This disclaimer on the sign sitting next to the road leading up to Mt. Washington isn’t going to dissuade me from attempting to become “King of the Mountain.” But being from the West Coast, I wondered what the hubbub was about riding up a 6288-foot peak. In my home state of Oregon, that’s a hill. But since arriving in New Hampshire for the 87th annual Laconia Motorcycle Week, I’ve passed by umpteen cars with a “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington” bumper sticker on it and like a good scout I’m eager to earn my own mountaineer merit badge.
Riding north on NH-16 through the White Mountain National Forest, the peak isn’t imposing from a distance. From the stories I heard from locals, I expected the image of a Matterhorn or the craggy crest of a K2 to thrust up before me. But there it sat, a rounded summit in the middle of a series of ridges called the Presidential Range, Mt. Jefferson to one side and Mt. Monroe on the other.
It’s a cloudless summer day and temperatures at the base hover in the mid-80s as I bank the Dirico Speedster 90-degrees at the turn-off to Mt. Washington. But I’ve been forewarned. The summit can be a tempestuous entity. It can be
a warm sunny day at the base and almost freezing cold at the peak, even in June. Winds can whip the mountain with merciless fury. Fortunately I’m not making an attempt to scale the peak on April 12, 1934, when surface winds of 231 mph were recorded there. I’m layered in riding gear, snug in my black leather jacket, but word to the wise – bring extra layers if you plan on attempting the ride up.
A little research reveals that despite its dangerous reputation, only three fatalities have been reported on the Auto Road in almost 150 years in existence. This includes one motorcyclist who suffered a fatal crash just last year. In 1984, another vehicle suffered brake failure about a mile up the road. The final incident happened way back in 1880 when a stage overturned and a passenger was killed. Before there were cars, visitors to the Auto Road traveled in horse drawn stages and the shuttle vans currently used to ferry the leery up the mountain are still referred to as “stages.” Three casualties in almost 150 years isn’t much, but I have no intention of becoming the fourth.
Rumbling up to the small shanty toll house with its white picket fence, I pay the $14 motorcyclist fee as the gate keeper runs down the rules of the road – single file, no passing, the speed limit is 20 mph. She tells me it’s an eight-mile ride from the base to the summit and hands me a small white bumper sticker printed with the words “This Bike Climbed Mt. Washington.” I’m thinking they should hand these out to riders on the way out, but I’ll earn mine nonetheless.
Wind is a constant at the top of Mt. Washington. Here I do my best impersonation of Leonardo DiCaprio’s “Titanic” scene while waiting for a 231-mph gust to send me flying.
The entrance to the mountain is inauspicious enough. The two-way road looks to be standard width. The grade ascends immediately but isn’t intimidating as it runs through a verdant, rain-forest like canopy of lush green. Trees shade the road as you cut through broad-leafed maples and piney evergreens. There’s still a sense of security as the road is enclosed on both sides. But as you climb, the forest thins and the trees exposed to the extremes of wind and snow get smaller until they disappear altogether. Then the security of the forest is lost as the road begins to wind around the edges of the mountain.
It is one continuous climb. The Dirico Speedster I’m on is outfitted with Harley’s 110 engine and powers up the slope with ease. Most of the climb I chug along at low rpm in second gear, but as the gradient pitches between 12 to 22%, I have to drop it down into first at times. About 3500 feet up, the paved road turns to dirt. It’s hard-packed and the Speedster’s Metzelers stay glued to the road, but the first sight of dirt on a cruiser that tips the scales in the 700 pound range is a little unnerving. The road
narrows and there are no guardrails. A nasty vertical drop awaits the unfortunate on the other side of the road, but luckily I’m on the side that hugs the mountain. Forward motion comes to a halt though when the Suburban I am following up and a van filled with tourists coming down attempt to squeeze by one another. I’m watching the vehicles’ side mirrors to see if they collide as the van coming down the hill straddles the edge of the road. It’s that tight.
Close to the top, the road winds through a wide field of jagged rocks and weathered grass. I roll past an elderly gentleman making deliberate strides with his walking poles. I would find out later that he was the final contestant of the 50th Annual Mt. Washington Road Race that took place earlier that day. The rock-strewn summit, void of vegetation except for sparse grasses, is lunar-like. I park the Speedster to make the final ascent by foot. The wind has picked up and temps are cool but comfortable. A series of wooden steps lead to the observation deck of the Mount Washington Observatory. The observatory consists of a cement-fortified weather station that reminds me of a World War II embattlement. Considering the extreme winters and winds the mountain endures, I can understand why. I wait my turn to have a picture taken at the placard that signals the summit. Reaching the crest, I do my best impersonation of Rocky Balboa on the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Slowly doing a 360 on the deck of the observatory, a sea of mountains stretches in every direction. A slight haze hovers between ranges, adding depth and mystery to the surreal scene. Five states are said to be visible from the peak – Maine, Massachusetts, Vermont, New York and New Hampshire, as well as our Canadian friends to the north.
Before embarking on the trip downhill, I make sure to take a picture of the Dirico Speedster with the “This Bike Climbed Mt. Washington” bumper sticker. The bike earned it. It conquered the climb with power and grace. Heading downhill, I save the brakes by gearing down into first and second. I’m now on the side of the road next to the cliff so I keep my eyes fixed intently on where I want to go. It’s hard to believe that this road was first opened when Lincoln was president. The East Coast icon will be celebrating its 150th anniversary next year. And though I never reached speeds of more than 35 mph, the low-speed ride is white-knuckle intense.
Leaving the mountain, I get one last unexpected treat. Near the bottom of the road at the last turnout, a crowd is forming, looking down at the open meadow below. A young black bear saunters around at the tree line, scratching in the soft soil looking for bugs to chow on. The bear is oblivious to the crowd forming above as he goes about his foraging. A car with Virginia plates stops and a young girl pops out and then opens the passenger door to help her grandmother out. It obviously is the first time she has witnessed such a spectacle. To see the wonder and joy on her wrinkled face is almost as gratifying as seeing the bear. And though I can’t promise you’ll see a bear on your trip up the Mt. Washington Auto Road, if you’re ever in New Hampshire, put the ride on your priority list. It’s an experience I won’t soon forget.
Before heading up the Auto Road, the opportunity to explore another of the state’s two-wheeled treasures presented itself. They call it “The Kanc” and it’s the second-most talked about “must-do” ride I’ve heard of since landing in
Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler is one of three partners behind Dirico Motorcycles. When he’s not performing, Tyler likes to head for the seclusion of the White Mountains to get away from it all.
Manchester for Laconia. It’s a 34.5-mile run through the White Mountain National Forest Aerosmith’s frontman Steven Tyler takes to get away from it all.
“I don’t have much chance to get off and be by myself and the best way to spell freedom is motorcycle,” Tyler said in a past interview. When he’s not belting out licks and grooving onstage, Tyler is a partner in Dirico Motorcycles and lends his creative eye to vintage-styled bikes like the Speedster I’m cruising around New Hampshire on.
After doing the boot-scootin’ biker boogie and sucking on spent fumes in rally traffic all week, I’m looking forward to a ride out of town and a chance to explore the Kancamagus Highway and discover why it’s on the list of National Scenic Byways. New Hampshire State Route 112, as it’s officially known, is named for Chief Kancamagus, “The Fearless One” who was the last leader of the Penacook Confederacy, a union of more than 17 central New England Indian tribes.
An overnight shower has left the morning air fresh over Laconia. Dark grey pools stain the pavement of NH-11A as I head out of town. To my right, speed boats are already spraying up roosts on Lake Winnisquam as I make the short hop over to Interstate 93 North. On the freeway, SUV’s with canoes strapped on top race by. Grand rock formations and huge round boulders lie in the median as the 45-mile trip to North Woodstock rolls over smooth highway miles.
This sign ain’t no joke. Moose are all over New Hampshire, adults can weigh up to 1000 pounds and collisions with the animals can be fatal.
About 20 minutes up I-93, the vertical face of Cannon Mountain comes into view to the left of the horizon, a gigantic wave of light grey and white granite. The 4100-foot peak is the parent of the three mountains located within Franconia Notch State Park. The park also hosts the geological wonder known as The Flume Gorge, an 800-foot long chasm that runs through a narrow passage of 90-foot tall moss-covered walls past cascading waterfalls. The landscape offers Zen-like tranquility. The self-guided two-mile hike travels down wide gravel paths and over covered wooden bridges.
Franconia Notch State Park is also home to the Cannon Mountain Aerial Tramway and the Old Man of the Mountain Historic Site and Museum. The craggy profile of an old man’s face etched in the side of the mountain no longer overlooks the notch since it crumbled away in May 2003, but the famous stone profile remains the state symbol of New Hampshire and is stamped on the back of its state quarter. The tramway provides panoramic views as it travels to the observation tower on the summit of Cannon Mountain.
Jumping off I-93 at exit 32, I point the Speedster east toward the small towns of North Woodstock and Lincoln. The quaint, white, two-storied building of the Gateway Info Center lies at the beginning of the Kancamagus Highway. Inside are interactive displays about the history of the White Mountain National Forest and racks of travel guides and destination pamphlets. Soft grass, shade trees and clean bathrooms are always a welcome site when traveling and the info center provides all three.
Heading east on NH-112, a rustic red engine sits on the tracks behind the silver building of the Hobo Junction Railroad Station. The line of people waiting to climb aboard a vintage rail car for an hour and 20 minute ride back in time is long. The Hobo Railroad attempts to recreate the spirit of a bygone era when train travel was at its peak as it chugs along the
Historic wooden covered bridges are a main attraction along the Kancamagus Highway and the White Mountains.
Pemigewasset River. Boys and girls float by in tubes and make big splashes in the “Pemi” when they launch off the rope swing at “Swimming Hole Bridge.” In winter, the railroad converts to Santa Express Trains complete with elves, hot chocolate and cookies, but for Bike Week it doubles as a shuttle between Lincoln and Meredith.
Buildings thin and forests quickly thicken heading out of town. We’re barely on the outskirts when a big yellow and black sign states “Brake for Moose – It Could Save Your Life” in bold letters with the disclaimer “Hundreds of Collisions” just below it. This is no idle warning. New Hampshire’s moose herd is approximately 6000 strong and the average adult moose tips the scales at 1000 pounds. They like to come out at evening time and from what I’ve heard are difficult to see. I’ve already read a story about a motorcyclist who hit one just the other day north of Conway, which is where I’m headed. He ended up with a punctured lung and other injuries while the moose walked away from the accident. He was one of the lucky ones. Collisions with moose kill numerous people every year around here.
Dense stands of broad-leafed deciduous trees and immutable evergreens fight for branch space along the roadway as NH-112 begins to climb. The unspoiled forests and abundant waterways of New England are the inspiration of writers like Robert Frost and Nathanial Hawthorne. Turning off the Speedster’s V-Twin engine at a scenic overlook, the forest whispers its secrets in the sound of the wind bending the boughs of trees and now I better understand Frost when he says “the woods are lovely, dark, and deep.” Robert Frost and his family lived in a two-story white clapboard farmhouse in Derry, New Hampshire from 1900 to 1911. The Frost Place, a separate farmstead he lived and worked at in the White Mountains, is now a non-profit Center for Poetry and the Arts owned by the town of Franconia. Two rooms of the farmhouse are used as a museum of Frost’s life and work. Signed first editions of his books are a featured attraction.
New Hampshire is only a little over an hour from the Atlantic Coast so delicacies like Maine lobster are abundant.
There’s also a half-mile Poetry-Nature Trail though the nearby wildflower fields and woods with displays of Frost’s Franconia poems mounted on plaques. Each summer, a nationally honored poet gets the honor of living and working in the house where Frost wrote some of his best work.
A few miles past Bear Notch Road is the sign for Sabbaday Falls. You could make trip to the White Mountains solely for the beauty of its waterfalls. It’s an easy 0.3-mile hike through a canopy of forest green to the three-tiered falls. The sound of water splashing on rocks is hypnotic. A swirling pothole lies at the bottom of the scenic falls, enticing me to shed my hot riding clothes for a swim in the chilly waters. But there’s no swimming here, so it’s back to the Speedster and on down the road.
A little further down the highway, the shrill shouts of children having fun fills the air as small bodies barrel down the natural water slide created by the slippery rocks and deep pool of the Lower Falls. Cars are squeezed into almost every turn-out along the Swift River as locals seek shelter from the midday sun in their favorite swimming holes.
Soon we come across another of “The Kanc’s” historic fixtures, the Albany Covered Bridge. It’s a vignette of Norman Rockwell-like Americana, the quintessential wooden truss bridge sitting in the middle of a quiet forest over the babbling waters of the scenic Swift River. Its wooden sides and arches are faded and add to its rustic charm but its Paddleford trusses are sturdy as I ride across. A family plays in the fast-moving shallows below. The same scene could have unfolded 150 years ago as the first Albany Bridge was built back in 1858 and restored in 1970. Similar to the area’s waterfalls, you could spend an entire day trying to see the 28 covered bridges spread throughout the White Mountains.
The Kancamagus Highway deposits us in Conway long before we’ve had our fill of its splendor, but the Mt. Washington Auto Road is our day’s destination so we jump on NH-16 North toward North Conway/Jackson. Traffic comes to a stand-still as we approach a strip of trendy shops and restaurants. On the opposite side of the road is the North Conway Depot and Railroad Yard, home to the Conway Scenic Railroad. The twin-towered train station has turn-of-the-century charm, a historic feel fueled by its diesel electric locomotives. It offers short rides in restored Pullman Parlor-Observation Cars through the Mt. Washington Valley or longer rides over the famed Frankenstein Trestle and Willey Brook Bridge as it travels through Crawford Notch.
After our conquest of Mt. Washington Auto Road, it is a race between us and the setting sun back to Laconia. We roll back down NH-16 the same way we came, through Jackson and North Conway to Ossippee where we branch off on NH-28 toward Wolfeboro. The stretch is heavily forested with the occasional blue-green waters of a lake peeking through the foliage here-and-there. The road comes to a “T” in Wolfeboro at the statue of a Minuteman on a pedestal in Cate Park, reminding us that the area is rich in Colonial history. It’s in the architecture of the housing and in the blood of the people who call this area home. We’re also back on the banks of Lake Winnipesaukee which means we’re a step closer to our final destination, Weirs Beach.
We stay on NH-28 as it veers away from the water and cuts through the forested countryside. At Alton we hit NH-11 and begin to parallel the lake again. The New England-style homes along the waterfront are grand, multi-storied affairs with big bay windows and fenced-in porches. There’s seemingly as many open-bowed boats, Bayliners and MasterCrafts, anchored in docks as there are cars parked in garages. Pop’s Clam Shell, a self-professed “greasy spoon” diner, has hot rods and motorcycles parked in front of it as patrons fill up on fried clams and onion rings.
We pull on to Lakeside Avenue with the last rays of sun lighting up the blue and red Weirs Beach sign. The cacophony of sounds, from music pouring out from vendors’ tents to motorcycle engines drumming at idle, competes for my attention with the smells of fried dough and cheesesteaks cooking on the grills of carnival-style trailers. A wide sandy beach sits off to the right before giving way to the jetty. People stroll up and down the wooden boardwalk checking out the myriad of motorcycles. No sooner do I park than the curious are inquisitively questioning me about the Dirico Speedster. Its retro-sytling – a Springer front end, art deco paint, deep-welled fenders and fender struts are a big hit with the crowd attending the oldest motorcycle rally around. The M/S Mount Washington is preparing to disembark for its sunset dinner cruiser just as the locomotive of the Winipesaukee Railroad is pulling in. Flood lights shine on
the front of the Patio Garden Restaurant sitting on a knoll at the end of the boardwalk as blues spills out its doors.
I climb the steps of the white wooden tower Progressive Insurance has set up in the middle of Lakeside Avenue to watch the sun go down as motorcycle headlights and multi-colored LEDs light up the strip. After spending a day riding through the splendor of the Kancamagus Highway, tackling the challenging ride up Mt. Washington and then cruising around scenic Lake Winnepesaukee at dusk, New Hampshire’s “Live Free or Die” state motto makes more sense to me. It has an unspoiled beauty worth fighting for and a history worth preserving. Now if I can only devise a plan to return in the fall when the changing of the seasons lights the landscape on fire.