Mount Monroe is the fourth tallest peak in New Hampshire’s Presidential range. You can hike to its summit from the valley floor – the Ammonoosuc Ravine trail is the most popular route – or you can make it an easy day hike by driving the auto road and starting from the summit of Mount Washington. This option makes a 3.8 mile hike with just 1,343 of climbing. It’s a laid back way to visit this area with minimal effort.
We hiked just about every day on our vacation, and hiking in the Adirondacks and the White Mountains usually involves tough climbs along granite-filled pathways. We wanted to do one of the mountains in the Presidential Range in New Hampshire, but our bodies were asking something easy. So, we decided to drive up to Mount Washington and hike down and over to Mount Monroe.
We got an early start to try and beat the traffic and crowds on the slow-going Mount Washington Auto Road. The drive up can be a harrowing experience. As you are skirting the edges of precipitous drops, you are praying that another car isn’t coming down the mountain (another reason to get an early start). The views are breathtaking on a clear day, but the driver may have to focus on the road more than the scenery.
We found our way to the weather observatory building and found the white blaze which signified the Appalachian Trail (here called the Crawford Path). The fog was thick on the mountain as it often is. We made our way descending on the Crawford Path, following the cairns that guided us down a path off the summit. There are people that have gotten lost and died on this mountain and I can understand why. With limited visibility a person could easily miss a cairn. Add the high winds and quick weather changes and this can truly be a dangerous place. We had enough visibility to see the next cairn ahead and once we were off the highest parts of the mountains, we had better visibility of the trail. At .2 miles, we came to a sign that showed that we had 1.4 miles to the Lakes of the Clouds hut, one of several huts maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club.
The descent was very rocky and slow-going, but we managed to make it to Lakes of the Clouds fairly quickly. The fog had us completely socked in and we couldn’t even see Mount Monroe when we arrived. Lakes of the Clouds is probably our favorite of the huts in the White Mountains. The remoteness of the hut, the serenity of the mountain-top lakes, and the views of the valley and Mount Washington make this such an amazing experience. We ate some lunch inside the hut and decided to wait a while. We eventually got some glimpses of Mount Monroe from inside the hut. The clouds started to blow off somewhat. At one point, I told Christine that I thought we should make an attempt to reach the summit. My thought was if the clouds continued to blow, we may get a glimpse of views from the summit. So, we gathered our gear and hiked up in the fog. The wind had picked up, but we were hoping this was a good thing as it would carry some fog off with it.
The hike up Mount Monroe was steep but only a short few tenths of a mile. We got to the top (the summit marker is only a small metal nub sticking up from a rock) and within minutes the clouds began to part and we got gorgeous views down below. We timed our trip perfectly and there was only two other people at the top. Our ability to see views for a while seemed to rotate in patches around the mountain as clouds continued to pass. It eventually opened up all around us and we were glad we made the break for it when we did. After taking an ample number of photos, we descended back to Lakes of the Clouds and then back up to Mount Washington. The fog got thicker again as we made our way back to the summit of Mount Washington. We posed for our ceremonious summit photo and then got back to our car to descend back down the mountain.
Many people think a hike only counts if you start from the bottom of the mountain. Call me a cheater, but I don’t care! This summer, we took the auto road to the top of Mount Washington so we could enjoy exploring the alpine zone without doing all the work. In 2013, we hiked up the Ammonoosuc Ravine and on to the summit of Washington. On that trip, we skipped summiting Mount Monroe due to time constrictions. This trip gave us a chance to make up for what we missed!
All week long, we had been checking the MWOBS higher summits forecast. Thursday, August 7 looked like it would be the best chance – with clearing skies, calm winds, and warm temperatures. We paid our toll and made our way to the top. The auto road has been open since 1861 and climbs 4,618 feet over 7.6 miles. It’s a beautiful drive with great views for much of the way – only problem… we were in the clouds! Our clear day turned out to be not-so-clear at all! Every now and then, the veil would thin enough that we could make out the hulking shapes of Clay, Adams and Madison across the gulf.
We were both a little disappointed with the clouds, but you never know how the weather is going to change on Mount Washington. We pushed forward with hopes for clearing skies.
From the summit buildings, we looked for white blazes and found our way to the marker for the Crawford Path (which is also the Appalachian Trail in this part of the state). From there, we hiked 1.5 miles to Lakes of the Clouds Hut. The trail is all rocks and is marked with a combination of cairns and blazes. The clouds were so thick it was almost like walking through white cotton candy. The oddest part was the warmth and utter windlessness of the day. I’ve never been in the Presidentials on a dead calm day. I think the lack of a breeze was a big part of the reason the clouds were able to linger on the summits for such a long time.
Even in full cloud cover, the terrain of the mountain is incredibly beautiful! It feels almost other-worldly. Eventually, the clouds cleared enough that we could make out Lakes of the Clouds Hut in the distance. There were many, many people scrambling both up and down the mountain. It’s definitely earned the nickname ‘Lakes of the Crowds’. Adam and I decided to hang out in the hut for a while and see if we could outlast the clouds -they did seem to be thinning.
As we sat at one of the long tables, we saw the side of Mount Monroe emerge from the clouds. If we were going to get a view, our time was now! We made the short half-mile climb to the top of Monroe. Although the mountain is a short, easy climb from Lakes of the Clouds, it’s still New Hampshire’s fourth tallest peak at 5,384 feet. The summit was still in the clouds when we got to the top. But as we sat on the summit, a breeze picked up and within a matter of five minutes the view had completely opened.
We could see Mount Washington with the observatory towers on top. We saw Franklin and Pierce off in the distance. We could see the cog station and the grand Mount Washington Hotel. We could even see tiny hikers walking the Appalachian Trail below the summit. It was breathtaking!
After a while, the clouds started to filter back in. I was so grateful they opened for the briefest few minutes for us to enjoy! We made our way back down to the hut, which had emptied out of the crowds from just 45 minutes earlier. I guess everyone took advantage of the same opening in the weather! We snacked on cake made by the Croo and then set out to climb back up Mt. Washington.
On the way back up the mountain, the cotton candy clouds dropped over us once again. By the time we reached the top of Washington, they had partially cleared off again. We had our photo taken at the summit marker. We spent a little time in the summit building, too. Over the summer, they completely renovated the weather observatory museum. It’s really nice and spacious, but they took away a few of our favorite exhibits – including the funny video of people trying to eat breakfast in famous Mount Washington winds.
The high summits went in and out of the clouds all day, but I still think we chose the best day of the week to visit. Other days had thunderstorms and hail. Compared to that, passing cloud cover is no problem! All in all, we ended up hiking about 4 miles with 1,350 feet of climbing. It was a fun and easy way to visit a challenging mountain.
- Distance – 3.8 miles
(Check out the stats from Map My Hike)*
- Elevation Change – 1343 feet
- Difficulty – 3. The elevation isn’t too tough, but the rockiness of the terrain adds to the difficulty.
- Trail Conditions – 2. Very rocky and many of the rocks are quite loose. You have to always watch your feet.
- Views – 5. On a clear day, they are quite spectacular.
- Waterfalls/streams – 0. Non-existent.
- Wildlife – 1. You won’t see any wildlife above treeline here other than a few birds.
- Ease to Navigate – 2.5. Marked down because you have to follow cairns and occasional blazes. This can be extremely tough in foggy or bad weather. On a clear day, this will be much easier.
- Solitude – 2. In the summer, you will always find people along the trail. Mount Washington always attracts a lot of people. You will likely also find many people in Lakes of the Clouds.
Directions to trailhead: From Gorham, NH head south on NH-16 for 7.8 miles. Take a right to get on to the Mount Washington Auto Road. Pay at the gate (in 2015 was $28 per car and $8 for each additional passenger) and follow the road to the parking lot at the top. Coordinates: 44.269644, -71.302659
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.