My primary reason for coming to Maine and New Hampshire this week is to help lead a summer course for middle and high school science teachers. A course like this wouldn’t be complete without at least one field trip, so today we headed north from Durham into the White Mountains.
Our first stop was in Madison, NH, the site of the appropriately named, and hugely surprising, Madison Boulder.
Even though everyone stops to read the sign posted at the beginning of the short trail that leads to the boulder, no one is really prepared for its immense size.
Without something for scale, a picture can’t do it justice.
It is really quite large! It is believed to have been carried about two miles by a glacial ice sheet as much as a mile thick.
Returning to our luxury coach we continued north. The traffic in North Conway was thick, as you might expect on a sunny summer afternoon, but once we were through the downtown area the road to Mt. Washington was clear. We arrived at the base of the auto road at about 3:30.
While it is possible to drive your own car to the top, we traveled in stages operated by the Mt. Washington Stage Line.
Stage drivers are experienced, careful, and know a lot about the mountain. They confidently provide passengers with information about Mt Washington’s geology, geography, biology and human history.
After slowing several times to take in some incredible views (the sun was shining at the base of the mountain and on the valleys and hills that surround it) we pulled off the road at an elevation of about 4000 feet.
From there, the view across the Great Gulf was pretty spectacular, as were the low-hanging clouds.
One of my favorite things about Mt. Washington is that as you drive up the auto road you pass through four different ecological zones. Each 1000 feet of altitude is roughly the equivalent of traveling 250 miles north. At 4000 feet you have entered an area called the krummholz (or “twisted tree”) zone, where trees are stunted and twisted by the force of the year-round winds.
Once you reach the top of the mountain you are in the alpine zone where the soils are so poor and the winds so strong that trees can no longer survive. If you wanted to see the alpine zone at sea level, you would need to travel as far north as Labrador, Canada.
Arriving at the end of the auto road, the first feature the stage driver points out is the following sign (the chain in the left of the picture is needed to keep the building from blowing away):
The stages then travel the last few yards to the parking lot beside the summit building, which houses a museum, a small gift shop, a snack bar, and the Mount Washington Observatory.
As you can see, the top of the mountain was “in the clouds” while we were there.
People aren’t the only mammals at the top.
After spending some time observing the geology and wildlife and touring the observatory, the group gathered for the obligatory group picture.
To make a great day even more memorable, on the way home we saw two moose from the bus.