5.2 miles (round trip via the Mowglis and Manning trails on descent)
Time: 3-6 hours
A little over a mile into the route up Mt. Cardigan, we came to a fork in the trail called Grand Junction. On the left-hand side, there was a huge, unmissable wooden sign that read, in enormous white lettering: “EASIEST ROUTE TO CARDIGAN.”
To the right, there was a much smaller laminated sign bolted to a nearby tree: “This is the shortest, but most difficult route to the summit of Mt. Cardigan,” it read. “Allow extra time for this challenging and strenuous climb. You will not be able to bushwack across the cliffs to another trail and will have to return to this junction.”
The short, ominous option to the right was the class three Holt Trail, and it was the reason we came. Under the Yosemite Decimal System, class three is characterized by scrambling, necessary handholds, and falls that could “easily be fatal.” Hey, if we were going to drive three hours to a mountain we’ve already hiked once before, we might as well make it worth our while.
The first part of the Holt Trail was an easy, rambling ascent that, honestly, was a little underwhelming given the high bar that is set when someone warns you that you can’t bushwack your way to safety on this path. We hiked steadily upwards along a small stream that increasingly got more bouldery until we were confronted face-first with the first actual climb of the trail. We crack-climbed our way up a low-angle rock face and out into broad daylight (read: scorching sunlight).
This is where things started to get serious. The rest of the climb up the mountain was pretty much entirely exposed with the exception of a few scrubby trees here and there. Most of the trail was steep slabs of rock that were not too difficult to cross, sprinkled with a couple sections of true class three climbing. On those parts, handholds were required and we were forced to scoot our way up large cracks. It was a bit harrowing at some points, but we both agreed looking back that the “fatal falls” descriptor might be overselling it a bit.
We passed exactly two other hikers on the entire way up the Holt trail, but once we reached the summit, there were easily 30 to 40 people congregating near the fire tower marking the top of the peak. We’ve traveled the main route up Cardigan in the winter and it’s definitely a family-friendly hike; plus, the fully-outfitted AMC lodge at the base of the trail makes it a popular hike for groups wishing to spend the weekend on the mountain.
To make a loop of it, and to avoid descending via the Holt Trail, we took the Mowglis Trail to the north over Firescrew, providing views back to Cardigan, including the route we just took. Returning on the Manning Trail brought us back to the beginning of the hike at the AMC Mt. Cardigan lodge.