MODERATE Dayhike: 3.3 miles (2.5 hours) — 25 miles from Hanover
The bare rocky summit of Mount Cardigan, at 3,155 feet, affords a panoramic view stretching from rural New Hampshire in the foreground to the summits of the White Mountains in the distance. In 1855, a devastating fire burned over the summit and removed all the vegetation, including the thin soil. Well over a century later, the summit remains bare of all but a few lichens.
How To Get There:
Take Route 120 south from Hanover to I-89 South. Take the first exit onto Route 4 East. Follow Route 4 East for 12.2 miles into the center of Canaan, and turn left onto Route 118 (at the sign for Cardigan Mountain State Park). After 0.6 miles, again at a Cardigan Mountain State Park sign, turn right onto the road to Orange. Pass the town hall and later the school house on the left, cross the bridge over Orange Brook, and stay right at the fork 2.7 miles from Route 118. At 3.4 miles from Route 118, enter Cardigan Mountain State Park and turn left at the top of the hill onto the dirt road that leads uphill 0.7 miles to the picnic area and trailhead.
From the picnic area (0.0 miles), follow the West Ridge Trail as it ascends a small staircase from the upper end of the parking lot. The trail swings left, switchbacks right, descends to a small brook, and diagonally crosses a woods road at 0.3 miles.
At 0.4 miles, junction with the South Ridge Trail. Leaving the South Ridge route for your descent, stay left on the West Ridge Trail. Keep a sharp lookout for blazes, as the trail passes numerous side trails and old woods roads.
At 0.7 miles, the trail crosses a swampy bench, where it has been relocated off the main woods road in search of better drainage. Notice as you ascend over the next quarter-mile the transition from the beech and maple of the northern hardwood forest into the red spruce and balsam fir of the boreal forest. Conifers are better adapted to the higher winds and colder temperatures of the upper mountain than their leafy cousins. Climate alone doesn’t account for the boreal forest on Cardigan — the mountain isn’t nearly as tall or as far north as the boreal-cloaked peaks of the White Mountains. The thin soils and exposed ledges of the upper mountain again favor the conifers, whose root systems are better adapted to sparse conditions than those of deciduous trees.
At 1.0 miles, junction with the Skyland Trail. Continue straight here, and cross “Cliff’s Bridge” to the former site of Hermitage Shelter. The shelter was removed because campers were laying waste to the surrounding forest. Please respect the revegetation efforts underway around the old shelter and remain on the trail. Save your picnic lunch for the sturdy ledges just ahead.
At 1.1 miles, the trail follows cairns — piles of stones built to mark the trail — up the smooth ledges to the summit.
At 1.3 miles, the Clark Trail converges from the right 100 feet below the summit. The whitish-gray rock here is a close cousin of granite, known as the Kinsman Quartz Monzonite. These rocks were formed by the collision of Africa with North America 380 million years ago. The Kinsman Quartz Monzonite is a hard rock, responsible for many summits between here and the Kinsman Ridge of Franconia Notch, for which the rock was named.
The summit ledges were polished smooth by continental glaciers that flowed down from Hudson’s Bay as recently as 12,000 years ago. When the glaciers ran up against a mountain like Cardigan, they carved smooth ramps up the northern slopes. As they crested over the summit and continued south, they grabbed boulders and chunks of ledge, leaving behind steep cliffs on the southern slopes. This distinct shape of Mount Cardigan, smooth ramps on one side and steep cliffs on the opposite, is characteristic not only of New England mountains, but also of mountains the world over that at one time were covered by glaciers.
To begin your descent, follow the Clark Trail down a sporadic line of cairns to the forester’s cabin at the base of the ledges.
At 0.2 miles, at the forester’s cabin, turn right at the junction onto the white-blazed South Ridge Trail. This trail continues between trees and ledges to the South Peak of Cardigan.
At 0.5 miles, the trail crosses South Peak and continues along the ridge to Rimrock.
At 0.8 miles, at Rimrock, the Skyland Trail diagonally crosses the South Ridge Trail. The South Ridge Trail descends from the ridge by following the left-hand line of cairns towards the trees. Be aware: the Skyland Trail is also blazed white. The right hand fork of the Skyland Trail angles sharply back towards the Hermitage Shelter site, and the left hand fork of the Skyland Trail remains on the ridge for the 4.4 mile walk to Alexandria Four Corners.
At 1.5 miles, rejoin the West Ridge Trail, and descend back to the Parking area 0.4 miles away