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Trail Trials: Accessible Mount Cardigan offers the possibility of a fruit-full hike

  • An orange blaze marks the way on the West Ridge Trail en route to the summit of Mount Cardigan in Orange, N.H., on Aug. 20, 2020.

  • A wild low-bush blueberry remains ripe for the picking near the summit of Mount Cardigan in Orange, N.H., on Aug. 20, 2020. Valley News — Greg Fennell

  • It's not an uncommon sight to see someone's attempt at carving a memory into the rocky summit of Mount Cardigan in Orange, N.H., as with this one on Aug. 20, 2020. Valley News — Greg Fennell

  • Although in dilapidated condition, the old fire watchtower remains the focal point for hikers seeking to reach the summit of Mount Cardigan in Orange, N.H., on Aug. 20, 2020. Valley News — Greg Fennell—

  • A group of hikers — most of them, at least — take in the view east from the summit of Mount Cardigan in Orange, N.H., on Aug. 20, 2020. Valley News photographs — Greg Fennell

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 8/22/2020 8:23:24 PM
Modified: 8/22/2020 8:30:02 PM

ORANGE, N.H. — I am on a sacred quest, propelled by an ancient memory embedded inside my cranium.

No one from the Food Network will be ringing my phone to praise my skills, but I possess a primordial need to bake, a yearning only slightly exacerbated by the current pandemic. (The freshly assembled mocha toffee bar cheesecake in my refrigerator would argue my condition is more grave.) The house absolutely requires the aroma of muffins.

And not just any muffin. Big, fat, ready-to-dunk-in-a-monster-mug-of-coffee blueberry muffins. But to deserve them, they must first be earned.

Up here atop Mount Cardigan, I know those blueberries are around here somewhere.

This summer of get-off-the-couch-and-get-on-a-mountain recently revived a distant recollection of my wife and my mother-in-law leading a hike of Cardigan many years ago, ostensibly to pick wild blueberries. The memory remains strong because of the success we had at the time.

The great thing about Cardigan is, whatever your reason for visiting, it’s so accessible. It’s a short drive away. It’s modest in height (3,155 feet) and a relatively quick conquest. But its exposed summit — the result of a mid-1850s forest fire — gives you the feel and views of an above-treeline mountain without the effort required for hiking in the Presidential Range.

And, if you time it right and know where to look, there’s a blueberry payoff at the top.

From the state park lot, the West Ridge Trail ascends at a modest-enough angle to quickly get your heart pumping before leveling out. Lower parts of the trail sometimes encounter mud; the Cardigan Highlanders volunteer trail maintenance group has done an excellent job with rocks or planks in such locations. Make use of them, and protect the trail.

You meet the South Ridge Trail after just 15 minutes; stay to the left and follow West Ridge’s orange blazes uphill and through a short but steep rock staircase. (Two disposable facemasks hung on branches not far past.) The Skyland Trail junction arrives on the right about a half-hour later; again, stay left, cross the bridge over a dry runoff bed and continue.

The dirt trail soon yields to rock as maples and birches give way to the pines that dominate upper elevations. Once you see the dilapidated fire watchtower for the first time, you’ll know the summit is near. It took me about an hour to go from lot to top.

Thursday’s trek came on the most perfect of weather days. Although windy, there were clear views to Mount Ascutney and Okemo to the west, Ragged Mountain and the Mount Kearsarge fire tower to the south and the Presidentials to the northeast. About two dozen people milled around as I arrived; my hunt began in earnest after most had left.

I recalled my family’s previous berry-acquisition effort came in early August, so my worries about missing the mother lode this time proved valid. Still, the low bushes were where I expected, on Cardigan’s south side below the summit. Those remaining berries that weren’t already desiccated were relatively tiny. A half-hour of meticulous search and selection yielded enough for muffin-making.

If not fruit-full, at least the effort was fruitful.

To make this a loop hike, I descended along a route I’d not explored before.

The white-blazed Clark Trail zigzags down Cardigan’s ledge to a beat-up forester’s cabin at the junction of the South Ridge Trail on the right. Stay left at the meet-up with West Ridge for nice views from Cardigan’s South Peak (elevation: about 2,850 feet) before advancing to a meeting with the Skyland Trail at Rimrock.

I muffed my descent at this point. Signage indicated a reunion with West Ridge barely a quarter-mile away, so I opted for the right-hand turn toward the orange blazes that would get me back to familiar territory. Had I been more watchful, I could have continued straight on South Ridge’s white-blazed route for a merge with West Ridge about a half-mile further downslope.

No matter. All of these interconnected routes cover a mountain that’s impossible to miss and fun to hike. There’s a lot more to Mount Cardigan than one simple up-and-down.

I have six big blueberry muffins — urp, sorry, make that five — as evidence.

Greg Fennell can be reached at or 603-727-3226.

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