OverviewThe Holt Trail is the shortest route to Cardigan's summit from the east, and is the steepest and most technically demanding of any route on the mountain, reaching a few short stretches of Class 3 scrambling. The trail climbs a total of 1800 vertical feet and is about 2.2 miles one way; however, 1000 feet are gained in only the last four tenths of a mile! The Holt Trail is not recommended for descent (though several other possibilities exist). This trail is a must for anybody who has climbed Cardigan countless times from the W (Canaan) side and who wants to see a different and more challenging side of the mountain.
Getting ThereThe trailhead is at the AMC lodge in Alexandria. Directions to the lodge and further information can be found here.
Route DescriptionFrom the lodge, follow the continuation of the road you took past a pond on the L as it becomes a wide, wooded forest road, at first flat or gently climbing. Stay L at the Manning Trail splitoff--as an aside, all trail junctions are well-marked in the park, from what I've seen--then cross Bailey Brook on a bridge.
At this point, the trail becomes more rugged, climbing mildly to moderately parallel to Bailey Brook on a narrow path. Another critical trail intersection--"the Grand JCT" is reached, from which you stay R as the Holt Trail continues to climb. Incidentally, if for whatever reason you wish to take another route up, this is the place to do it!
From here, the trail gradually increases in steepness until the first bit of true scrambling is reached--a steep rock ledge with a prominent cleft. If you are unaware that the trail effectively heads straight uphill starting at this point, you may "lose" the trail, as happened to a few hikers I encountered coming back down the trail. Instead, scramble straight up the cleft and begin the incredibly steep ascent up the final portion of the trail.
After this first obstacle is surmounted, things are easier for a time, with only smaller jumbled rocks and smooth slabs of rock mildly sloped enough to walk or easily scramble straight up on. Views open up toward Firescrew and the E. Just perhaps 200' below Cardigan's summit, however, comes the crux move: a 45-degree slab of extremely smooth rock, with a safe resting spot a few dozen feet up. Once this is (cautiously) surmounted, the trail gradually but quickly flattens and tops out just to the E of the summit of Cardigan.
Essential GearGood hiking shoes with excellent grip, preferably a bit of scrambling experience, and the confidence that, with the above two, you'll generally have very good traction on Cardigan's open rock slabs. I would not recommend this trail when wet or covered with snow/ice--proceed at your own peril!
You should also have a map; topozone does not have the Holt Trail's route accurately mapped out, but there are maps in the AMC lodge that do. Have fun!