Monday, August 10, 2009

The historic Elwell Trail

Distance: 10.4 miles one way from Newfound Lake west to junction of Mowglis Trail (car spot used at AMC Cardigan Lodge and additional 4.6 miles hiked over Mowglis, Clark, Cathedral Forest [Holt-Clark Cutoff] and Holt Trails to the lodge for total 15.0 miles)
Difficulty: moderate elevation gain (3600 feet from Newfound Lake to intersection with Mowglis Trail); some care necessary to route-find on lightly used middle sections of trail

One trail near Cardigan Mountain that caught my attention years ago was the Elwell Trail, which has its eastern terminus right across the road from Wellington State Park, on Newfound Lake. Only in recent years while hiking around Cardigan did I realize that the Elwell Trail runs west from the lake over 10 miles of mostly ridge path to the Mowglis Trail, near Cilley's Cave and a few miles east of Cardigan Mountain, making a roughly 14-mile day hike from the lake to the summit of Cardigan possible (see PDF file of topo map here, with trail marked).

Snippets of history about the trail abound in past AMC guides, state forest guides, and other sources. Apparently, much of the trail was cut in the few years prior to 1942 by Camp Mowglis, a summer camp that opened in 1903 on Newfound Lake, as a means of providing access to Cardigan Mountain for the young campers' "long walk." The longest segment used to be known as the Oregon Mountain Trail, cut circa 1938, while another section, cut in 1942, was originally the Bear Mountain Trail. A final portion was added on near the Sugarloaves adjacent to the lake. Shortly after the death in 1962 of former Camp Mowglis director Colonel Alcott Farrar Elwell, the trail in its entirety was christened the Elwell Trail in his honor. (There's some interesting history about Elwell, including excerpts from his diary, here; also, Elwell's father was the renowned American sculptor Francis Edwin Elwell, orphaned at four and by some accounts raised by American novelist Louisa May Alcott. But, I digress...)

Intrigued, I started to look into this a bit more. As far as the old AMC guides are concerned, the trail is first mentioned in the 1963 edition, after the descriptions for the Oregon Mountain and Bear Mountain Trail, the guide indicates that these two trails would be connected soon to become the Elwell Trail. From that edition on, the route and description appear in the AMC guides (before being removed, along with other trails in the southern New Hampshire mountains, to become the AMC's Southern New Hampshire Trail Guide). I consulted with a local friend of mine who confirmed that the trail used to be maintained by Camp Mowglis, but that it had become disused over the years until being reblazed in the past few months by some folks from Camp Pasquaney. Finally, there's no decent current map of the trail — it shows up in AMC guides and on a ten-year-old USGS map (from which I made the PDF file with trail overlay), but the map isn't accurate in some key spots (it's off by a half mile in some portions).

Having no idea what sort of condition the entire trail might be in, Sandra and I decided to hike it in sections, going as far as we could from either end with whatever free time we had and trying to see how clear it might be in preparation for doing the entire trail from start to finish without interruption.

The Sugarloaves: Little Sugarloaf and Sugarloaf Mountains
From its eastern terminus near Newfound Lake, the trail climbs Little Sugarloaf and Sugarloaf Mountains and quickly hits some wonderful granite ledges with great views of the lake. This section of the trail gets frequent use and is well marked with yellow blazes.

Bear Mountain
After Sugarloaf Mountain, the trail heads northwest across the ridge, toward Bear Mountain. At that point and for the next mile or so before a steep climb up Bear Mountain, much of the trail is a beautiful walk along granite ledge and blueberry bush scrub.

At this point, the blazes disappear in favor of vintage Camp Mowglis trail markers — complete with stencil of the Mowgli wolf silhouette. (Over parts of the trail all the way to Cardigan Mountain, some of these old signs have been painted over with fresh yellow paint.)

On Bear Mountain, more granite ledges and more views of Newfound Lake near Hebron — but these will be some of the last, as after this the trail angles west away from the lake.

The Powerline Cut and the Welton Falls Trails
From Bear Mountain — at just shy of the halfway point — the Elwell Trail leaves the ridgeline for a bit and makes its way across a powerline cut, into the open. It's after Bear Mountain that the trail begins to show some signs of underuse — on the granite ledges, moss and lichen have entirely reclaimed the path; wild raspberry canes obscure some open-field sections; and deep layers of leaves are piled on other portions of the trail.

However, it seems that in the past month or so it someone has spent some considerable time re-blazing and re-marking the trail — my friend tells me that some of the folks at Camp Pasquaney (on Newfound Lake near Camp Mowglis; Alcott Farrar Elwell was a camper at Pasquaney in 1902, the year before Camp Mowglis was founded) have been responsible for this on the eastern end, while according to Steve Smith's blog, the western end as been maintained by the Cardigan Highlanders (thank you, both groups!).

After the powerline cut, the trail reaches an intersection with the north-heading portion of the old Welton Falls Trail. I wonder how old this trail sign is? (If you look closely at the bottom left-hand side of the picture, you can see remnants of the previous sign.)

In just under a mile, the southern-heading section of the old Welton Falls Trail is crossed (it's an access point to the Elwell Trail from Welton Falls Road, not too far from the AMC's Cardigan Lodge). The trail is pretty overgrown in some points past this section as it makes its way back up the ridgeline, toward the open ledges of Oregon Mountain, but still well (and recently) blazed. Bear in mind that in the several times we've hiked this area of the trail, we've not seen another person — and the trail looks like we've been the only traffic on it recently.

Oregon Mountain
We soon reach the first ledges of Oregon Mountain — some great views and nice, open ridge-walking for a bit.

And then, the intersection with the spur trail that heads to the summit of Oregon Mountain — from which there are nice views south of Firescrew and Cardigan Mountain.

Old Dicey Road and Mowglis Mountain
The trail descends Oregon Mountain to meet up with Old Dicey Road (a connecting link with the Back 80 Trail near the AMC Cardigan Lodge) and the Carter Gibbs Trail (with an access point from Sculptured Rocks, in Groton), before climbing steadily toward Mowglis Mountain — named for the camp and made official in 1951 — where there is a plaque attached to a large granite boulder, commemorating the camp.

Here's the intersection with Old Dicey Road/Carter Gibbs Trail (note the Mowglis wolf silhouettes):

And, a picture of the plaque on Mowglis Mountain:

Past the summit are some nice open ledges, with good views south toward Firescrew.

Intersection with the Back 80 Trail
From this point, the trail is somewhat overgrown — but easy to follow because of the recent blazing work — all the way to the intersection with the Back 80 Trail coming from Cardigan Lodge.

From here, it climbs up the ridge to its intersection with the Mowglis Trail heading to Firescrew, and the side paths to Cilley's Cave. Note the old Mowglis sign at left, showing the distances to various points along the trail.

We hiked this section on Saturday (what a beautiful day) and saw only one person on the trail — a guy who works at the AMC Cardigan Lodge. When we mentioned how few people we see on the Elwell Trail, he said that the AMC was considering dropping the trail from its upcoming revision of the trails in the area (if they had not already). I really hope that they don't do this.

Since this time we've hiked the entire length of the trail in one go and have seen some additional re-blazing of the trail. Also, a new description for the Elwell Trail appears in the recently published edition (2010) of the AMC's Southern New Hampshire Trail Guide and the trail is considered active.


  1. Thanks for this thorough guide! I was out visiting from Colorado last week and had to give it a shot. Here's my write up:

  2. Thank you, Woody -- check back soon and I'll have posted a much better series of maps of the Elwell Trail and all of the "feeder" trails nearby.