Alpine Garden on Mt. Washington

Area:  Alpine Garden
Trails:  Alpine Garden Trail, Optionally: Tuckerman Ravine Trail, Lion Head Trail, Huntington Ravine Trail, Nelson Crag Trail
Region:  NH - Central East  
White Mountain National Forest, Presidentials
Location:  Thompson and Meserves Purchase, NH
Rating:  Easy/Moderate  
Features:  Views, alpine flowers, rare plant species, alpine zone
Distance:  3.0 miles  
Elevation Gain:  700 feet (cumulative)  
Hiking Time:  Typical: 1:50  
Outing Duration:  Typical: 4:00  
Season:  Spring
Hike Date:  06/15/2008 (Sunday)  
Weather:  Excellent, clear skies, low 70ís
Author:  James Horner

Route Summary   

This report describes the Alpine Garden Trail which is filled with alpine plants, many of them rare.

The Alpine Garden can be accessed in many ways, a couple of which are summarized below. Although this hike report describes the traverse of the garden in only one direction as part of a larger loop, the statistics above are based on doing an out-and-back hike starting on the Mount Washington Auto Road since this is the easiest and most accessible route.

From the Mount Washington Auto Road:

This is a description of an out-and-back hike of 3.0 miles with an Easy/Moderate rating.

Mt. Washington summit in the background (photo by James Horner)
  • Drive up the Mount Washington Auto Road and park near the Alpine Garden Trailhead which is just above the 6-mile post.
  • Pick up the Alpine Garden Trail on the south side of the road (left-hand side when headed uphill). The Wamsutta Trail leaves from the north side of the road so be careful to avoid that. You will be walking on the Alpine Garden Trail for the entirety of this hike.
  • Hike uphill for 0.4 mile at which point you will cross Nelson Crag Trail.
  • Descend for 0.2 mile at which point you will cross Huntington Ravine Trail.
  • You are now in the Alpine Garden Research Natural Area.
  • Continue walking easily downhill on Alpine Garden Trail for 0.9 mile which will bring you to Lion Head Trail and the end of the designated Natural Area.
  • Retrace your steps to return to the Mount Washington Auto Road.

From the summit of Mount Washington:

This is a description of a loop hike starting and ending at the summit of Mount Washington and traversing the Alpine Garden. The whole loop is 2.7 miles and has a Moderate rating.

  • You can reach the summit of Mount Washington via foot, the Cog Railway, or driving up the Mount Washington Auto Road.
  • From the summit, descend on Tuckerman Ravine Trail which can be picked up from the lower parking area near the base of a wooden staircase.
  • Follow Tuckerman Ravine Trail for 0.3 mile then turn left onto Lion Head Trail.
  • Descend on Lion Head Trail for 0.5 mile, then turn left onto Alpine Garden Trail.
  • You are now in the Alpine Garden Research Natural Area.
  • Follow the Alpine Garden Trail gently uphill for 0.9 mile where the designated Natural Area ends and then turn left onto Huntington Ravine Trail.
  • Climb up the moderate slope of Huntington Ravine Trail for 0.2 mile, then turn left onto Nelson Crag Trail.
  • From here, climb moderately for 0.8 mile to return to the summit. First you will climb the rocks to Ball Crag, then cross the auto road and then cross the Cog Railway before finally reaching the summit.

Place         Split
Miles
     Total
Miles
Mount Washington Auto Road (5305') 0.0 0.0
Start of Alpine Garden Natural Area (5475') 0.6 0.6
End of Alpine Garden Natural Area (5175') 0.9 1.5
Start of Alpine Garden Natural Area (5475') 0.9 2.4
Mount Washington Auto Road (5305') 0.6 3.0

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Trail map of hike route to Alpine Garden on Mount Washington (map by Webmaster)


Trail Guide   

This hike was part of a larger trek including Lakes of the Clouds Hut and the summit of Mount Washington. This report highlights our traverse of the Alpine Garden Research Natural Area on Alpine Garden Trail. The best time of the year for this outing is early to mid-June when the alpine flowers will be in bloom; later the hiker will see foliage but no blossoms.

Starting from Lakes of the Clouds Hut, our route required an ascent, then a descent to the Alpine Garden Trail which begins at a junction with Tuckerman Ravine Trail. Heading left, we walked 1.4 miles on Alpine Garden Trail to Nelson Crag Trail, which we then ascended to the summit of Mount Washington.

Mountain avens (photo by James Horner) Alpine azalea (photo by James Horner)


Although not oblivious to the fine views on the ridge below Mount Washington, while making the traverse we focused on the tiny, rare flowers blooming along Alpine Garden Trail. These alpine flowers are often overlooked in the scrambles to summits and the unrelenting rock-hopping in the White Mountains so this relatively easy walk through the Alpine Garden provides an ideal setting to take a closer look at them.

Having read the AMC Field Guide to the New England Alpine Summits, we were well prepared for the microclimate of this alpine zone and saw the following beauties: mountain avens (Geum peckii), alpine azalea (Loiseleuria procumbens), mountain sandwort (Arenaria groenlandica), and bunchberry (Cornus canadensis).

Mountain sandwort (photo by James Horner) Bunchberry (photo by James Horner)


Here in the alpine zone ground-hugging plants defy the wind; some flowering plants growing in mats create a tiny warm zone underneath them as well.

While exploring, it's important to not walk on the plants or foliage. Note in the group photo that everyone is standing on bare rocks.

Alpine Garden (photo by James Horner)

 



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NH - Central East

  Driving Directions   

The Mount Washington Auto Road is located on Route 16 in Pinkham Notch, New Hampshire. It is 12 miles north of Jackson and 8 miles south of Gorham.

Once reaching the base of the Auto Road, drive up just past the 6-mile post and a "5,000 feet" elevation sign and park in a small parking area on the left (south side of the road). Look for the Alpine Garden Trail on the same side.

AMC naturalist Dave identifying plant species (photo by James Horner) From Boston, North and South Shores and Rhode Island:
  • Follow I-95 North to the Spaulding Turnpike in Dover, NH to Rt. 16 North.
  • Follow Rt. 16 through North Conway towards Glen, and then follow Rt. 16 North through Pinkham Notch.
  • The Mount Washington Auto Road is approximately 2 miles north of Wildcat Ski Area.

From Boston Metro-West, Nashua and Manchester, NH:
  • Follow I-93 North through Franconia Notch to Exit 35, Rt. 3 North.
  • Follow Rt. 3 through Twin Mountain, NH.
  • Then take Rt. 115 to Rt. 2 in Jefferson.
  • Follow Rt. 2 East to Rt. 16 and then follow Rt. 16 eight miles South out of Gorham to the Mount Washington Auto Road.

From Western New England, Mid-Atlantic States and Montreal:
  • Follow I-91 to Rt. 302 East to Twin Mountain, NH.
  • Take Rt. 3 North to Rt. 115 North.
  • At the end of Rt. 115, turn right to go east on Rt. 2.
  • Follow Rt. 2 to Rt. 16 South.
  • The Mount Washington Auto Road is located on Rt. 16, 8 miles south of Gorham.

Facilities   

At the base of the Mount Washington Auto Road are porta-potties. Across the street in the lodge are public restrooms.

At the summit of Mount Washington are bathrooms, a cafeteria, gift shop, and museum.

Other Notes   

The Mount Washington Auto Road requires an entrance fee and is closed during winter.

Another excellent field guide to have on hand while exploring the Alpine Garden is New England's Mountain Flowers: A High Country Heritage .

Alpine Garden (photo by James Horner)

 
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