Leah Schneckloth, of Scarborough, has the Mount Washington Auto Road to herself while snowshoeing down the mountain in 2018. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)
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Snowshoeing up a mountain is decidedly harder than snowshoeing down. But if you wish to be rewarded with sublime high-elevation views and an it’s-all-downhill-from-here return trip, you’ve first got to pay your dues by hauling yourself uphill, often for a couple of hours. 

It’s not like someone’s going to invite you into their snow-conquering 12-passenger van for a ride up the mountain. And they’re definitely not going to drop you off in the alpine zone with a pair of snowshoes, a smile, and a “see ya back at the bottom.”

Unless we’re talking about Mount Washington, where you can absolutely get a lift up (not all the way to the summit – the weather’s too cagey for that) and you’re more than welcome to snowshoe back down. 

SnowCoaches parked at the turn-around point on the Mount Washington Auto Road, at 4,200 feet, where riders can walk around and take in the high-elevation views. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

The ride is courtesy of a Mount Washington SnowCoach, a 12-passenger van that’s outfitted with what are essentially tank tracks. Those tracks make it easy for the SnowCoach to cruise along on the copious amounts of snow that tend to accumulate on the mountain this time of year. 

A small fleet of SnowCoaches makes the trek up and down the Mount Washington Auto Road on a daily basis all winter, starting from the Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center in Gorham, New Hampshire. It’s a loud and rumbling 35-minute ride – those tank treads aren’t exactly built for stealth surprise attacks. But the SnowCoach guides do their best to talk above the clamor and share some mountain knowledge, noting the changes in tree cover as the SnowCoach gains elevation and pausing to point out birds and rabbit tracks in the snow.

It’s a pretty ride. Nab a window seat for optimal viewing and photo-taking.

While it would be a thrill on days when the winds are ferociously gusting, SnowCoaches don’t go all the way to Mount Washington’s 6,288-foot summit, which is globally known for its notoriously intense weather. Instead, the turn-around point is around 4,200 feet. That’s still plenty high to enjoy some White Mountain splendor. 

There you can get out of the SnowCoach and wander around for a bit, snapping photos of the snow-covered scenery and Mount Washington’s neighboring peaks. After 20 minutes or so you’ll be rallied back to the van for the return trip to Great Glen. Unless you’d rather walk, in which case you’ll strap on your snowshoes, bid your farewell to the SnowCoach, and begin making your way down the Auto Road on foot. 

I recommend this option. 

During my visits in 2018 and 2019, the weather was exceptionally sunny and clear, with low winds and forever visibility. But this is Mount Washington, where the conditions can be decidedly less amiable, even a couple thousand feet below the summit, so wear plenty of layers and be ready for cold, wind, and clouds.

Then let gravity assist you for the remainder of your adventure. 

Snowshoers trekking down the Mount Washington Auto Road after taking the SnowCoach up. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

The Auto Road is wide and groomed and gently sloped downward, which makes it wonderfully beginner-friendly. It also means it’s dang near impossible to get lost. There are other dedicated snowshoe trails on Mount Washington, but most choose to take the Auto Road the entire way down.

As you go, SnowCoaches will pass now and then, shuttling other riders up and down the mountain. (Pro tips: if snowshoeing down from 4,200 feet sounds like too much, you can ask to be dropped off farther down the road. Or if you decide part-way down that you’re done snowshoeing for the day, just flag down a passing SnowCoach and they’ll give you a lift the rest of the way back to Great Glen.)

On the whole, you’ll have plenty of time to take in the winter quiet and marvel at the mountains. The SnowCoach up/snowshoe down combo is a cold-weather treat that can easily turn into an annual tradition. And after a couple of hours of uncomplicated snowshoeing you’ll find yourself closer to sea level and with Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center in sight again. 

And that’s when it might occur to you that your calf muscles are awfully tight for such an easy snowshoe. They’re going to be sore tomorrow, but it’s an easy price to pay for a memorable winter adventure.

Freelance writer Shannon Bryan lives in South Portland and is the founder of fitmaine.com, where she writes about the coolest ways to be active and get outdoors in Maine.

A SnowCoach makes its way up the Mt. Washington Auto Road. (Portland Phoenix/Shannon Bryan)

SnowCoach tours, Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center, 1 Mount Washington Auto Road, Gorham, New Hampshire; greatglentrails.com and 603-466-3988.

Tours run several times a day starting at 8:45 a.m. (snowshoers are not allowed on the final tour of the day, so book an earlier tour if that’s your plan) and cost $59 for adults, $35 for ages 5-12, and $20 for ages 4 and under. If you don’t own your own snowshoes, Great Glen Trails Outdoor Center rents them.

This year there are COVID-19-related modifications for SnowCoach tours. Riders are required to wear masks when inside the SnowCoach and van capacity is limited to six people. Each van is disinfected between tours and van windows are kept open whenever possible to maximize airflow.