don’t leave it for the last minute, or you could miss your train.
Speaking of the last train — make sure you don’t miss your train! Your guides on the Cog will tell you when to be back, and believe me, you don’t want to be late. You only have a ticket for the specific journey you booked, and they are often sold out, especially during summer and foliage season.
If you can’t get on the last train of the day, you’ll have to find another way down. Perhaps by begging a person for a ride, because you do not want to casually hike Mount Washington.
We hopped back on our train and had a lovely journey down, our guide telling us even more stories about Mount Washington, the White Mountains, and the occasional not-so-smart hiker who navigates by phone and gets lost halfway up the mountain.
What to Wear When You Visit Mount Washington
Mount Washington is famously home to “the worst weather in the world.” No matter what time of year you come up here, it will be significantly colder than the temperature on the ground, and it’s often quite gnarly.
Even if you’re visiting in the summer, layers are the name of the game. We recommend wearing a light sweater or thermal layer and bringing a light waterproof jacket, gloves, and a hat. The use of umbrellas is discouraged due to the wind speeds at the summit; this is where a rain jacket with a hood can come in handy.
No matter what time of year it is, wear comfortable closed-toed shoes like hiking shoes or sneakers. This is not the place for sandals or flip-flops, even in August.
Taking the Mount Washington Cog Railway in Winter
Yes, the cog runs in all four seasons! Isn’t that great? However, the summit is closed from mid-October through early May, and when the summit is closed, the Cog runs to Waumbek Station instead.
It may not be the summit, but it’s still a fun adventure. Waumbek Station is at 4000 feet, and here you get off the train to stretch your legs and enjoy a fire pit, warming huts, and tasty refreshments. Round trips to Waumbek last one hour.
Occasionally in October and early spring, trains can go as high as Skyline Station, with an elevation of 5500 feet. While you can’t get off the train here, you can step onto the viewing platform to enjoy excellent views of the Presidential Range. On the way back, you stop at Waumbek for refreshments. Round trips to Skyline last 90 minutes.
More on NH in the Winter:
Can you hike up Mount Washington and take the train down?
A lot of people want to hike Mount Washington but take the train down — but this isn’t for everyone. For starters, Mount Washington is not a mountain to climb casually. This should only be attempted by experienced hikers who pack and dress wisely, start early, know not to rely on their phone signal, and know how to navigate wild, ever-changing weather conditions.
Additionally, there aren’t always tickets available to ride down when you get to the summit. You should always be prepared to hike your way down.
If you choose to hike Mount Washington — or anywhere in the Granite State — New Hampshire Way recommends getting the Hike Safe card from New Hampshire Fish and Game. In the event that you need to be rescued (sadly common on Mount Washington), this card will pay for the cost of your rescue. New Hampshire is a state that charges people for their rescue.
Mount Washington Cog Railway Cost
Tickets for the Mount Washington Cog Railway cost between $72 and $86 depending on the seating. Seniors get a small discount and those same seats are between $68 and $82. The cost for children age 4-12 is between $49 and $63. Children under 4 ride on laps for free.
You can double-check ticket prices and book tickets through their website.
Is the Mount Washington Cog Railway Worth It?
We at New Hampshire Way definitely think that the Mount Washington Cog Railway is worth it! It’s one of the world’s great rail adventures, and a truly unique thing to do in the state of New Hampshire (if not all of New England). The people who work for the Cog make it a great experience for all travelers with lots of friendly storytelling.
It is one of the more expensive activities that you can do here in the White Mountains, especially when compared to other rail journeys like the Conway Scenic Railroad. Even so, if you’re going to splurge on a particular activity here, the Cog is a great choice.
We do have some tips to make your trip a better one. If you’re able to, get a seat on the left side of the train as you ascend the mountain. This will give you excellent views of the Presidential Range and the Appalachian Trail, where you might spot some hikers mugging for the camera. If you can’t get a seat on the left, that’s okay; you’ll still have a great time.
If you’re visiting during the summer or fall, you’ll want to book ahead as soon as possible. This is the kind of activity that tends to book out quickly during busy times. Peak weekends include Columbus Day weekend, Labor Day weekend, Fourth of July weekend and Memorial Day weekend.
And finally, make sure you dress appropriately for the summit, which will be colder and windier than where you started. This can make a big difference in actually enjoying your time at the summit!
We hope you’re ready for the Cog. Go enjoy this epic New Hampshire adventure!
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- Tips for Driving the Mount Washington Auto Road
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Have you done the Mt. Washington Cog Railway? Any tips to share?