Best Backcountry Skiing at Mount Cardigan
This is an excerpt from the guide book Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast, Second Edition, by David Goodman.
Every time skiers glide from a trailhead and vanish into a winter wilderness, we feel like explorers setting off for the New World. Laying first tracks into the snow, we sense that we are the first visitors to these wild places.
The ski trails on Mount Cardigan and neighboring Firescrew are among the most historic runs in New England. Mount Cardigan—“Old Baldy” to the locals—was the center of activity for the Appalachian Mountain Club’s skiers after the club purchased 600 acres and a barn on the east side of the mountain in 1934. The club’s interest was inspired by the fact that Cardigan, at 3,149 feet, is the second-highest peak in southern New Hampshire (3,165-foot Mount Monadnock is the highest in the region) and about 100 miles from Boston. Today, Mount Cardigan is the crown jewel of a 1,200-acre reservation owned by AMC.
With the revival of backcountry skiing that began in the 1980s, skier traffic on Mount Cardigan has once again picked up, and the venerable ski lodge, which underwent a major renovation in 2005, is filled most winter weekends. AMC Cardigan Lodge, with bunks for 60 people, currently offers full-service lodging on weekends and self-service lodging midweek. Skiers preferring a backcountry experience can stay 2 miles up the mountain at AMC High Cabin, a rustic self-service facility with bunks for twelve. The simple cabin, which was built in 1931 and renovated in 2004, has a woodstove and composting toilet.
Skiing Mount Cardigan
The well-maintained trails on Mount Cardigan remain exciting, high-quality ski tours. Skiers can ascend and descend via the same ski trail or undertake a 5.5-mile grand tour of Cardigan: ski up either the Duke’s or the Alexandria trail, cross the Firescrew–Mount Cardigan ridge on the Mowglis Trail, and descend on the opposite ski trail. The Duke’s Trail is about 1.25 miles long and is easier than the Alexandria Trail.
Leaving Cardigan Lodge on the Manning Trail, the slopes of Duke’s Pasture appear shortly on the right. The Duke’s Trail has no trail sign, but it is the obvious ski trail that leaves from the top of the pasture. When skiing up the Duke’s Trail, you can find the remains of the old rope-tow engine at the top of the pasture; the rusting car chassis from which the engine was taken is on the right.
The Duke’s Trail is about 15 feet wide with a moderate 20-degree pitch. It is framed by beautiful old hardwoods. The trail has gentle S-turns near the top that hold your interest on the descent. The top of the Duke’s Trail ends at a junction with the Manning Trail on open snowfields that lie just beneath the bald cone of Firescrew. Views of the heart of the White Mountains unfold to the north as you weave turns through the widely spaced stunted spruce and fir trees that dot the summit snowfields. Many skiers opt to end their tour at the top of the snowfields, retracing their tracks down the Duke’s Ski Trail; however, the panoramic views make the final ascent to the Firescrew summit on the Manning Trail (climbing due east into the forest from the summit snowfields, following the yellow blazes) worth it. The descent of the Duke’s Trail features long traverses at a moderate angle with plenty of room for turns. The steepest pitch is the section just above Duke’s Pasture at the bottom of the trail.
The Alexandria and the Duke’s ski trails are classic down-mountain runs that descend the east side of the Firescrew–Mount Cardigan summit ridge to the Appalachian Mountain Club’s historic Cardigan Lodge.
For skiers seeking a steeper, more sustained run with lots of turns, the Alexandria Ski Trail beckons. To reach the bottom of the Alexandria Ski Trail, follow the Holt Trail 0.8 miles from Cardigan Lodge, cross a bridge over Bailey Brook, and arrive at the three-way trail intersection known as Grand Junction. A large trail sign shows the way. The Alexandria Ski Trail continues straight ahead. However, the preferred skinning route from Grand Junction is via the Cathedral Forest and the Clark trails, which intersect the top of the Alexandria Trail just below PJ Ledge. PJ Ledge is certain to stop you: its huge views of the cliffy flanks of Firescrew are breathtaking.
From PJ Ledge, continue up the Clark Trail to where it breaks out of the trees onto the rocky summit cone. No tour of Cardigan is complete without ascending its dramatic alpine summit. A rime-encrusted fire tower crowns the peak. On a clear day, there are commanding views of Mount Monadnock to the south; Ascutney, Killington, and Camel’s Hump to the west; Mounts Moosilauke and Washington and the Franconia Ridge to the north; and Lake Winnipesaukee to the southeast. In good snow conditions, the summit is flanked by skiable snowfields; during periods of lower snow, the summit cone is not skiable and may require Microspikes or similar traction devices to ascend.
Descending from the summit, the short upper section of the Clark Trail is only about 8 feet wide and is tricky to negotiate. The reward is the Alexandria Ski Trail. It opens to about 25 feet in width and drops 800 vertical feet in 0.75 miles. The trail ranges in steepness from 20 to 25 degrees.
The Alexandria Ski Trail showcases the creativity and craftsmanship characteristic of the best CCC ski trails. It was designed by a skier for skiers. It constantly bends and turns like a restless snake and often has a sporting double fall line. The trail is wide enough to link continuous turns. All of which explains why the Alexandria endures as one of the best down-mountain ski trails in the East.
The final prize on a descent of Cardigan is the Kimball Ski Trail, which is blazed but not signed and is often overlooked. The Kimball Ski Trail descends through lower-elevation forest.
The final prize on a descent of Cardigan is the Kimball Ski Trail, which is blazed but not signed and is often overlooked. After descending the Alexandria Trail, ski back through Grand Junction. Continue about 100 yards on the Holt Trail, then turn right on an unsigned but obvious trail with blue blazes. After a gradual 15-minute climb, the trail arrives at a clearing on a knoll. The Kimball Trail continues on the left. The mile-long trail is about 15 feet wide and descends gently through a softwood forest. The dark green canopy of the forest gives this trail a warm, deep-woods ambience. The trail ends at AMC Cardigan Lodge.
The slopes of Mount Cardigan continue to offer excellent skiing even after nearly a century. As you swoosh down the Alexandria Ski Trail, picture the person ahead of you on 10-pound hickory skis with cable bindings, bearing down the hill and reveling in the discovery of this “new” sport called skiing. The fine ski trails of Mount Cardigan provide definitive proof that floating through deep snow down the side of a mountain with spectacular views of the New England countryside is a timeless thrill.
Distance: 3.2 miles, AMC Cardigan Lodge to top of Duke’s Ski Trail, round trip; 5 miles, AMC Cardigan Lodge to Mount Cardigan summit, ascending via Holt-Clark and Clark trails, descending on the Alexandria and Kimball ski trails, round trip
Elevation: Start/Finish: 1,392 feet, AMC Cardigan Lodge; Highest point: 3,149 feet, Mount Cardigan summit; Vertical drop: 1,750 feet
Maps: Southern New Hampshire Trail Map 3: Mount Cardigan (AMC) shows hiking trails but not ski trails
Difficulty: Most difficult, Alexandria Trail; More difficult, Duke’s Trail and Kimball Trail
Gear: AT, telemark, snowboard
Additional Information: For reservations at AMC Cardigan Lodge or for more information, please contact 603-466-2727.
How to Get There
AMC Cardigan Lodge is located at 774 Shem Valley Road, Alexandria, NH 03222. From the south, take I-93 north to New Hampton (Exit 23). Follow NH 104 west approximately 6 miles to Bristol. From Bristol, take Route 3A north toward Plymouth for 2.1 miles. At the blinking light with a white stone church on the far left corner, turn left onto West Shore Road. Proceed 2.9 miles before turning left onto North Road, and drive about a mile to the town of Alexandria; then after 0.2 miles turn right onto Washburn Road, then bear right onto Mount Cardigan Road. Follow Mount Cardigan Road for 3.6 miles. Stay left at the intersection with Brook Road and follow Shem Valley Road 1.5 miles to Cardigan Lodge (GPS coordinates: 43° 38.970′ N, 71° 52.664′ W). Brown AMC signs point the way at key intersections. Shem Valley Road is plowed in winter but is notoriously difficult driving. Drive slowly and carry a shovel and tow cable in case of mishaps.
If you are interested in learning about more backcountry skiing options in the area, please check out Best Backcountry Skiing in the Northeast, Second Edition by David Goodman.