48 Hours In...Carrabassett Valley
January + February 2011 | By Melissa Coleman | Photographs Skye Chalmers, Dennis Welsh + Francois Gagne | Illustration by Josh Brill
48 hours of our favorite places to ski, glide, eat, drink, stay, and explore
Sugarloaf may claim more lift- serviced vertical than Colorado’s Copper Mountain and Utah’s Alta, but I doubt I’m hurting anyone’s feelings when I say it’s not a mascara ski resort. Yes, Glenn Close has a slopeside condo, but the truly famous people here are the ones who can say they’ve been a “Sugarloafer since 1950,” when the first trail, Winter’s Way, was cut by Amos Winter. The 1971 FIS Alpine World Cup put Sugarloaf on the map, and in 1976 Lloyd Cuttler, now the owner of Gepetto’s, a slopeside restaurant, moved the base village buildings eight miles up from town to the bottom of the lifts. The rest is history. Today, the mountain’s iconic triangle sticker shows up in unlikely places the world over. And while Carrabassett Valley has only 500 year-round residents, many “locals” are weekenders, most of whom ski or ride in some fashion. Herein, a guide to joining the fun.
SKI + RIDE
There are few traditions more sacred to a Loafer than the weekend routine. It generally begins on Friday afternoon: packing up the car, picking up groceries, and hitting the road. Although everyone has their own opinion, Route 27 through Belgrade Lakes and Farmington is generally considered the quickest route from I-95 north. You know you’re getting close when you see the moonlit hoodoos of snow on the rocks of the Carrabassett River. Take the turn at Oh My Gosh Corner, and find yourself suddenly dwarfed by the mountain above, its ski trails illuminated by the lights of snow groomers. Welcome to Sugarloaf.
Die-hard alpine downhillers, telemark skiers, and snowboarders—whether hungover from Friday night at The Rack or not—wake early on Saturday for free-for-all first tracks. (On Sundays, only the Gold Plus New England Pass holders get early dibs on the SuperQuad at 7:30 a.m.) Slopesiders might scarf some cereal and catch the morning snow report on WSKI TV 17, don extra layers and face mask (no joke, if it’s as windy and cold as it can be in January and February), step out the door (brrr), snap in (ahhh), and glide down to catch the Snubber, Bucksaw, or West Mountain chairs. Offslopers will find parking in the lot and take the easy shuttle service to the base lodge where, if you’re one of the unlucky few without a season pass or discounted voucher of some kind (you get 10 percent off if you buy online), you purchase adult tickets for $83 each. If you end up paying full price, a relatively affordable coffee and muffin at Java Joe’s or D’Ellie’s can soften the blow. Those with young children head for the freedom-granting Sugarloaf Daycare, which offers Moosekateers a mix of indoor activities and outdoor ski time, or to Perfect Kids ski school for day or seasonal weekend classes with Mountain Magic (Minicuffers, ages three–five) and Mountain Adventure (Bubblecuffers, ages five–twelve).
The goal, my friend Michael says, is to get on the lift before ski-school lines form at the Whiffletree and Sugarloaf SuperQuads at 9:00 a.m. And the secret, according to another friend, Peter, is that the sun hits King Pine first, so all-mountain skiers and riders prefer to follow the sun across the hill on particularly cold days. That means riding up on Whiffletree with Peter and my telemark friend Erin and taking Tohaul down to the King Pine lift to do a warm-up run on Ramdown. Next head to Widowmaker and Flume, where carving boarders like Erin’s husband leave their arcs on the groomers’ corduroy. Or, when I’m chasing fearless skiers like Michael, we’ll take Ripsaw into the trees of Cant Dog Glade, where Michael will undoubtedly smoke me. Tree hounds head to the wilds of Brackett Basin and Burnt Mountain, nearly 500 acres of new sidecountry terrain developed over the past three years. Back on the trails, I’ll try to catch Michael on Bubblecuffer and Winter’s Way, which get his vote as the two best runs on the East Coast, or, as soon as the Snowfields open, on the penultimate double-black-diamond White Nitro before the softer snow gets skied off.
Blue intermediate skiers and riders might stick to the terrain accessed by the SuperQuad—King’s Landing to Candy Side is a good option, or take Pick Pole across to the Timberline triple chair and do laps on Tote Road or Timberline. By 11 a.m., you’re ready to stop at Bullwinkle’s, the only on-slope restaurant, for a well-deserved coffee break.
Snowboarders then head for the boardercross course designed by local Olympic snowboard-cross gold medalist Seth Wescott or the terrain parks on Stomping Grounds and Haywire. There you’ll likely see the Carrabassett Valley Academy freestyle skiers and snowboarders executing the double corks and McTwists they’ve been practicing on the trampolines at the Carrabassett Valley Antigravity Complex, located next to the Carrabassett Valley Public Library and Community Center, both of which are popular indoor options for the public on wind-closure days.
Fitness junkies like Erin, Peter, and their friend, and Olympic gold medalist, runner Joan Benoit Samuelson abandon the lifts for a “real” workout after lunch on Sugarloaf Outdoor Center’s 90 kilometers (56 miles) of groomed cross-country trails. You can swap into skate or touring skis at your condo and take the groomed Route 1 trail from the base of Snubber lift through the woods to the Outdoor Center lodge. Or stash your cross-country skis in a locker or car and take trail 20 from the base of the lifts down to the Sugarloaf Inn where you access trail 21. The moment of truth comes at the intersection of 21 and 22. Many follow 21 down to the maze of mellower groomed trails around the lodge, but those with stamina take 22 over to the black trails.
“I do 50” is what Samuelson says when people ask how she stays in such good shape. That’s not fifty miles, but the infamous trail 50 that loops the lower elevation of Burnt Mountain. True masochists can add trail 51, which continues up, and I mean up, toward the Brackett Basin expansion. Reward yourself with hot chocolate back at the Bull Moose Bakery & Cafe or in the warming hut off the Route 1 trail. Then head to the ice rink by the outdoor center lodge, where you’ll find that Peter, Erin, and the gang have already beat you back and are throwing down sticks as they choose teams for a competitive but family-friendly game of ice hockey, while the other half of the rink remains open for more leisurely forms of ice skating. Yes, the fun never ends, and we haven’t even made it to the bar yet.
Before the bar, you might want to freshen up at your condo or hotel, or—in a pinch—at the Sugarloaf Sports and Fitness Center, which offers day and season passes to its sauna, hot tub, pool, workout room, and racquetball courts. You might also want to get your hair done at the Shear Peak Salon and post the day’s photos on Facebook at the Internet cafe.
EAT + DRINK
Next stop is happy hour at the Shipyard Brew Haus, which features a roaring fire, pool tables, and vintage skis on the walls. Those who are just getting off the mountain when the lifts close at 3:50 p.m. might head instead for the base village watering holes of the Bag & Kettle for its famous Bag Burger or pepperoni pizza, Gepetto’s for fresh seafood and the downstairs arcade, or the Widowmaker Lounge for live music upstairs in the lodge.
By now lunch is a distant memory and that drink is hitting home—oh, but wait: did you actually eat lunch? Loafers pride themselves on forgoing lunch to maximize skiing time, choosing instead the inevitably frozen GU or bar of chocolate in their pocket. However, all the mountain bars are open at noon, too. There’s also the previously mentioned on-slope Bullwinkle’s (or you can book a ride up in a snowcat for dinner), D’Ellie’s (huge sandwiches on home-baked anadama bread), Java Joe’s (for another cup of Carrabassett Coffee), and the tasty and filling Black Diamond Burritos. And there’s always Mountainside Grocers at the base of the access road if you prefer to grab snacks on the way to the hill.
It’s time for dinner when happy hour wraps up around 6 p.m. You can order a filet mignon at the Double Diamond Steakhouse & Wine Bar in the Sugarloaf Mountain Hotel or continue on down the hill to everyone’s favorite hangout, The Rack, co-owned by Wescott, who’ll likely be tending bar. A few popular Italian options beckon further afield: Hug’s Italian Cuisine on Route 27 and Tufulio’s seven miles farther down the road next to Happy Tunes Ski Service Center, in case you need a stone grind. But beware if the boys say they’re going there on a Friday night, because they may be headed instead to the nearby Carrabassett Inn & Grill for a little sightseeing (wink, wink).
A hearty, hangover-soothing breakfast awaits you tomorrow morning at the Orange Cat Cafe in Kingfield or Looney Moose Cafe in Stratton. So sit back and order another Carrabassett Pale Ale—just be sure you’ve lined up a ride to your lodgings.
While there are a handful of nearby hotels and bed-and-breakfasts, many Sugarloafers who don’t own a home in the area choose to rent a house or condo for the season. Sugarloaf Reservations handles on-mountain condominium rentals, in addition to any number of options in Carrabassett Valley, Kingfield, and Stratton. Check with Mountain Valley Property for seasonal or vacation rentals, or realtor Peter Hawkes for real-estate sales. If you’d rather not change your own sheets and wash dishes, the Sugarloaf Mountain Hotel, which towers over the base village, and the Sugarloaf Inn, located next to the Sports and Fitness Center, are the two ski-on/ski-off options, with lift tickets and other deals included with the room. There’s also the Nestlewood Inn, a comfortable new lodge near the touring center, and Kingfield’s grand Herbert Hotel, which was built in 1918.
On Sunday, you can repeat Saturday’s routine or head for an adventure in the backcountry near the Appalachian Trail. Maine Huts & Trails grooms the 30-plus miles of rolling terrain connecting its three new and beautiful off-the-grid lodges, accessed from a trailhead on Gauge Road near Carrabassett Valley’s town office. Daytrippers might try the 5 mile (three-hour) round-trip snowshoe or cross-country ski into the Poplar Stream Falls Hut for a homemade lunch with hot chocolate, beer, and wine. Overnighters can take a coffee break at Poplar before continuing another 11 miles to stay the night at Flagstaff Lake Hut. If time is tight, ski out to the Flagstaff Trailhead in the morning and arrange to catch the shuttle back to town. Otherwise, keep going and spend another night at the newest Grand Falls Hut.
We’re now approaching the saddest part of the Sugarloaf routine: packing up and heading home. Console yourself with the knowledge that you’ll be back, and on the way home stop at the Ski Museum of Maine in Kingfield to check out the 10th Mountain Division exhibit featuring Maine residents who trained and served as the ski troops during World War II. With a nod to the past, we can all look forward to continuing our own winter traditions the next time we visit Carrabassett Valley.