Snowshoeing up a mountain is decidedly harder than snowshoeing down. But if you want to be rewarded with those glorious high-elevation views and an easy-going return trip back to the trailhead, you’ll have to pay your dues with some panting and sweating on the way up. Besides, it’s not like someone’s going to drive you up the mountain and drop you off with a smile and an “enjoy your hike down.”
Unless we’re talking about Mt. Washington, where you can absolutely get a ride up (not all the way to the summit – the weather’s too cagey for that) and then enjoy a leisurely snowshoe back down.
UPDATE: As of 12/17/20, SnowCoach Tours ARE open for the 2021 season, with some modifications: Guests are required to wear masks when inside the SnowCoach, they have limited the capacity the 12-passenger vans to 6 people maximum, they’ll use alcohol-based sanitizer to disinfect the vans after each trip, and windows are open when possible to maximize airflow.
I was lucky that my friend Leah invited me to join her on this adventure a few winters back. I’d long known about the SnowCoach tours, but had no idea you could ride up and snowshoe down until she mentioned it. So now I feel obliged to share the wisdom.
The ride is thanks to the Mt. Washington SnowCoach, a 12-passenger van that’s been outfitted with what are essentially tank tracks. There’s a small fleet of SnowCoaches that make the trek up and down on a daily basis throughout the winter, starting from the Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center in Gorham, New Hampshire, just across the street from the Mt. Washington Auto Road.
(Yes, we’re talking about New Hampshire, because we active Maine folk sometimes like to hop the border, amiright?)
While tours run all day, they’re mostly first come, first served, but you can book in advanced for the 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. Tours run all season.
While you wait, you can hang out at the outdoor center, get breakfast, browse the shop, and hang out by the fire.
When it’s time for your tour, your guide will help you pile into the van (while it is a 12-seater, they generally seat only 7-9 people, so you’ll have room to move…and to gawk out the windows and take photos).
It’s a loud and rumbling ride up on account of the tracks, which aren’t exactly stealth, but our guide Wink did his best to share some mountain knowledge along the way and stopped occasionally to point out the change in tree cover as we gained elevation and to point out birds and rabbit tracks in the snow and name the peaks we could see in the distance.
The ride up takes about 35 minutes, and it’s a pretty one. And when the SnowCoach reaches it’s turn-around point (about 4,200 feet up, whereas the summit is 6,288) you’ll have a chance to get out, walk around, and take in the scenery.
Guests have about 20 minutes to hang out up there (during our visit, it was exceptionally sunny and gorgeous, with low winds and great visibility. But this is Mt. Washington, so the conditions can be wide-ranging. Wear all the layers and be ready for cold and wind and clouds, even if the warm, dry van is just steps away).
Eventually, guests pile back into the SnowCoach for the 35-minute ride back down.
Or you can choose to strap on your snowshoes and enjoy a leisurely trek down, with gravity helping the whole way. (If you don’t own your own snowshoes, the Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center rents them.)
You don’t have to start at 4,200 feet – the SnowCoach guide can drop you further down along the Auto Road, but since it was such a stupendous day, Leah and I opted to start from as high up as possible.
There are dedicated snowshoe trails on Mt. Washington (we spotted a few snowshoers cutting across the Auto Road to pick up their trail during our trek), but you’re also perfectly welcome to take the Auto Road the whole way down. It’s groomed nightly, making this path a wonderfully wide and perfectly groomed snowshoe trail (and it’s pretty much impossible to get lost or take a wrong turn).
That said, there will be SnowCoaches passing now and then, so you’ll get to hang to the side of the trail and wave as they pass by (there’s a strong chance the guide will stop and say hello, too).
But on the whole, you’ll have plenty of time to take in quiet. And maybe appreciate how easy it is to snowshoe downhill.
Eventually – after about two hours, you’ll find yourself back at the Auto Road entry gate once again. The Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center is just across the street (up a slight hill, of course).
Back at the outdoor center, we changed clothes and hung out by the fire for a bit, content with our successful early-spring adventure.
And then we realized we were hungry. And thirsty. So…
Moat Mountain Smoke House and Brewing Co.
About a 20-minute drive from Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center is Moat Mountain Brewing Company, where you can get a pint of East Intervale IPA or Czech Pilsner and order a burger, nachos, or wrap. Because you still deserve to eat well, even if your adventure was all downhill.
Related: Don’t think that going downhill is a perfect breeze. My calves ached for two days after this trip. And I mean hobble-every-time-I-stood-up kind of ache.
Tours run daily throughout the winter, starting at 9 a.m. Tickets sold mostly on first come, first served basis, but you can book in advance for some 9 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. tours. Cost is $55 for adults and $30 for youth ages 5-12 years.
You can start your snowshoe from 4,200 feet, where the SnowCoach turns around, or get dropped off further down. If you don’t have your own snowshoes: Info on snowshoe rentals
Also cool: During peak season, there are Sunrise Snowcoach Tours, which costs $99 for adults and $59 for youth.
The story was first published March 2018