Mt Cardigan, Grafton County NH

• 4 & 5-star hikes
• 3.0 to 5.3 mile options
• Medium difficulty | Gain 1,180 to 1,860 feet
• Orange, NH | Sunapee Region
• Driving Directions: East, West

Mount Cardigan topped with a firetower, viewed from Firescrew Mountain.

New Hampshire 52 With A View Peaks
NH 52 With A View
Trailspotting map and routes to reach the 52 New Hampshire peaks with the best views in the state!

Although the New Hampshire timberline is over four thousand feet above sea level, there are several notable mountain summits below this height that are bereft of trees, affording spectacular views. Mount Cardigan is one of these summits, caused by a 1855 forest fire which burned off vegetation and topsoil resulting in a denuded and desolate peak. The mountain’s loss is our gain – at least in terms of the views available to us from the summit. This article explores the best ways for day hikers to reach the summit and find the best trails and views.

So far our favourite route is a clockwise loop from the AMC Cardigan Lodge on the east side of the mountain, but there's still plenty in store for you if you take one of the shorter routes up the west flank from Cardigan Mountain State Park. Scroll down for more information on each, including maps for smartphone navigation.

West Ridge West Loop, Manning-Clark Expand Map

West Ridge Trail 4★
3.0 mi, Out & Back, Medium, Gain 1180ft
Trailspotting Map: AllTrails, GPX File

Taking and out and back route on West Ridge Trail is the shortest route from trailhead to summit. After hiking through light forest across rocks and roots, the landscape changes to exposed granite slabs and short evergreen trees. Continue up the slabs to reach the summit. The State Park trailhead is appointed with a picnic area and restrooms, though outside of peak season the restrooms are usually out of action.

West Loop 4★
3.4 mi, Loop, Medium, Gain 1250ft
Trailspotting Map: AllTrails, GPX File

For just a little additional mileage this looping route up the mountain's western flanks offers more views and trail variety. Begin at the state park trailhead, and follow the West Ridge Trail through a forest of maple, birch and beech trees for two-thirds of a mile to the junction that marks the start o fthe South Ridge Trail. Choosing a counter-clockwise loop, continue through the forest on the South Ridge Trail until the tree line recedes around 1 mile into your hike. The forest trail involves some level sections, but also rocky steps and some roots with occasional mud in places.

At the summit you’ll find the fire tower adorned with solar panels and well anchored to the rock, looking like a cross between a lunar excursion module and something from Mad Max. The fire tower is one of around 27 standing fire towers in NH, and one of the goals of the state's Fire Tower Quest Patch. The return trip on the clockwise route proceeds down the West Ridge Trail all the way back to the trailhead and parking lot, for a total length of 3.4 miles.

Forest of maple, birch and beech trees comprise the first mile of the hike.

Manning-Clark Loop 5★
5.3 mi, Loop, Medium, Gain 1860ft
Trailspotting Map: AllTrails, GPX File

This is our favourite Mount Cardigan route so far because it features a variety of terrain, includes a second peak, and has excellent views on the approach to Cardigan Mountain's peak. Note that the northern half of this loop does involve some rock scrambles and steep granite slabs, which is why we recommend a counter-clockwise direction as it's easier to ascend than descend. If you prefer an easier alternative, you could use the southern half of this loop as a shorter out-and-back which would be 4.8 miles long with 1730 feet of elevation gain, but you do miss out on some of the best views.

Head out of the AMC Cardigan Lodge past the campsites, then peel right onto the Manning Trail. Watch out for a suprising and poorly signposted right turn into the woods after half a mile, eschewing the continuing straight and wide track in front of you. Beyond here, navigation is simple as you climb the eastern side of Firescrew Mountain. At the summit follow Mowgli's Trail south to Mount Cardigan, then return on Clark Trail and the Holt/Clark Cutoff to Elizabeth Falls and concluding on the lower part of the Holt Trail.

Holt Trail is another summit trail up the mountain's east side but we haven't tackled this one yet. AMC describes it as "the shortest but most difficult route to the summit" and "one of the most difficult in New England" that's not recommended for descents. We're hoping to tackle this one soon, so follow Trailspotting to be notified when we add this as a new trail.

Mount Cardigan's squat fire tower.

Views on the descent of the West Ridge Trail.

Fall colors on the West trails. | East trailhead at the AMC Lodge.

• Trail Links: Official
• Public Maps at AllTrails: West Loop, Manning-Clark, Holt (Very Hard)
• Facebook Group: Comment on this article

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