The summit of Mount Washington in the winter is not a place for the faint of heart.
The mountain is famous for its unpredictable weather. Wind speeds alone varied from 10 to 138 mph within the past week, and temperatures have ranged from a high of 11 degrees to an arctic chill of -35. It’s a lonely, isolated place, where only the hardy Mount Washington Observatory scientists dare to tread.
But that all changes in the summer, as visitors from all over hike, drive, bike and run their way to the top to enjoy the mountain’s far-reaching views. Add those who take the most direct path up as passengers of the Cog Railway, and the scene at the top can feel more congested than breathtaking.
Last summer, Mount Washington State Park saw a three-year high of 374,324 visitors, up more than 40,000 from 2015.
But even in the cold of winter, an old debate is as hot as ever. How many tourists can the state’s iconic mountain handle before it drives away those very same people it aims to attract?
Stakeholders in the mountain agree the boom is great for the region’s tourism industry, which has been in a state of recovery since the 2008 recession – both the Cog Railway and Mount Washington Auto Road reported record-breaking seasons last year. But the recent announcements of plans from the Cog Railway and the Auto Road to build hotels on and around the mountain have been met with both concern and enthusiasm.
Capacity problems emerged as a critical issue in 2010, when the Mount Washington Commission developed a new master plan for the mountain’s summit. The plan states the committee recognized that the mountain stands “unrivaled” as the iconic symbol of the state and “should be promoted as such.” However, it also states the mountain was “incapable of accommodating more visitors, and that on peak use days, fails to adequately accommodate the visitors it has.” View from the trail
Although the Cog Railway’s plan is still preliminary – a formal proposal has yet to be released – it has generated resistance from various nature groups, including the Appalachian Mountain Club, the Conservation Law Foundation, Keep the Whites Wild and others. The 35-room hotel would be located a mile below the summit on a strip of land the railway owns referred to as the “Skyline,” and would be accessible by train. Opposition to the hotel boils down to concerns that it will negatively impact the mountain’s fragile alpine zone, will spoil the mountain’s scenic and cultural value and will over-commercialize the mountain.
The Auto Road’s Glen House Hotel, which is expected to be built at the base of the mountain’s west flank where four previous hotels have stood, has seen little opposition. That’s because it’s all about location and precedent, said Chris Magness, co-founder of Keep the Whites Wild, a collection of conservation groups, and guide with the International Mountain Climbing School in North Conway.
“The Auto Road is more of a textbook scenario about how to build in an environment like this,” he said. “It’s at a lower elevation, it’s the same area as the recent structures, and the area abutting it is the parking lot.”
The Cog Railway’s plan isn’t the first development Magness has stood against. He created a petition against the building of an AMC hut in Crawford Notch, a plan that was withdrawn in December after mostly negative feedback from the public.
To Magness, there’s no question that the mountain is crowded and that the Cog and the Auto Road contribute to the problem. And while he’d like to say limiting access to the mountain would fix the crowding issue, Magness acknowledged that both methods of access bring economic activity to the North Country. He also noted there have been previous buildings on the mountain’s summit, although not in the area where the Cog is proposing to build.
But that doesn’t mean building should continue. “To develop on the mountain without knowing what it can handle is short-sighted,” he said. “It’s a unique situation, because there are not many resources as accessible as Mount Washington.”
He later added: “I spend about 30 days a year in Crawford Notch; I just want it to be preserved for future generations, so they can have the same experience I did.” View from the rail
Cog Railway owner Wayne Presby is well aware of the argument that his hotel would tip the mountain into over-commercialized territory. But he doesn’t buy it.
“I can’t think of a more commercialized place,” Presby said. “It’s not pristine anymore.”
Presby said the antennas and buildings at the top of the mountain, not to mention the road and train tracks, have existed for some time and disrupt the clean image of the mountain. He also noted the Observatory offers overnight stays as part of its Summit Adventures program.
Really, Presby said he’s just giving people what they want. There has always been a desire to stay on the mountain, he said, and pointed to the success of AMC’s Lake of the Clouds Hut, which he said is “booked all summer long.” But that hut, he said, does not provide the kind of high-end hotel services he said people are looking for on the mountain. Amenities, he said, have all but disappeared from the region.
“You look around Mount Washington, and there used to be thousands of high-quality hotel rooms,” he said. “You look at the Mountain View Grand and the Mount Washington Hotel, and there used to be 20 to 30 hotels of that caliber in the Jefferson area.”
And having better resources is critical, Presby said, because tourism has replaced the paper mills as the economic engine of the North Country. He said the Cog, which has upgraded its trains in recent years to be faster, smoother and more efficient – again, he said to meet customer demands – and had its fifth record-breaking season last year, with 110,000 riders. He declined to give previous years’ figures, but minutes from the Mount Washington Commission’s (WMC) July 7, 2015 meeting shows Presby reported 91,300 riders in 2014. Presby has served on the commission since at least 2008, minutes show.
Presby also said he’s meeting an increasing demand from visitors to the mountain who want to enjoy its qualities without hiking. This can range from those who aren’t in shape to make the trip, which is usually several hours long, to those who are elderly or disabled.
“The mountain is there for those people to enjoy it, too. Not everybody agrees with that,” he said. “There are places in the mountains where you can go to enjoy the wilderness, and Mount Washington isn’t one of them.” View from the road
For Auto Road general manager Howie Wemyss, the best way to experience the top of a mountain is not being surrounded by other people. But nowadays, you have to get to the mountain pretty early or pretty late to get that experience.
Yet that doesn’t seem to deter the thousands of people who use the Auto Road to access the mountain’s summit. Wemyss said people will wait for longer than half an hour before even making it through the toll booth at the base of the road. The Auto Road is also seeing an increase in visits, with last summer’s numbers exceeding 162,000 – the attendance record last set in 1978. Wemyss declined to give an exact number, but said the average number of visitors the road sees in a summer season is between 140,000 and 150,000.
The popularity of the summit doesn’t seem to drive people away, Wemyss said.
“The perception is that they must have made the right decision to come here, because look at all the people coming here, look how busy it is,” he said.
Still, Wemyss worries the long wait times to get to the summit and to use the summit’s facilities aren’t giving people the experience they should have when they come to the mountain. He’s cognizant, too, that the Auto Road contributes to the amount of people on the summit.
But that doesn’t mean Wemyss thinks his project and the Cog are one and the same. In fact, he said he thinks there is no comparison. He noted his hotel would stand in the place of previous Glen House hotels, which all burned to the ground. He also said the hotel would primarily benefit the Great Glen Trail recreation area adjacent to the Auto Road. The road is also self-regulating in terms of how many people get to the top because of the parking constraints, Wemyss said.
If the hotel has any impact on the mountain, it would be to spread out what time people choose to visit the summit, Wemyss said, hopefully relieving the congestion the road sees between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. during peak season.
Wemyss said the capacity of Mount Washington has been an ongoing concern within the WMC, but specific action to relieve the problem has not been taken.
“We need to carve out real time for these issues,” he said. “Time is dragging on.” View from the state
Jeffrey Rose, commissioner for the Department of Resources and Economic Development, called New Hampshire’s natural resources the “key drivers” to the success of the tourism industry.
“When we do consumer perception surveys, people mention the mountains, the lakes, the outdoors as key discriminators to creating memories,” he said. “They’re a key part of our travel promotion success – if you look at tourism campaigns, they focus around the state parks.”
Rose said it can be difficult to balance the different types of experiences people are looking for when they go outdoors.
“We want people to be satisfied in what they’re seeking,” he said. “When you’re looking to go horseback riding on a trail, it can be challenging to have the experience you want when there’s a mountain biker on the same trail. Or if you’re looking to experience a remote hike and there’s an ATV on the same trail, that can be difficult. We want to have that good quality experience for all stakeholder groups and have that variety of recreational experiences.”
It’s a balancing act Gorham town manager Robin Frost has become used to dealing with. The town has seen a surge in tourism since it opened its roads to off-highway recreational vehicles in 2012. Nestled at the base of Mount Washington, the town is poised to service both hikers and ATV riders, who can ride their machines through town all the way up to Berlin through roads and trails.
It’s particularly convenient for those looking to partake in the ATV festivals the area is home to, such as the Jericho ATV Festival in Berlin’s Jericho Mountain State Park. Not to mention both towns have direct access to Ride the Wilds trailheads, a network that spans over 1,000 miles of North Country woods. When the riding season is good, Frost said Gorham’s population of 2,800 increases by the thousands.
Gorham has not shied from its rising status as a tourist town, Frost said. “The business owners are very pleased, she said. A Google search shows at least two stores dedicated to selling and renting ATVs, as well as multiple touring agencies and inns, most of which are arrayed along Main Street.
But not everyone is okay with increasing-four wheel traffic. Frost said tension between residents and tourists are rising because of the increased noise and pollution resulting from the influx of ATV users. It’s become enough of an issue that a committee has been created to come up with a solution.
Frost said she hopes the townspeople and recreation enthusiasts can work together to coexist peacefully, as she said the tourism industry is here to stay. Like Presby, she’s seen the North Country’s economy suffer as the paper mills declined during her seven-year tenure in Gorham. But unlike Presby, she said she’s personally wary of further developing Mount Washington. She said she’s in favor of the Auto Road’s project, which she said would provide a halfway point between people looking to visit the mountain – and hopefully Gorham – and North Conway.
“I think anything to boost tourism is a good thing,” she said. “Except if it affects our resources.”
(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, email@example.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)