Recently, three of us traveled over to the western part of the state and did Mount Cardigan in Orange and Alexandria. I was psyched to bring my friends there.
Mount Cardigan (3,155 feet) is a wonderful little mountain, set off by itself west of Newfound Lake and east of the village of Canaan. Its bald summit of smooth ledge offers some of the best views in New Hampshire.
The tall cairns of rock on the West Ridge Trail above timberline, the old fire tower on top, and the historic initials and names carved on the smooth rock beneath the fire tower — many from the 19th century — add an indelible uniqueness to it.
The geology of the mountain is complex. The rock on the summit of Mount Cardigan is 100 million years older than the Presidentials. It began forming during an early mountain building period called the Acadian Orogeny when the African and North American plates collided, forming the supercontinent Pangea and causing the closure of the proto-Atlantic Ocean.
The basaltic seabed was forced by the African plate beneath the North American plate in a process called subduction. It heated and combined with other materials to form magma. This lighter material rose upward, cooling and solidifying four miles beneath the surface. This eroded away.
The Mount Cardigan Pluton is a 90-km long dome of granite, with the mountain at its northern end.
Adding to the complexity, the lower mountain, beneath the granite summit dome, is composed of metamorphic schist, formed during a previous orogeny. At timberline on the trail, the contact between the schist and the granite is obvious, where the lighter schist below intermingles with the granite above.
Also obvious on the upper gray granite dome of Mount Cardigan is white quartz in the form of white veins a few inches wide that swirl through the rock. These formed when the intrusive domes of magma were in the process of cooling and cracked.
Hot steam came up the cracks from below. It contained silicon dioxide. This cooled quickly, forming uniform quartz in the cracks. If it had cooled slower, there would have been time for quartz crystals to form.
It would be interesting to know what the forest was like on the upper slopes of Mount Cardigan before 1855. In that year, a big fire swept over the mountain. With trees gone and the soil eroded away, the bare rock peak was known as Old Baldy.
Today, the 5,000 acre Cardigan Mountain State Forest plus the Appalachian Mountain Club’s 1,200-acre Cardigan Preserve protect the mountain. On the west side the short 1.5-mile West Ridge Trail climbs to the summit from the state park’s parking lot. In the east, longer trails to the summit begin at the AMC’s Cardigan Lodge.
My previous hikes up the mountain have often been in the afternoon on return drives from Hanover or other points west and I’ve been faithful to the quick West Ridge Trail, easily accessed from Canaan.
With a 76.5-mile drive to the mountain from Conway, last week we decided to stick to the easy West Ridge Trail. We combined that with the Clark and South Ridge Trails for a very enjoyable 3.5-mile loop.
We pulled into the state park lot about 10 a.m. and started up the trail. Passing well worn switchbacks, I mentioned to my friends that the last time I had done this trail it was literally on a sheet of brown stained ice, and of course I had used MICROspikes.
We reached timberline quickly and rose about the trees on weathered granite, the western view opening up. We followed the tall 4-foot cairns up towards the closed fire tower, marveling at the variations of white quartz veins and waves in the gray rock at our feet.
The wind picked up and we walked past the tower and down the east side a few feet out of the wind for lunch. The White Mountains spread out to the north and east. Above the valley of Rumney, a ridge of wind towers twirled steadily.
Before leaving we walked to the north end of the summit to look out over the subsidiary ridge of Firescrew, named for the screw of smoke that rose from it during the fire of 1855. It had partially re-vegetated since then, and was an attractive green and gray.
We walked back past the tower and off the south side of the summit, following the paint marks for the Clark Trail, which brought us to a junction at the old fire warden’s cabin just below timberline.
On this beautiful weekday, we encountered quite a few hikers, many coming up the longer hikes from the AMC Cardigan Lodge.
At the junction, we took the South Ridge Trail as short way out to the South Summit. The view from there looking back at the main summit was striking. We continued the descent on the South Ridge Trail, reconnecting with the West Ridge Trail, and the parking lot.
We all enjoyed the hike on Mount Cardigan. The drive back east on Routes 4 and 104 was highlighted by our discovery of the Mill Fudge Factory and Ice Cream Café in Bristol, where we indulged in their original ice cream flavors.
Anybody who drives west to hike Mount Cardigan should stop at their shop in town, down by the old mill on the Newfound River.