Nestled in the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire is New England’s highest peak, Mount Washington. Its 6,289 feet, coupled with its erratic weather and severe winds—Washington holds the highest recorded wind speed observed by a human at 231 mph—draw people from far and wide during the wintertime to hike its trails, climb its gullies, and ski its slopes.
Luckily for Burlington residents, this iconic destination is a mere two- to three-hour drive, depending on which trailhead you aim to start from.
When you think about tackling Mount Washington in the wintertime, it’s usually the eastern slope trails that come to mind— the Tuckerman Ravine Trail, Lion’s Head, or the Huntington Ravine Trail. These all await three hours from Burlington. But there’s a challenging, lesser-traveled trail on the mountain’s western slopes (two hours from Burlington) that should garner your attention as well: the Ammonoosuc Ravine Trail.
This steep 2.5-mile route is one of two trails necessary for your ascent to the peak of Mount Washington; it will bring you to the Lakes of the Clouds hut, which is closed in the wintertime so don’t expect a spot to warm-up, take shelter, or grab something to eat on your way up.
Once at Lakes of the Clouds, you can take the second trail, Crawford Path, for another 1.5 miles with an elevation gain of 1,200 feet to the summit, or you can choose to ski or snowboard down from the end of the Ammo Trail. Worth mentioning: Avalanche danger is a concern here, so be aware of where you are hiking, and if you are skiing or riding down, it is highly recommended that you carry an avalanche beacon.
To get to the trailhead, turn onto Base Road (next to Fabayan's Station Restaurant and a large billboard for the Cog Railway);follow it for about six miles to the Mount Washington Cog Railway. About a quarter mile before the railway lot on the right there's a hiker lot where you can park. The Ammo Trail begins just to the right of the base of the Mount Washington Cog Railway, a unique train that climbs the side of the mountain to its peak (it doesn’t run during the winter, so don’t get any ideas; it’s all about your own two feet for this ascent).
The first 1.25 miles are a gentle grade, and meander alongside the Ammonoosuc River through gladed forest. Many of the bridges along the trail are so covered with snow that the railings along the sides are feet below your boots, so don’t slip.
Before reaching your first rest point at Gem Pool, you will pass through a wide swath of land that was hit by an avalanche a few years back. There is still a large amount of debris in the river, and the trees along both shores as well as the trail are broken and bent over, creating a wide open space starkly different than the tree-covered trail you just emerged from. It really makes you aware of where you are and what you are doing.
If you’re a skier you can skin this first section of the trail. If you are a snowboarder, hopefully you have a split, if not, give some consideration to how you are carrying your board—weigh the challenges between carrying it sideways along a narrow path versus strapping it vertically on your pack and knocking every bit of snow off every branch above and down your neck.
Gem Pool is halfway up the trail, and a great spot to stop and take a break, grab some food, and drink some water. In the winter, you can pretty easily cross over the river as most of it is frozen, but take care to not fall in. You do not want to get wet. After refueling, you’ll need to put on your crampons; the next 1.25 miles up to Lakes of Clouds is steep and sustained. It’s too steep and narrow to skin, in fact, so skiers and snowboarders should don the crampons too.
The Ammo Trail will have you sidestepping foot over foot for most of its second half, but the scenery is beautiful, and the snow makes everything peaceful. While it’s a bit of a lung burner, it’s still quite magical. You’ll pass a frozen waterfall and cross the river above it, which can be a little tricky, but nothing you shouldn’t be able to handle. It’s not long after this crossing that you will pop out above the tree-line becoming more exposed to the weather, which can be anything from a beautiful bluebird day to crazy winds, rime ice, and low visibility. The Lakes of Clouds hut is right ahead at this point.
While you can’t go inside, the location of the hut is still a perfect spot to take a break, get out of any wind that may be whipping up, and change layers and gloves for the final push to the summit. You have a lot of different options at this point. You can continue up the Crawford Path for another 1.5 miles to the Mount Washington summit. This is a very steep, exposed hike, so you need to pay close attention to the weather, and don’t get caught in anything unexpected—there is a reason that Mt. Washington is often called “home of the worst weather in the world.” If you decide to move forward, the views along the hike on a clear day are stunning. When you reach the peak, you can take the classic shot of you and your friends huddled and smiling around the Mount Washington summit sign.
If the weather isn’t agreeable or you feel like you’ve reached your limit, don’t be afraid to turn around or shorten your hike. Instead of going the 1.5 miles to Washington’s peak, you can take the Crawford Path up about 0.3-miles to the summit of Mount Monroe. Again, the views on a clear day will not disappoint, and you will get a fantastic view of Mount Washington’s summit if the clouds don’t sock you in.
When you are ready for your descent, there are multiple options. You can hike back down the way you came up if you don't want to ski or snowboard. Or, if you are looking to ski or ride, you have a lot of options to choose from. One of the most popular is the Monroe Brook Ski Tour, an advanced to expert route. Hike up to Monroe then ski back down the path and exit via the brook. If the visibility is low, it may be hard to find your line, so take your time.
Once you find your line down, have fun. Again, these areas are prone to avalanches, so take the necessary group precautions when descending. This line will pop back onto the Ammo Trail and take you back to your car.
Having a guide or someone who knows the area on your first trip up is a good idea. The weather conditions on Mount Washington are so varied and can be quite fierce at times so you need to make sure you have options if your original plan doesn't work out.