Maine Mountains: Saddleback Just Re-Opened, Sugarloaf USA in Great Form
By Max Hartshorne
Maine is a vast state, by far the largest of the six in New England.
But Maine isn’t the first state you think of when winter sports and skiing are the topics. That’s usually where Vermont takes the bow.
We just returned from a few days of skiing at the two gigantic mountains in Western Maine. It was a great skiing experience and the drive home gave a glimpse of the beauty of New Hampshire in winter peak.
I always love a country drive, and the world of covered bridges, country stores, and ice-fishing shacks on snow-covered lakes were fun to watch glide by.
Our plan was to drive up during a weekday–and I can’t stress enough how good a decision this was. Both resorts were practically empty in early February but the conditions were first-rate, with no ice, easy to ski packed powder, and a breeze from the empty rentals shop to the line-free lift lines.
Saddleback Maine Redux
We ran into the press representative from SaddlebackMaine, Doc Tulin, but he was loaded down with camera equipment doing a shoot on the slopes.
“Next week we’re gonna all be slammed,” he told us. That’s because the traditional school vacation holiday was sure to be sending thousands of more skiers up to the Rangeley Lake region.
While Doc didn’t have a lot of time for chit-chat, we did tell us about the remarkable recovery this mountain made, after being left for dead for a full five years up in the remote Rangeley Lakes region.
Saddleback Maine is the state’s third-largest resort, in terms of vertical drop (2000), the number of trails, and snowmaking percentage.
Just 29 miles around the bend and the mountain in the Carrabassett Valley is Sugarloaf USA, famous for its snowfields and a large number of lifts.
The other large Maine ski resort is Sunday River, in Newry, 72 miles south.
Sorely Missed their Mountain
The people in Rangeley sorely missed having Saddleback open, the manager of the Rangeley Inn said.
“We were going great up here before the pandemic, despite the mountain closing,” she said. The welcoming lobby, complete with stuffed Bear and Moose, was locked up, with the overstuffed chairs stored away and the famous Rangeley Tavern closed. Now you can once again enjoy this classic Maine hotel lobby in person.
For our 2021 visit, this meant dining on take-out from Sarge’s the sports bar across the street. The story about what happened to Saddleback has what seems like a fairy-tale ending.
Trees Growing Back
Others here told us that after the five-year closure from 2015-20, trees began growing back across the mountain’s trails as they waited for someone to come up with the millions to pay for the new Dopplmayr high-speed quad chairlift they needed.
After two different families owned it since its opening in 1961, by 2017 was about t0 be sold to and saved by an Australian company.
But after the millionaire owner got caught up in financial problems stemming from trying to allow foreigners U.S. citizenship in exchange for EB5 investments, he was arrested and the deal fell through.
Months later news arrived that an investment group of out Boston, the Arctaris Impact Fund with a $500 million war chest was set to not only buy and re0pen the resort but pump up to $30 million into the entire resort area.
Eleven New Trails
And after cutting eleven new trails and sprucing up the lodge and other amenities, (despite much of this being closed or altered because of Covid in 2021), Saddleback Maine officially opened up for skiing again on Dec 15, 2020.
The energy is positive all over the resort as the staff gets it all going again and welcomes the big crowds to the slopes.
Saddleback’s terrain consists of 38% Beginner trails (25 trails), 29% Intermediate trails (19 trails), and 33% Advance and Expert trails (22 trails). There are also three ski lifts, which include two, fixed-grip quads and a high-speed detachable quad.
At the top of Saddleback, serviced by a perpendicular lift going the rest of the way to the top, is the Kennebago Steeps, advanced terrain with narrow glades that is great for the high-energy skiers.
Sugarloaf: It’s a Village
The drive up to Sugarloaf in Maine’s Carrabassett Valley is mainly over the famously boring Maine Turnpike until you get past Lewiston, then it’s smaller roads and those familiar blue Trump-Pence signs that nobody here wants to put away.
But enough of that. The drive snakes you through Farmington and Kingfield Maine until the giant blue Sugarloaf mountain logo becomes the norm.
You’ll be inside these confines throughout your stay, our hotel was right next to an older double chairlift. There are shops, cafes, restaurants, and condos here, even a little grocery store.
The convenience of staying so close to our hotel room was obvious when the weather grew colder and I needed to add a layer. An easy clomp, clomp, clomp to my fourth-floor hotel room!
The long drive made for an evening arrival and after settling into the comfy hotel I ventured out for a wood-fired pizza, ordering a margarita pizza.
We could have dined in the restaurant, which looked cozy and inviting, but we brought our dinner back to the hotel room, as we usually did in these times.
It was nice that the hotel room includes a microwave, silverware, plates, cups, and everything we needed. The next night we decided to save by buying food we could heat up ourselves and skipping the so-so expensive take-out pizza.
Breakfast at our Door
The next day the hotel surprised us by how they handled breakfast. Instead of dining at the breakfast bar downstairs, they first slipped us a note under our door at 7 am that our breakfasts were ready.
Then we opened the hotel door to find a bag including a hot egg scramble, delicious home fries from the griddle at 45North, their onsite restaurant. They also threw in cold cereal, French toast bites, yogurt tubes, fruit milk, and juice. We used the Keurig coffeemaker in the room and it was a nice repast.
Empty Rental Shop
We got ourselves bundled up for the cold temperatures and headed to the lobby right across the village quad to find the ski equipment rentals. We were the only patrons, a first for me!
One of the aspects of this ski trip for me was to help Sofie get used to skiing a bigger mountain and improve her skills.
Sugarloaf has a storied history, being the mountain that was chosen when the U.S. Ski Association wanted a ski area in Maine. It began with T-bars in the 1950s and later in the 60s “The Mighty Gondola” became the resort’s symbol.
The most recent owners of Sugarloaf dismantled the remains of the gondola to install the high-speed detachable quads that are very efficient and easy to use, compared with the old style lifts like the short lift that goes from the lower hotel to the lodge.
We made our way up to the first smaller chair for some easy runs down the beginner slopes. Then eventually we decided to take the lift about 2/3 up the mountain.
Unlike nearly every other ski mountain I’ve visited when we got off the lift at the top, there was no trail map, there were only signs indicating the blue and the black trails to descend.
Sofie, my beginner ski companion, began to get scared. There didn’t appear to be an easy way to get down, no green beginner’s trail, and without the big familiar map, it was all confusing.
She ended up panicking and having to take a toboggan down helped by a friendly and very reassuring member of the ski patrol named Jack.
Bless him–but why, oh why does neither mountain have any trail maps next to the lifts at the bottom or the top? Never heard of that.
Skiing at these two resorts in Western Maine is cheaper than most Vermont resorts. It’s dynamic pricing setup that offers discounts both on weekdays and other days.
Maine Tourism for more travel ideas in the great state of Maine