GORHAM, NH – There are a few things adventure-minded riders should experience at least once in their lifetime. Riding up the Mt. Washington Auto Road before dawn to watch the sun rise from the top of New England certainly qualifies among them.
The sunrise run is offered to the public three times each season in June, July, and August. As the weather at the summit can vary wildly, it is always a gamble planning the trip in advance as the mountain road shuts down often due to storms and/or high winds, which makes travel to the summit unsafe.
In August, however, attendees were treated to clear skies and winds below 10 mph – perfect conditions, setting the stage for an epic event.
Our group of five rode up to New Hampshire from southern New England on Saturday, enjoying an early lunch at the motorcycle friendly Parker’s Maple Barn in Mason, NH. From there we headed northeast taking in some lovely small towns and twisty tar. We stopped along the way to see Madison Boulder – the largest geological erratic in New England. It measures 85’x23’x37’ and sits alone in the forest. One could only imagine the glacial forces which planted it there.
Arriving in North Conway, NH by mid-afternoon, we checked into our respective lodging and met for dinner before heading in early for our pre-dawn excursion.
The faint beeping of my cell phone alarm announced 2:30 a.m. – time to rise and shine to meet the crew at a nearby gas station at 3:15 sharp. I quietly rolled the bike out of the lodge driveway so as to not disturb the other guests. The engine roared to life and I proceeded up North Conway’s desolate main drag. Pulling into the gas station, I was the first to arrive. Within minutes, I saw the headlights of my fellow riders approaching from the south – all on time.
We traveled the remaining 15 miles under a star-filled, moonless sky. All was quiet with only the hum of our engines audible as we headed north towards the Auto Road entrance. Upon arriving, we discovered we were far from early as at least 100 other vehicles were ahead of us. We were ushered into line and within minutes were heading towards the gate house to pay our $17 fee and receive our “This Bike Climbed Mt. Washington” sticker.
The night air was a chilly 48 degrees at the base. As we ascended the temperature steadily dropped – approaching freezing at the summit. The parade of vehicles slowly wound up the steep narrow road in the darkness with only headlights and taillights visible. It was eight miles of first and second gear as the bikes navigated several hairpins and a couple miles of gravel towards the top. The darkness helped keep my adrenaline in check as I was unable to see the precipices off the edge of the road. I focused only on the yellow line as my guide.
Upon parking the bikes at the summit lot, we climbed the frost-covered staircase leading to the observatory building where warm beverages awaited us. Visitors could relax in the cafeteria to slowly thaw as it was almost two hours before the sunrise. In addition to the observatory (closed to the public), the summit building at Mt. Washington also has a gift shop to browse in as well as a museum showcasing the instrumentation which recorded a 231-miles-per-hour wind speed – among the strongest ever on Earth.
Around 5 a.m. we headed outside to take up our spots for the main event. The eastern sky started to lighten leaving only a few stars still visible. Then, a little after 6:00 a.m., like a ball of fire cresting the mountain-filled horizon, the sun appeared – bright pink, casting a beautiful hue on the clouds above. Camera shutters clicked away as the sun came fully into view – definitely worth the price of admission.
From there we scurried over to the US Geological Survey marker denoting the pinnacle of Mt. Washington at 6,288 feet elevation – the highest point in the northeastern US. We marked the occasion with a group shot to remember our epic journey.
Upon arriving back to our bikes, I was amused to find a coating of frost over my seat and windscreen. We pointed down the Auto Road for the most stunning views of the trip as the sun cast a beautiful glow on the mountains and the morning mist began to rise from the valleys in between. Staying in low gear allowed us to drift effortlessly down the mountain and take in the majestic views. The smell of burning brakes from the vehicles ahead was strong as we continued our descent.
Rewarded with a great summit experience at Mt. Washington, we enjoyed a scenic route home. We took a gamble on the Kancamagus Highway – Route 112, a beautiful route often traffic-filled, making for a less than exciting ride. This day we were blessed with an open road for the bikes to enjoy the fast curves and elevation changes the route offers.
We hit I-93 south in Lincoln to make time followed by more nice southwesterly state routes, eventually crossing into VT to Route 5 south along the Connecticut River – another fine freshly paved moto road leading to our lunch destination – Top of the Hill Grill in Brattleboro. It’s a seasonal BBQ joint, boasting some of the best food in the area. They make a mean southwest catfish wrap as well! With full bellies we parted from there for the final stretch back to our respective homes – a weekend well spent.
If you would like to plan an Auto Road trip for the 2018 season, some things to keep in mind: Watch the weather to ensure you’ll be granted access up the mountain; bring warm clothing as the summit of Mt. Washington can be up to 30 degrees colder than North Conway; and be sure to get there early to get a front row seat for the ascent.
And, as always – enjoy the ride!