AMC Outdoors, June 2005
Distance: 5.6 miles
Elevation Gain: 1,950 feet
Estimated Time: 4-1/2 hours
Highlight: One of the best places to be in New Hampshire, with its 360-degree views and open ridge walks.
Hikers who don’t want to drive all the way to the Whites will revel in the 50 miles of trails up and around Mount Cardigan.
The shortest and easiest hike up “Old Baldy” is via the West Ridge Trail. This trip makes a loop over interesting terrain from the east, from Cardigan Lodge up and over Cardigan and its north summit, Firescrew Mountain. With almost 2,000 feet of elevation gain, this strenuous hike is best for hikers in good physical condition.
From the state park parking area, walk west on the Holt Trail. Follow this old woods road through mixed hardwoods and hemlocks. Parallel Bailey Brook and then begin an easy climb. To follow the kinder, gentler route to the summit, take the Cathedral Forest Trail from Grand Junction. (You could choose to continue on the Holt Trail for a steep, difficult slog to the summit—1.1 miles, 1,500 feet of elevation gain. Not for small children.)
The trail climbs steadily through a forest that was probably more cathedral-like before storms destroyed much of the canopy. But it still provides cover and food for animals including moose, deer, black bear, and ruffed grouse. The trail levels off amid spruce and paper birch before you begin that last mile to the summit, which gets steeper as you gain elevation.
The summit sits high above the surrounding mountains, lakes, and towns with excellent views in every direction—the Whites, the Greens, Mount Monadnock—and they are improved only slightly by climbing the fire tower, built in 1924. To the north is Firescrew Mountain, given its name during an 1855 forest fire that sent flames and smoke spiraling up from its summit. The same fire cleared the upper slopes of Cardigan of all soil and vegetation.
To head toward Firescrew, walk down the Mowglis Trail, making a steep descent to the col between the two summits and then following a scenic ridge past small spruce and mountain ash, blueberries, and small wildflowers such as three-toothed cinquefoil, which blooms all summer. The Manning Trail makes an easy traverse of the open ledges east of the summit before descending steeply into the woods and home; when the forest changes from spruce to hardwoods, this intense hike has become an easy walk.
From US 3A North in Bristol, turn left onto West Shore Road and in 1.9 miles, go straight on Cardigan Mountain Road. Bear right at fork onto Fowler River Road. In 3.2 miles, take left fork onto Brook Road. In another 1.1 miles, turn right onto Shem Valley Road and bear right at schoolhouse. In 1.3 miles, parking on left across from AMC’s Cardigan Lodge.
Avoid getting caught on the bald summit cone during bad weather, as you’re completely exposed in an area prone to lightning strikes. Be prepared to duck into the forest if conditions deteriorate.
—Jerry and Marcy Monkman are frequent contributors to AMC Outdoors.