I suppose I should have expected it. It was the first week of November. Halloween and the Day of the Dead had just gone by. Thanks to a good storm earlier in the week, all the leaves were off the trees, blown away by the winds and rain. But today it was sunny and crisp and perfectly clear, and the lost foliage made the bare trees appear like skeletons.
I was hiking the Skyland Trail, probably the most obscure way to get to the top of Mt. Cardigan. But why? Since the summer I’ve been returning again and again to the east side of Cardigan to check out the less-well-used trails, and with a name like Skyland, who can resist? Besides, some have even called it one of the best trails in NH. Even the “just the facts” AMC trail guide says it is “a very scenic route, with several fine outlooks.” High praise indeed. That level of hyperbole was the challenge, the gauntlet thrown. I HAD to check out this trail and see it for myself. Little did I know what was in store for me.
In spite of it being a sunny Saturday, I had the trail completely to myself, not a soul to be seen. (Well, technically I DID see another soul.) The dead leaves underneath my feet made lots of noise – it was intentional – I didn’t want to come face to face with a bear or something worse. The rustling of the leaves was quite effective, too. Chipmunks and squirrels ran in fear (or maybe bemusement) as I approached. But on the exposed ledges there are no leaves, thus there was no sound to make others aware of my presence. On the ledges I was as silent as a ninja.
Now this trail ascends a series of progressively higher mountains on it’s way to Cardigan, and each one has a view – or two – or three. First south, then east, then north, then towards Cardigan itself, the views just get better and better. In fact, that’s precisely why it has been so highly touted. And just where do you get these views? You guessed it – from the exposed ledges.
I had made it to Orange Mountain, which offered the best views of the day, especially towards Cardigan and to the northeast. But I had gotten a late start, and based on the time and the condition of my leg muscles, I decided to turn back. Hiking is always easier when you know what’s in store for you. I knew the trail now, I was sure of my footing, and the descent allowed gravity to hasten me along. Until…
I’m not entirely sure just which ledge it was. I think it was called Grafton Knob, with good views toward the west. I had even stopped there for lunch on the way up and noticed nothing unusual. But now, as I emerged from the woods onto the open ledge, I was startled to my senses by the chaotic thup-thup sound of dozens of wings flapping. There, from behind one of those small, stunted, bonsai-like trees, the kind that grow in the tiny cracks between the rocks where there is seemingly no soil or other form of nourishment, burst a dozen or so crows, as startled by my sudden appearance as I was of theirs, who all took flight simultaneously in a flurry of flutter and scattered in every direction like fireworks.
By now you’ve probably guessed the rest of the tale. Please pardon my having fun with that elementary school game: “What’s a group of such-and-such called?”
What’s a group of whales called? A pod.
What’s a group of fish called? A school.
What’s a group of crows called? Yup, a murder.
Well, you’ve read this far so as an apology, it’s time to give you something to enjoy. Below are just some of the views to be had from this rewarding trail. Maybe it’s not the best trail in New Hampshire (which everyone knows is the Franconia Ridge Trail), but it’s probably one of the best if you were to divide the rating by the number of other hikers, thus generating your “experience quotient.”
And here are some more interesting photos. Sometimes it pays to look down as well as up!
Here’s the mileage from the start of the trail at Alexandria Four Corners: