Three Common Questions & Answers

2016-09-07 04:56:23.000 – Ryan Knapp, Weather Observer/Staff Meteorologist


Over the past week, we have been getting several emails, social media messages, and comments inquiring about three common things: operating hours, nights above treeline, and the Aurora Borealis. I always heard in college, “If you have a question, ask it out loud because odds are someone else in class is wondering the same thing and just not speaking up.” So, if we are getting these inquires over and over again, odds are, several other people are wondering the same thing but just not asking.  So to help those individuals out, here are the answers to three common questions:

1. Are you still open?
Yes! All summit facilities and methods of getting here are still OPEN. Operating hours/schedules are available as follows (just click on the highlighted words):
Additionally, if you are on social media, be sure to follow their various pages for any last minute announcements they might have along with additional Mt Washington content.

If coming to the summit, please remember that conditions can be drastically different than at the base. As my coworker mentioned yesterday, we typically see freezing temperatures and freezing/frozen precipitation later this month. So, be sure to check the Higher Summit Forecast page and our Current Conditions page to help prepare. And if hiking up, backcountry conditions can be found HERE. Please be mindful if hiking up that days are getting shorter (as of today, there’s nearly 2 hours less daylight than the first day of summer back in June). A headlamp should be in your pack and people should be mindful that operating hours will be adjusting to the shorter days and variable weather conditions.

2. How do I get to be above treeline at night?
There are a few ways to be above treeline after hours. The first is to hike. Unless a trail is closed for storm damage, avalanche risk, or repair, all trails within the White Mountains are open 24/7/365. However, while trails are open, to protect the fragile alpine vegetation, camping is NOT allowed anywhere above tree line anywhere in the White Mountains; including the summit of Mt Washington. Further guidelines can be found HERE.

Another option to be above tree line after hours would be to stay at an AMC or RMC hut or tent platform. These designated platforms and shelters are allowable ways to stay above treeline. However, be advised that several huts close or go to limited operations in Sept/Oct (AMC calendar HERE).

Another option, if a member of the Observatory, is to volunteer for a week on the summit. More information about this membership perk can be found HERE.

3. How do I see the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)?
While being above treeline can help in seeing the Aurora Borealis, it isn’t always necessary. And just because you are above treeline during any given night doesn’t mean you are guaranteed to see the Northern Lights. I have lived/worked in NH for nearly a decade and have only seen them about two dozen times on and off the summit. That means on and off the summit (I stay on the same night schedule in my off-time), out of 3650 nights let’s say, I have only seen it roughly 24 times! For NH to view them, predicted Aurora activity has to be strong (typically Kp 5 or greater for this latitude). Additionally, there needs to be clear skies to the north (no high/mid/low clouds, fog, or haze) and little to no moonlight present. So essentially a lot of elements have to all come together to see them from anywhere in the state, especially on the summit where we are in the fog 60% of the year.

Like many of you, we don’t know they are coming either; Mount Washington Observatory is a weather observatory and does not measure or monitor for Aurora Borealis or any space related activity. However, there are several websites that can assit in forecasts like,, University or Alaska Fairbanks, or (which also has some social media apps that can alert you in Facebook or Twitter). Additionally there are several smartphone apps that can help notify if you search the Apple/Google stores for “aurora.” Be mindful that just because they are forecasted doesn’t mean you will see them as forecasts might be incorrect or the weather/moonlight might block their viewing.

If they are going to happen, head away from city lights, head to the south side of a pond/lake/large field or head to a knoll/hill/mountain with clear views north, once there look north, allow for at least 15 minutes for your eyes to adjust to the darkness (the longer the better and avoid looking at smartphones/smartwatches/tablets/light or you have to start over), dress warmly, and bring something to do as it could be a long wait. And don’t try looking for what you see in photographs, they rarely look like that – it will be closer to a blob of “alien gray/green” that looks like light pollution to most (it could in fact be light pollution if you’re unfamiliar with an area’s typical night sky view). However, if strong enough, the glow gets brighter and that is when you see pillars/curtains and movement; but not always.

Lastly, northern NH isn’t the only place to see them. I have photographer friends and people that I follow that have regularly shot them in Maine, southern NH, VT, and upstate NY with a few strong events shot in MA (as far south as the Cape) and northern RI. In really strong events, I have seen people photograph them in Arkansas, Texas, and Arizona. Personally I have seen and photographed them near Portland, ME, Chocorua Lake, NH, Head Pond, NH, and Killington, VT. So Mt Washington is far from your only option to see them if and when they are possibly viewable.


Ryan Knapp, Weather Observer/Staff Meteorologist

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