This moderate 3.3 mile hike takes you to the summit of a beautiful, bare mountaintop complete with a fire tower. Views from the summit look across three states.
Standing at just 3,155 feet, Cardigan is a diminutive mountain compared to many of its neighbors. Though it lacks in elevation, it still offers a bald, rocky summit and panoramic views that allow you to look across New Hampshire and into both Maine and Vermont.
We thought it would be a great first hike on our trip – kind of a White Mountain warm-up. We were still pretty tired from the 12-hour drive up, but we set out early Sunday morning. We arrived at the parking lot in Cardigan State Park and found only a few other cars, despite the day being sunny and pleasant.
There are several routes up Cardigan. We chose the ascent recommended by the Darmouth Outing Club, the West Ridge Trail, which climbs 1200 feet over 1.5 miles to the summit. The trail started out behind a small picnic shelter. It climbed quickly uphill through classic New England forest – lots of pines and white birches. As we climbed higher, we traversed several small streams and muddy areas on small footbridges and planks. There was even one tiny waterfall cascading over a slide of smooth rock.
After the junction with the Skyland Trail, we continued up the West Ridge on increasingly steep and rocky terrain. Soon the trees gave way to a smooth rock dome, and instead of orange blazes the route was marked by cairns (pyramid-shaped piles of rocks). Every time we paused, we took a moment to gaze backwards – the view was growing more and more spectacular with every step.
The last push to the fire tower was fairly steep, but once we reached the lookout the vista was open in every direction. It was also a lot colder and windier. Without the shelter of trees, the wind was whipping 25-30 mph. We explored the summit for a while – looking over toward the Presidentials, spotting the wind turbines on the ridge next to my parents’ house and guessing the names of lakes we could see from the top. Cardigan is made of Kinsman Quartz Monzonite, a rock similar to granite. It’s beautiful and almost shimmers and sparkles in the sun.
To make the hike a little more diverse, we decided to descend by the South Ridge Trail. This took us by the Fire Lookout Cabin and the South Peak and Rimrock summits. We enjoyed a couple more beautiful views. It was fun to look back up at the fire tower from the South Peak and marvel at the terrain we covered. This part of the trail also offered a bounty of wild blueberries. The berries were perfectly ripe – the ideal combo of sweet and tart. I know we have wild blueberries in Virginia, but I would swear the ones in New England taste better!
We didn’t expect the trail down to be so steep and rocky (especially the section after we crossed the Skyland Trail again), or to get caught in a pop-up rainsquall. Weather really does change in an instant in New Hampshire! I had my rain jacket in my backpack, but we were so close to the end of the trail that we just picked up the pace and jogged the rest of the way back. There’s a lack of photos for the portion of the trail that required us to run through the rain, but overall you get the gist of what this trail is all about.
When we got back to the car, the parking lot was jam-packed. Several cars were circling like vultures to claim the spot we were about to vacate. Soon, we were on our way, headed in the direction of Canaan, NH. We decided to grab lunch at a little diner-like place called ‘Dishin’ It Out’. As it turned out, Canaan was holding it’s Old Home Days weekend when we visited. Old Home Days are a New England tradition, kind of a mix of a homecoming and a fair. There were food stands, craft vendors, fresh produce, local maple syrup, softball games and even cow chip bingo. It was a fun ending to our first hike of the trip!
As Christine mentioned, this was a great introduction to hiking in the White Mountains. As we were driving along to Mt. Cardigan State Park, moose crossing signs made us excited about the possibility of spotting one of these elusive creatures. We weren’t lucky enough to spot any moose, but as we got closer and were driving into the wooded park area, we knew we were about to take on a classic New England hike. You can download a trail map here.
The trail started off with a few stairs and then started a rather gradual uphill climb. At .4 miles, the trail intersects with the South Ridge Trail, our return route. We stayed on the West Ridge Trail and continued the climb. At .9 miles, the trail intersects with the Skyland Trail. Continuing on the trail begins to open up to more views and as you continue to climb, the trail rises above the treeline. At this point, you follow carefully-placed cairns until you reach the summit. We passed a sign that showed the intersection with the Clark Trail, reaching the summit and fire tower at 1.4 miles where the wind was blowing strong and cold. Even though the cold air had my nose running, I didn’t feel like getting out my jacket. The fire tower was locked but one of the sides served as a good protector against the wind.
We shared the summit with a couple of guys that were using a mirror to signal someone down at the lodge where they were staying. I never could tell if they were returning signals back to them. We stayed at the summit before making our descent down. We decided to make a little loop of our hike and descended back to the sign that showed the intersection with the Clark Trail. We followed the yellow-blazed Clark Trail as we sharply descended the mountain to connect us to the South Ridge Trail, leading us past a locked building. Passing the building, we started to spot blueberries all around. At 1.75 miles, the trail intersected with the orange-blazed South Ridge trail. We took the South Ridge Trail and it was fairly level and winded through a low-brush area until we reached the South Peak. We continued along and met the summit of Rimrock at 2.1 miles.
At this point, the South Ridge trail crosses the Skyland Trail and then changes its blaze color from orange to white. This part of the trail was very steep and rocky, reminding us of some of the tough climbing down we did from Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina. We pressed on down this tough section of trail, wishing we had taken the Skyland Trail back to the West Ridge Trail (which is what we would both recommend to save the strain on your knees). At 2.9 miles, the South Ridge Trail finally ended and intersected back with the West Ridge Trail. We took a left here and made our way back to our car at 3.3 miles.
The downhill from Mt. Cardigan had Christine worrying about her knee, especially when the rain started. We had to move quickly for the last .4 miles. When we got to the parking lot, the lot was now overflowing with cars. We were so glad that we started the hike early and that we had good views at the top.
Mount Cardigan has been a popular place for hiking since the 1800s. In 1855, a forest fire destroyed most of the trees at the top of the mountain, which has left it as the bald that you see today. Because of the ability to see from the summit, a wooden fire tower was built here in 1904, to be soon replaced with a steel tower in 1924. On a clear day, you can see Mount Washington and other peaks in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Pleasant Mountain in Maine to the east, and Camel’s Hump in Vermont to the west. Some people choose to stay at the nearby Cardigan Lodge, operated by the Appalachian Mountain Club, and hike an alternate route to the summit for 5.2 miles roundtrip.
The panoramic scenery from the top was truly breathtaking. Based on what we had hiked before in New Hampshire to this point, it was one of the best views we had seen up here. Of course, we were just getting started for this trip and we ended up having some other hikes take the prize for best views here. However, you won’t be disappointed in hiking up to Mt. Cardigan on a clear, summer day.
- Distance – 3.3 miles
(Check out the stats from MapMyHike)*
- Elevation Change – About 1250 ft.
- Difficulty – 3. By Virginia standards this is a moderate hike, but by New Hampshire standards it’s an easier hike that still offers great views.
- Trail Conditions – 3. Like most New Hampshire trails, this trail is a mix of smooth rock, roots and mud. Trail builders have done a great job building bridge and planks to traverse muddy areas.
- Views – 5. Spectacular… if you can see mountains in three different states, you know it’s good!
- Waterfalls/streams – 2. There are small streams, but really nothing scenic or noteworthy.
- Wildlife – 2. We saw a red squirrel and a variety of birds.
- Ease to Navigate – 4. Trails are well marked and free trail maps are available at the trailhead.
- Solitude – 1. If you start early, you can avoid crowds, but this is a popular trail.
Download a trail map (PDF)
A friend of mine (and native New Englander), Ben Kimball, sent me some additional resources! Check out his brochure about the ecology of Mt. Cardigan. The publication also includes an alternate hike route starting from the AMC Lodge. He’s also provided a link to a page with photos and more information about the mountain hosted by the New Hampshire Division of Forests and Lands. Thanks, Ben!
Directions to trailhead: From Route 4, head north on NH-118/Dorchester Road. In .5 miles, turn right on to Cardigan Mountain Road. Stay on this road for close to 4 miles until you reach the parking lot area. The West Ridge Trail marker is on the northern end of the lot.
* MapMyHike is not necessarily accurate, as the GPS signal fades in and out – but it still provides some fun and interesting information.