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Bretton Woods NH Guide

Dramatic scenery, a state park, and a historic mountain cog railway over a century old—there's lots to see and do in Bretton Woods and neighboring Crawford Notch NH. .

Bretton Woods Conference

The name "Bretton Woods" rings in history as the site of the United Nations Monetary and Financial Conference (1944) that determined the form of the world monetary system created after World War II.

The influence of the conference, held at the grand Mount Washington Hotel, was felt for a half century thereafter.

The rich and powerful gathered at Bretton Woods (map) because of its spectacular natural beauty, its variety of amusements, and its elegant accommodations. These are the same reasons vacationers come today.

Mount Washington Hotel

The Mount Washington Hotel, recreated now as the Omni Mount Washington Resort, 310 Mount Washington Hotel Road, Bretton Woods, is an even finer place to spend precious vacation time, a 1900-acre (769-hectare) estate (map) on the northeast slopes of Mount Washington.

Graceful old hotels 19th-century of this sort, with their gracious service and accommodations, private golf courses, riding stables, clay tennis courts, indoor and outdoor pools, live nightly entertainment, playhouses, and the like, are still popular in many countries but rare in the USA, so it is heartening to see this one thriving.

Mt Washington Hotel, Bretton Woods NH
Panoramic views from the porch...

The resort boasts an expansive spa and salon, an 18-hole golf course designed by Donald Ross, the longest zip-line tour in New England, and a host of other resort activities such as horseback riding, hiking, fishing, sleigh rides and of course skiing at the nearby Bretton Woods ski slopes.

The lobby is immense, with a baronial fireplace, huge pots of fresh flowers, and lots of color and activity. Nearby is a semicircular conservatory with a dome and many small stained-glass windows.

There's a feeling here of being set apart from civilization, of being off in the forest, because the busy towns of the White Mountains such as Lincoln and North Conway are on the other sides of Mount Washington, far away. The closest "civilization" here is the small town of Twin Mountain to the northwest, near which is the base station for the Mount Washington Cog Railway. To the southeast is Crawford Notch State Park, with its pretty lake.

Mount Washington Cog Railway

The Mount Washington Cog Railway is a 3-1/2-mile (5.6-km) track along a steep trestle up the mountainside.

You sit in front of the funny-looking 18-ton steam locomotive as it pushes your antique railcar up the 37% grade of Mount Washington to the summit, famous for extreme weather.

Mount Washington Cog Railway coal-fired locomotive, Marshfield Station NH
A coal-fired locomotive with steam up (2005). In 2008, coal was replaced with biodiesel fuel for environmental reasons.

In operation since 1866, the 3-hour round-trip scenic excursion is a lot of fun—the most interesting way to reach the 6288-foot (1917-meter) summit of Mount Washington, where the average summer temperature is 40°F (4°C), and there may be a stiff wind.

What's a Cog Railway?

It's a train that is propelled up a steep slope not by power to its wheels (which would slip and slide on the 37% grade) but by a big-toothed cog wheel underneath the engine.

The cogwheel that climbs the mountain.

The teeth in the cog wheel fit into a track between the rails that has holes for the cog's teeth. Tooth by tooth, the cog and track take the locomotive and its one passenger car up the steep slope.

Cog railway climbing track
The locomotive pushes the passenger car up the steep track.

Riding to the Summit

It's great fun to ride the rails to the summit of Mount Washington, walk around for a bit, have a drink or light meal in the visitor center at the summit, then descend. Some days there is not much of a view because of Mount Washington's extreme weather, but if you are so lucky as to ascend on a clear day, the panorama is spectacular.

The railway now operates all year. (In winter, the train goes partway to the summit, to Waumbek Station at 4000 feet, or to Skyline at 5000 feet.)

The warm-weather round trip, including about an hour at the summit, takes about three hours total. Have reservations, or try to take an early train to avoid having to wait in line. Remember to bring a sweater or jacket, or both, for the cool to cold weather at the top, no matter how warm it is at the base station. (Here's where to check the weather at the summit.)

Cog Railway Marshfield Base Station
Cog Railway Marshfield Base Station.

The Marshfield base station, at 2700 feet elevation, is where you board the train. It's 6 miles (10 km) northeast of the Base Station Restaurant in Fabyan off US Route 302 east of Twin Mountain NH (map). The turn off US 302 is two miles northwest of Bretton Woods.

Cog Railway locomotive and tender
Look for old Colteague, and follow the arrow to the Marshfield Base Station.

Your Cog Railway ticket entitles you to free admission to the Mount Washington Observatory at the summit of Mount Washington.

On the return trip from the summit to the base station, the locomotive goes down first, staying a few feet in front of the passenger car as a safety, but the car's descent is controlled by a brakeman who stands in the car at its lower end and turns several brake wheels to increase or retard the car's speed depending upon the slope of the track. As on the ascent, the car needs no physical connection to the locomotive.

Cog Railway painting by Edward Hill, 1884
Cog Railway, by Edward Hill (1884).

A Bit of History

The Mount Washington Cog Railway was a difficult construction project and an engineering marvel.

In 1852 investor Sylvester Marsh got lost on Mount Washington and wanted an easy way to get down, so he invented the world's first cog railway.

Lots of people laughed at Marsh as a crazy dreamer, but on July 3, 1869, "Old Peppersass," a primitive steam engine with a vertical boiler, toiled the 3.1 miles (5 km) up the side of the mountain to the summit. Marsh's dream had come true 17 years after he got lost on the mountain.

Later refinements reoriented the locomotive's boiler to a tilted-horizontal position (so that it would be more perfectly horizontal as it climbed the steep slope), but the engineering of the railway is essentially the same as in the beginning: a steam-powered locomotive pushes one passenger car—which is not connected to the locomotive—up the mountain.

The major difference is that today the locomotive is powered by biodiesel fuel rather than by a ton of dirty coal as in years past.

In September 2008 the century-old locomotives began tto be replaced by new engines with biodiesel power in order to eliminate the gigantic plumes of dark, dirty coal smoke that belched from the boilers on ascent. Cleaner-burning fuel eliminates a noxious pollutant from the White Mountains' refreshing air, but with the conversion a bit of living 19th-century technological history ends forever.

Crawford Notch

Crawford Notch, south down the valley from Bretton Woods along US Route 302 (map), offers beautiful mountain scenery, Crawford Notch State Park, and the Appalachian Mountain Club's Highlands Center at Crawford Notch, with lodging, dining and outdoor activities facilities.

North and east on US Route 302 from North Conway and Glen NH takes you through Crawford Notch (map), a dramatic mountain pass on the southwestern slopes of Mount Washington, with excellent outdoor activity possibilities, but a sad history.

A Tragic History

In 1825, when the road was being cut through the notch (mountain pass), the Willey family built a small inn in Crawford Notch to provide for the teams and wagons that would pass through the valley. In August 1826 one of the worst storms ever to hit the White Mountains wreaked havoc in the valley, with floods, landslides, wind, and rain which left the Willey House unharmed as the roaring cascade divided and passed around it, but resulted in the death or disappearance of every member of the household.

Crawford Notch State Park

The Willey House remains, having been restored and converted to be the Visitor Center, snack bar and shop (featuring the products of New Hampshire artisans) for Crawford Notch State Park, a 5775-acre nature refuge with hiking trails, beautiful waterfalls, picnic areas, fishing, wildlife viewing, and spectacular mountain views.

The park's Dry River Campground has 36 wooded campsites, with flush toilets and showers.

AMC Highland Center

Also here is the Appalachian Mountain Club's elaborate Highland Center at Crawford Notch, an outdoor activities center with a variety of lodgings for singles, couples, families and groups, dining facilities, naturalist programs, and lots of outdoor fun.

Appalachian Mountain Club Highland Center
Appalachian Mountain Club Highland Center.