By Jim Kenney, aka JamesJ
EpicSki Travel Correspondent
I made a budget ski trip from the Washington D.C. area to Maine in early March 2012. I was accompanied by my 21 year old son Vince who was on his college spring break. We skied five consecutive days and sampled three different fun Maine ski areas; Saddleback, Sunday River, and Mt. Abram. We had a great time in conditions that ranged from powdery tree skiing at 12 degrees early in the week to soft spring bumps at 60 degrees on our last day.
We drove from the Washington DC area to Saddleback, ME in about 12 hours and spent three nights in the Maine Roadhouse Hostel north of Rangeley for $20 each per night. It’s convenient to Saddleback (and Sugarloaf) and there were never more than two or three others staying in the hostel during our visit. In addition to a large bunkroom and several individual bedrooms, it has a kitchen where we inexpensively prepared our own meals. Our first day at Saddleback was a Sunday. Liftopia did not offer a discount for this day, but the regularly priced Sunday ticket was only $49. Saddleback was great. You’d be hard pressed to find a mountain of this size and quality anywhere in the country with a regularly priced Sunday lift ticket of $49.
It was a snowy day with about three inches of light fluff falling during the ski session. We connected with an online friend “QCANOE”, the Epicski.com ambassador for Saddleback. He and his friends gave us a great tour of the mountain including a half dozen runs through Saddleback’s renowned 44 acre Casablanca Glades. We also enjoyed powdery bump runs and beautiful
Ambassador QCANOE in Saddleback's Casablanca Glades:
groomers. Saddleback has a 2000’ vertical drop, 66 trails and glades, 220 total skiable acres, and five lifts. What makes it really special is the amazing glade skiing, typically low crowds and prices, good natural snow conditions across a relatively high elevation trail layout for the East, and beautiful scenic views of western Maine lake country from the ~4100’ summit.
Our second day at Saddleback was a quiet Monday and the slopes were primed with another six inches of new overnight snow. Temps stayed in the teens all day, but the sun came out in full glory. Vince thought it was probably the best conditions he’d seen in a winter of 50+ ski days. I skied on a $39 Liftopia ticket, a fine value for a superb ski day. Once most of the new snow had been tracked-out we stopped for a brown bag lunch in the rustic mid-mountain warming hut. With the improved visibility we finally got to take in the fabulous views of Saddleback, Rangeley and Mooselookmeguntic Lakes from the upper mountain. Vince enjoyed run after run on the powder covered bumps of Peachy’s Peril. My highlight was an afternoon run we took together on Muleskinner. This was our first ever visit to Saddleback and I’d now have to rate Muleskinner as one of the most memorable black diamond trails I’ve skied in the East. It’s a steep, narrow, 1000 vertical foot squiggle down the secluded eastern periphery of the mountain with a backdrop of shimmering lakes as far as the eye can see.
Saddleback's upper mountain views are among the prettiest in the East:
On Tuesday morning we drove 100 very rural miles from Saddleback to Sunday River, ME and skied there from roughly 10:30AM to 4PM. I utilized a two day Liftopia ticket for $116. This was a helpful savings over the walk-up price at the time of $80 per day. This was also our first time at Sunday River, one of the last major New England ski resorts I had yet to visit in 40+ years of ski travel. It reminded me a lot of Killington, which I have enjoyed on weekdays in the past. Sunday River is fairly large for an Eastern ski area, particularly in a horizontal sense with ~130 trails, 16 lifts and 740 skiable acres set on eight peaks aligned side by side across approximately three miles of mountainside. The individual peaks equate to separate trail pods and have verticals ranging from about 1000-1600 feet, all covered by a humongous snowmaking system. The highest summit is 3140’ and purportedly there is an overall vertical drop of 2340', but I don't believe I ever experienced it in one continuous run.
Often March midweek skiing in New England can be like a ghost town. I was surprised at how active Sunday River was - in a good way. We were there for Vince’s two day PSIA skiing exam along with dozens of other aspiring instructors including extreme skiing pioneer Glen Plake and his wife Kimberly. There was also a large contingent of vacationing Canadian families on school break, but the real excitement was provided by the hundreds of college students representing 80 schools competing in the 34th annual U. S. Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association National Championship. Sunday River had built a tremendous array of venues/courses for the different competitive disciplines, but despite all the activity at no time during our midweek visit did we wait in any significant lift lines.
Boardercross at Sunday River:
We started at White Cap Lodge on the far eastern edge of the trail layout and took White Heat as a steep first run. Vince skied the bumped half, while I skied the groomed. Then we gradually made our way to the mid-mountain North Peak Lodge and dropped off some gear and supplies for a return later there for lunch. Compared to Saddleback the trail surfaces were slick and firm, but we found some nicely groomed intermediate cruising on Risky Business and American Express trails off Spruce Peak (~1500' vertical). We also sampled a challenging bump run called I Caramba under the Jordan express chair (~1500' vertical).
On our second day temperatures moderated greatly to about 50 sunny degrees and we found softer surfaces. Vince was kept busy much of the day with instructor exams. I went free skiing in the Oz trail pod and followed (before they left me in the dust) some hot college racers through a pretty glade called Flying Monkey. Nearby the warm sun made two huge open glades called Tin Woodsman and Eureka soft and fun to ski. Mount Washington is only about 25 miles as the crow flies from Sunday River and I stopped to enjoy some beautiful views of New Hampshire’s Presidential range from the observation tower atop Jordan Peak.
Flying Monkey Glade at Sunday River:
We stayed two nights in Bethel, ME at the Norseman Inn for about $80 per night. It’s three miles from Sunday River and the room was very clean and included a microwave and minifridge. Sunday River has an excellent variety of terrain for all skill levels including challenging bump runs with sustained verticals in the 1300-1500' range, expert level glades, and tons of groomed intermediate runs. It’s large enough and with reliable snow conditions for a one-stop, multiday ski destination. There is considerable lodging, dining and service infrastructure at the mountain and in nearby Bethel, including affordable package deals that make it attractive to groups and vacationers. Sunday River has reasonable proximity to Boston (~3 hours) and a seasonal calendar packed with fun events.
Our last day in Maine was a warm Thursday with afternoon temps topping 60 degrees. While Vince continued with his final day of PSIA exams back at Sunday River (he passed Level II skiing), I took the ten mile drive over to nearby Mt. Abram ski area (vertical drop 1105’, five lifts, 44 trails, and 550 acres of boundary to boundary skiing). I used a very affordable $24 lift ticket from Liftopia. The trail names at Mt. Abram are taken from the old 1960s Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoon show. Taking a cue from the same anachronistic theme, the front side double chair has one of the more humorous nicknames I've seen - The Way Back Machine. It doesn’t take long to understand how fitting this label is for the main lift at Mt. Abram, this ski area is surely a soulful survivor from another time.
Mt. Abram, ME:
There was a very small Thursday crowd and I rode the lifts by myself except for one ride with a friendly patroller. On a day when some parts of the mountain were covered in six inches of mashed potatoes due to the high temps, I spent most of my time on several front side fall-line groomers and the nicely bumped-up lift line under The Way Back Machine. This run was called Lower Fractured Fairy Tales and the bumps kept getting better and more fun as the day wore on. The upper lift line under The Way Back Machine has a six foot cliff drop and there are some nearby glades with similar gnarly terrain, however, the slushy snow was not conducive to much skiing in this section of the mountain during my visit. I went down Rocky's Run just once. It is perhaps the premier steep slope at Mt Abram and it was very challenging in gloppy, wet snow. I could see that it had potential as a dynamite bump run including a small rock band cutting horizontally across the steepest part of the slope.
Only me and my shadow on Rocky's Run:
Mt. Abram suffered a devastating fire after the base lodge was struck by lightning in the summer of 2011, but the spirit of skiing is strong here. Management quickly erected a temporary steel and fabric lodge that is fully adequate for basic skier services while they consider a permanent replacement structure. Mt. Abram is about the size of one of Sunday River's eight trail pods and guests at this low cost/low key enclave will find it offers a strong contrast to the big neighbor down the road. In August of 2012 it was announced that Mt. Abram is partnering with the Mountain Rider’s Alliance (MRA) to share best practices and establish a new model for sustainable homegrown resorts. Someday Mt. Abram may serve as poster child for the MRA's goal of helping a network of smaller local ski areas maintain viability with efficiencies like on-site renewable energy while serving as high quality, low cost playgrounds for engaged communities.
Early March is a great time to ski Maine and paired with Liftopia it seems like a win-win. Not only does Liftopia help a skier/boarder catch a deal at tons of great mountains, but it brings business to mountains that might not otherwise get it. I would not likely have ventured over to Mt. Abram without the opportunity to snag a last minute online discounted ticket through Liftopia. According to a blog post by the CEO of Liftopia we were among 15,000 other skiers utilizing the site for midweek ticketing during the first week of March 2012. No wonder, its online portal is convenient to use and easy to navigate while searching for deals at a huge variety of mountains for every interest and budget. Just make sure of your dates, no refunds are allowed.
Sunday River: http://www.sundayriver.com/index.asp
Mt. Abram: http://www.mtabram.com/
Maine Roadhouse Hostel: http://www.maineroadhouse.com/
Norseman Inn: http://norsemaninn.com/main/
Mountain Rider’s Alliance: http://www.mountainridersalliance.com/
Video from the slopes of Saddleback, ME: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kP1dhQqLvFA&feature=relmfu
About the Author
- Husband, father and civilian employee of the Department of Navy, Jim Kenney is a D.C. area native and has been skiing recreationally since 1967. Jim’s ski reporting garnered the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourism’s Stars of the Industry Award for Best Web/Internet/E-Magazine Article. To read other articles by Jim, click here.