Armchair photo tours: A ride on The Cog to the top of Mount Washington, New Hampshire

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Photos by Cheryl Landes

In the 1860s, tourism became popular in the White Mountains of northern New Hampshire because of the rapid growth of rail travel in the Northeast. By the end of the decade, there were hundreds of hotels and inns in the region, including two on the summit of Mount Washington, the highest peak in the eastern United States. The most luxurious guest houses were known as Grand Hotels.

Today, only three Grand Hotels remain. The Mountain View Grand Resort and Spa in Whitefield and the Omni Mount Washington Resort in Bretton Woods are still in operation. The Balsams in Dixville Notch is being redeveloped.

Sylvester Marsh conceived the idea for the Mount Washington Cog Railway when he and his pastor were stranded at the summit of Mount Washington in a storm during a hike in 1857. A year later, he applied for a charter from the New Hampshire State Legislature to start the project. The legislators thought it was a crazy idea, but they approved the charter anyway with the stipulation that when Marsh reached the summit, he’d might as well keep going and build his railroad all the way to the moon.

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The Base Camp at the Mount Washington Cog Railway in Marshfield, New Hampshire

It was a challenging project, but Marsh figured out how to make the three-mile railroad successful along the steep grade, which averages 25% and reaches 38% in the highest spots. He built the route on an elevated trestle system. It’s the only railway in the world where the mainline tracks are built entirely above the ground and the steepest railroad in the world.

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A view of the steep grade from the steam-powered train on the Mount Washington Cog Railway. Eli, the brakeman, is in the lower right corner of the picture.

Marsh also invented with the cog gear and rack system for the railway. It’s similar to a sprocket and chain on a bicycle. The teeth of the gears under the locomotive engage the rack, a spooled center track fixed to the cross ties between the running rails. As the cog turns, the locomotive pulls itself forward.

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The Mount Washington Cog Railway’s track system

The original steam-powered locomotives, fueled by coal, were tilted to help them adjust to the steep climb. It takes an hour for the train to climb the three-mile track to the top of the mountain.

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The historic steam-powered locomotive on the Mount Washington Cog Railway

The Mount Washington Cog Railway opened in 1869 and has been operating ever since. If you go, bring a jacket or coat that protects against the wind. Although the temperature might be in the 80s or 90s at the Base Camp in Marshfield, it’s a completely different story on top of the mountain. That’s because to get there, the train passes through three climate zones.

Today, passengers can ride either the historic steam-powered trains or the newer, diesel-powered trains. We rode the steam-powered train.

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The diesel-powered locomotive on the Mount Washington Cog Railway

During our trip in early August, the temperature at the peak was in the low 30s, and the strong wind made the air feel even colder. The peak of Mount Washington is in a subarctic tundra climate similar to far northern Canada, and the hurricane-force winds blow an average of 110 days per year.

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A view of the White Mountains during the ascent to Mount Washington on The Cog in New Hampshire

The Cog lays over on the mountain for about an hour, which gives the crew time to turn the train around for the descent and take a break. When we left the train, the brakeman asked us to return in 45 minutes. He also reminded us to return on time, because most trips sell out, so it’s tough to get a ride on another train. Missing the train could mean a long, rugged hike down the mountain.

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Eli, the brakeman on the Mount Washington Cog Railway

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The Cog steam-powered train at the top of Mount Washington

There’s plenty to do during the layover. At the Sherman Adams Visitor Center, there’s a rooftop observation deck, a cafeteria, two gift shops, and an interactive weather exhibit called Extreme Mount Washington. Many visitors like to pick up a postcard and send it to friends or family with the special Mount Washington postmark from the summit post office.

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The entrance to the Sherman Adams Visitor Center at the summit of Mount Washington, New Hampshire

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Inside the Sherman Adams Visitor Center at the summit of Mount Washington, New Hampshire

The Tip Top House, believed to be the oldest existing mountaintop hostelry in the world, was built in 1853. It’s now a museum, showing what early mountain accommodations were like. Sylvester Marsh came up with the idea for the Cog Railway when he and his pastor sheltered here during a treacherous storm in 1857.

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The Tip Top House on the summit of Mount Washington, New Hampshire

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The registration desk at the Tip Top House on the summit of Mount Washington, New Hampshire

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A dining table for guests at the Tip Top House on the summit of Mount Washington, New Hampshire

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The kitchen in the Tip Top House on the summit of Mount Washington, New Hampshire

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A table in the kitchen at the Tip Top House on the summit of Mount Washington, New Hampshire

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A view of the dining room from the kitchen at the Tip Top House on the summit of Mount Washington, New Hampshire

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The sleeping quarters for guests at the Tip Top House on the summit of Mount Washington, New Hampshire. Everyone slept in these bunk beds.

Many visitors take selfies or ask someone to take pictures of them standing at the Mount Washington Summit sign next to the Tip Top House. Most days, the view is covered in clouds or fog, exactly like these pictures:

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Clouds at the Observation Deck on the summit of Mount Washington, New Hampshire

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A slightly clearer view at the Observation Deck on the summit of Mount Washington, New Hampshire

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The scene from another viewpoint at the Mount Washington summit in New Hampshire

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The scene from another viewpoint at the Mount Washington summit in New Hampshire

Since my occasional trips to the mountain started in 2004, I’ve seen a mostly clear view only twice: during a hike up Tuckerman Ravine on Labor Day weekend 2004 and a drive on the Mount Washington Auto Road in early October 2019.

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Eli, the brakeman, at work during the descent from the summit on the Mount Washington Cog Railway

The Mount Washington Cog Railway operates from April through November, depending on weather conditions at the summit. It’s best to buy tickets online, to guarantee a seat. Trips sell out fast.

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The Cog steam-powered train at the top of Mount Washington

After our trip, we stopped at Fabayan’s Station in Bretton Woods at the corner of Base Station and U.S. Highway 302 for a late lunch. It’s one of three original railroad stations in Bretton Woods.

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Fabyan’s Station in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire

Fabyan’s Station was renovated into a restaurant and pub. It’s open for lunch and dinner and serves salads, burgers, sandwiches, and more. I tried the barbecue pork sandwich, which was delicious.

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The barbecue pork sandwich, served with coleslaw, baked beans, and a biscuit, at Fabyan’s Station in Bretton Woods, New Hampshire

The Cog Base Camp in Marshfield is 94 miles northwest of Portland, Maine, the closest major airport to the railway; 113 miles north of Manchester, New Hampshire; and 162 miles northwest of Boston.

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