Maine's two biggie resorts are each epic in their own special way.
By Katherine Englishman and Josh Christie Illustrated by Maghen Brown
Between the two of them, Newry’s Sunday River Resort and Carrabassett Valley’s Sugarloaf Mountain Resort account for some two-thirds of Maine ski areas’ annual 1.3 million skier/snowboarder visits — but each has its own character and mystique. So which to pick for your next weekend trip? We put Maine’s mega-resorts head-to-head to see how they stack up.
Spread out across eight distinct peaks, all linked by ridges, connector trails, and a big scatter of lifts, Sunday River has terrain for every skill level and alpine preference. It’s famous for its herculean grooming and snowmaking efforts, making for next-to-no iffy days and a season that can stretch until May. And the Rivah is wicked hospitable, with three base lodges, an on-mountain lodge, two hotels, a mess of condos, and plenty of dining options. If Sunday River were a car, it’d be a Subaru wagon: dependable, roomy, approachable, and perfect for a carefree road trip with family and friends.
Three Mile Trail: From the Barker Mountain summit, a none-too-steep run through a winter wonderland, with nice views of the Mahoosucs. Beginners can enjoy an uninterrupted glide to the North Peak Lodge, while more experienced riders might detour to the base lodges via connecting intermediate trails.
Rogue Angel: On Jordan Bowl, a flowing blue cruiser with views of Mount Washington (you won’t get that at Sugarloaf!). Nice and wide for carving big turns, with a few steep sections to challenge intermediate skiers.
White Heat: On White Cap, Sunday River’s tallest and easternmost peak, a run that’s been called “the longest, steepest, widest lift-serviced trail in the East.” Thrill-seekers can straight-line it down the groomed half or test their mettle (and their quads) on one continuous bump run.
The staff, the maintenance crew, the guys and gals who do the grooming — they’re a part of your extended family and the best in the world at what they do. There’s nothing like waiting in line for the first couple runs right after they’re done grooming. The surface of the snow is like butter, unmatched on the East Coast.
— Luke Paliocha, artist and ski instructor with Maine Adaptive Sports & Recreation, who’s skied Sunday River since age 6. Headquartered at the mountain, Maine Adaptive promotes and facilitates skiing and other outdoor recreation for Mainers of all abilities.
Sunday River Somebodies
Jackie Paaso. A Bethel-reared pro skier and veteran of the Sunday River freestyle team, known for hard-charging lines on the Freeride World Tour — and for co-founding SAFE AS Clinics, which teaches avalanche safety to women. One of ESPN’s “top 50 women in action sports.”
Les Otten. A one-time manager at the then-podunk resort, Otten bought Sunday River in 1980, grew it aggressively, and eventually formed the American Ski Company, which owned 10 ski areas from Maine to Colorado to Utah. After its collapse, he was a partner in the Red Sox, then lost a gubernatorial primary to Paul LePage in 2010.
Troy Murphy. A freestyle skier and Bethel native who competed in moguls on Team USA in the 2018 Olympic Winter Games. Online, though, he’s in character as Donny Pelletier, a Moxie-guzzling Mainer who knows how to point ’em downhill while skiing in jeans at Sunday River.
Wood-fired pizza at the off-mountain, Swiss-inspired Matterhorn Ski Bar, where, in non-COVID times, diners enjoy live music and arcade games while waiting for their ’za. The house brew is a crisp lager called Ski Bar, which regulars in the ’Horn’s mug club enjoy out of traditional (and usually sticker-adorned) alpine steins. Chockablock with ski memorabilia, the room is an extension of the mountain’s fun-loving, communal, come-as-you-are vibe, with a little more booze in the mix. — K.E.
Sugarloaf doesn’t put on airs: It’s remote. It’s cold as hell. Compared to other resorts of its size, amenities and nightlife are slim. But Loafers come to the commanding, 4,237-foot peak for a second-to-none network of lifts and terrain. For serious powderhounds, Sugarloaf’s lift-accessed, above-treeline snowfields are unique in New England, a playground of cliffs, chutes, and open space, and the resort’s footprint has nearly doubled in the last decade with new sidecountry and cat-accessed terrain. If Sugarloaf were a book, it’d be Ulysses: substantial and unconventional, with die-hard defenders, rewarding those who put in some extra effort.
Moose Alley: Tucked between the King Pine Bowl and the base area, feels like a ski run out of a fairy tale. Accessed via a wooden arch over a narrow goat path, the trail passes the cabin home of mountain mascot Amos the Moose before winding through rolling, banked turns on a gentle slope.
Tote Road: At nearly 4 miles, Sugarloaf’s longest trail and a veritable tour of what the mountain has to offer. A wide cruiser that runs from summit to base, it’s gentle enough for first-timers but varied enough not to bore more experienced schussers.
The Snowfields: The white cap on Sugarloaf’s iconic logo represents the East’s only lift-serviced, above-treeline skiing. No place else in Maine offers similarly gut-churning steeps, 360-degree views, and the choose-your-own-adventure chance to pick any line you’d like.
The mountain itself is iconic, as everyone who’s driven around Oh My Gosh Corner knows, but being a Sugarloafer is really about the long history of incredible people who’ve made it what it is. There are lots of places in the world with good snow, but there aren’t many that inspire the kind of fierce loyalty and community that Sugarloaf does.
— Heather Sanborn, state senator, co-owner of Portland’s Rising Tide Brewing Company, and third-generation Loafer. Oh My Gosh Corner is a bend on Route 27 where the mountain comes into view.
Amos Winter. Generally considered the father of Sugarloaf, Winter cut the mountain’s first trails with a crew known as the Bigelow Boys and acted as the resort’s first executive manager. Frugal and rugged, eccentric and inventive, Winter was a Yankee through and through — the model of a typically atypical Sugarloafer.
Joan McWilliams Dolan. Had freestyle skiing been an Olympic sport 40 years ago, as it is today, McWilliams Dolan may well have been Maine’s first gold medalist. “Cyclone Joan” (so nicknamed in ski mags) won five national championships in the ’70s and ’80s and later coached future champs (and Olympians) at Carrabassett Valley Academy.
Seth Wescott. Maybe the mountain’s most famous son, thanks to gold medals in boardercross in the Torino and Vancouver Winter Games. Wescott grew up riding at Sugarloaf and remains a fixture — he co-owns access-road institution The Rack, a bar and barbecue joint, and Winterstick Snowboards, which has a factory at the mountain’s base.
A Bag Burger at the Bag and Kettle. An institution since ’69, the pub warrants a trip to Carrabassett Valley on its own (one lifetime Loafer was known to joke, “You hear they put in a ski area behind The Bag?”). The signature burger is a mountainous charbroiled patty with cheese, LTO, and a tangy secret sauce — don’t skip the famous curly fries. With a house-brewed Maine Potato Ale, an amber made with Caribou Russets, a meal at the Bag replenishes all the carbs you burned on the hill. — J.C.
Both owned by Boyne Resorts, North America’s third-largest mountain resort company, Sunday River and Sugarloaf are adapting to the pandemic with guidance from the “Ski Well, Be Well” best practices developed by the National Ski Areas Association. Policies include:
Face coverings required in all public areas, including on lifts and in lines, except while skiing or dining.
Traffic flow adjustments in lodges, which will not offer gear storage. (Boot up at your car instead.)
Temporary portable restrooms installed outdoors, to limit indoor traffic.
Contact-free kiosks for lift-ticket pickup.
Radio-frequency ID chips in tickets and passes, recognizable by contact-free stations at lifts.
No daycare or 6-and-under lessons programs. Group-size limits for lessons for those age 7 and older.