A couple weeks ago I was on the hunt for new trails, as I so often am, and I stumbled across Cardigan Mountain State Park. Peter and I hiked Cardigan Mountain about 12 years ago when we were dating, but we haven’t been back since. I couldn’t find any good maps online, but I gathered enough information to estimate that we could easily run 15-20 miles on the trail network there, so I ordered a map.
When the map came, I planned as big loop as I could, up and over as many peaks as I could. I was pleased when the result netted a total of 7 peaks and 15 miles. Just long enough to make for a substantial run and just do-able enough for my healing knee injury.
We parked at the West Ridge Trailhead and started out by taking the 1.5 mile West Ridge Trail to the summit of Cardigan (3,155′). It’s an easy climb–not too steep or technical–and if you’re accustomed to running in the mountains, the whole trail is definitely runable.
After about a mile, we popped out above the treeline, and from there to the top, the trail heads straight up Cardigan’s giant granite dome.
Limited views on this hazy day
Looking up at the fire tower on the summit
We happened to run into a group of our friends on the summit (totally unplanned!), so we lingered for awhile to chat with them and take some pictures.
Peter, me and Jaime
After 10 minutes or so we headed off down the opposite side of the mountain on the Mowglis Trail. It was hard to find the trail at first because the entire summit is bald, and the only trail markers are white blazes painted on the granite. From there we did some really nice ridge running along the rock slabs, in and out of the trees, all the way to our next peak, Firescrew (3,040′).
It was all downhill to Firescrew, and I didn’t actually realize when we hit the summit because a large group was having a picnic there, and we had to detour around them. We continued on the Mowglis Trail towards Mowglis Mountain (2,370′), still running downhill and then back into the trees to stay, for awhile. The forest here was beautifully mossy and lush!
We took a short side trail out to the lookout from Hanging Rock for a look at the ridge ahead of us.
After this it was a short distance to the junction with the Elwell Trail. A little tip: even if you are aiming for the Mowglis summit, you do not want to continue on the Mowglis Trail at this point because for some unfathomable reason the Mowglis Trail does not actually go to Mowglis Mountain, only the Elwell Trail does. Yes, we went the wrong way. Thankfully we only went about half a mile out of our way before we realized our mistake.
We backtracked and headed up the Elwell Trail, which does a fair amount of sustained, but not steep, climbing all the way to the Mowglis summit.
From a lookout near the top of Mowglis, looking back at the Firescrew ridge and Hanging Rock
There isn’t a view from the summit itself, but this plaque mountain on a large boulder marks the spot. From there we continued on the Elwell Trail towards Oregon Mountain (2,239′).
I had read reports prior to our trip that the Elwell Trail is unmaintained, and we were concerned that as we got further out it would be overgrown and difficult to follow, but this was not the case. It was clearly a trail that sees very little use, but it was well marked, there were very few blowdowns, and the trail was easily distinguishable.
I absolutely loved this section of the Elwell Trail. The ground was soft and springy, the trail was mostly free of rocks and roots, and the terrain was rolling and easy. We saw moose tracks and scat everywhere (some very fresh!), and it was clear that this trail is used by the local wildlife much more frequently than by hikers.
We also found this chunk of hair stuck on the end of this stick that jabbed me in the shoulder. Apparently the moose impaled itself on it just like I did!
I ran that whole section with my camera in my hand hoping that we would see Mr. or Mrs. Moose in person, but we didn’t. :/ It was mostly a ridge run to Oregon with no significant climbing, and we had a limited view from the summit.
From there we had a long descent down the Elwell Trail to where it meets up with Old Dicey Rd. There was an old abandoned truck there that was pretty neat.
We turned off onto the Back 80 Trail (different from the Back 80 LOOP), which took us down to the AMC Cardigan Lodge. Around here we started seeing lots of hikers again, and the trails were well maintained.
After running downhill for quite a ways, it was time to start our final, long ascent. We took the Woodland Trail, Clark Trail and Vistamont Trail to the summit of Orange Mountain (2,684′). This route went straight up the mountain, and it was slow-going on tired legs.
From the top we had a good view of the Cardigan summit.
We took the Skyland Trail to Rimrock (2800′), which involved a quick descent and then another fairly significant climb.
It was my original intent at this point to continue on to Cardigan’s South Peak (2,864′), but we were short on time, so we skipped the final summit and headed down South Ridge Trail to West Ridge Trail and back to the trailhead. It took us a little over 5 hours including all our stops, and we ended up with about 16 miles, 6 summits and sore feet. It was not quite as spectacular and thrilling as hiking and running in the Whites, but we thoroughly enjoyed the trails and can’t wait to go back and explore further afield. We learned that the Elwell Trail continues all the way to Newfound Lake (approximately 16 miles one way), so I have my sights set on an out-and-back as soon as I feel up to a 30+ mile day.