Resort Comparison: Saddleback and Sugarloaf

The main base-to-summit lift at Saddleback is double, which means longer liftlines on weekends and holidays, but… fewer people on the slopes! (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com)

“Which is better?”

That’s the question I often get when people find out I’m skiing both Saddleback in Rangeley, Maine and Sugarloaf in Carrabassett Valley, Maine in one trip. And, since I get to Maine as often as I can to ski, I hear the question pretty often. But I still don’t quite know how to answer it.

The truth is that Saddleback and Sugarloaf have a lot in common, but the “feel” of the two mountains is very, very different. So which one you like best is going to depend on your personal preferences. I can’t tell you which is better. In fact, I can’t even tell you for certain which one I like better.

Sugarloaf is usually “busier” than Saddleback, and has many more high-speed lifts, but that doesn’t mean the trails are always crowded. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com)

Let’s look first at what these two Maine giants have in common. Since the summits of the two mountains are only about a dozen miles apart in a straight line (but an hour or more apart by car on winter roads) and are of similar height (Saddleback’s summit is 4,116 and Sugarloaf’s is 4,237) they both usually share similar snowfall and weather conditions. Fresh snow at one usually means fresh snow at the other in similar amounts. Neither Sugarloaf nor Saddleback will likely ever make anyone’s “Top Ten” list for snowmaking and grooming. (If you want stellar snowmaking and grooming, go to Sunday River.) Both Sugarloaf and Saddleback are at their best when Mother Nature delivers the goods. And Mother Nature seems to deliver the goods often up here.

Both Saddleback and Sugarloaf are big, burley moutains with lots of terrain for skiers and riders of all levels. This is the view of Saddleback from their lower beginner and condo transport lift. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com)

Both Saddleback and Sugarloaf have well-deserved reputations as big, burley mountains with a lot to offer very serious skiers and riders. Both have above-treeline skiing on their summits when the natural snow is deep enough. Both have some wicked challenging trails (Muleskinner at Saddleback is steep, tight, scary and wonderful, so are some of the frontside Snowfield lines at Sugarloaf). And both mountains have magnificent glade skiing. Saddleback had a clear lead in this department until this year, but Sugarloaf just opened the new Brackett Basin Glades on Burnt Mountain (part of a 10-year expansion plan). So they’ve achieved near-parity again. You can spend a lot of time in the glades at either mountain before you have to repeat a line.

That’s for serious skiers and riders. For the less adventuresome, both resorts have some lovely intermediate cruisers and good beginner terrain. Saddleback has a clear edge in beginner terrain since they have an entirely separate, gentle, consistent beginner hill below the lodge with very little traffic from more advanced skiers and riders.

Now To The Differences:

Some of the differences between Sugarloaf and Saddleback are big and obvious; others aren’t.

One obvious difference: Sugarloaf is famous; Saddleback isn’t (yet).

Sugarloaf has been around since 1951, had a gondola when most other New England resorts were still using t-bars and rope tows. For awhile, it was part of the high-profile American Skiing Company, now it’s owned by the giant Boyne. Sugarloaf boasts the most vertical of any ski hill in New England, the Carrabassett Valley Academy has produced a number of world-famous skiers and riders.

Saddleback, on the other hand, has quietly eased along mostly under the radar. A lot of folks outside of Maine have never heard of it. And probably not one northeastern skier in 100 has ever made turns there or could easily find it on a map. The new owners, local folks, are intent on changing that, but slowly.

Some of the differences are very subtle. For example, Saddleback faces northwest while Sugarloaf faces almost due north. As a result, both get a lot of wind, but, in my experience, Saddleback seems better set up to handle it. Despite being there on a number of really windy days, only once have a I seen a “wind hold” on any of the major lifts at Saddleback and that didn’t last long. In my experience, wind holds are pretty common at Sugarloaf as a northwest wind can come screaming around the flank of the hill and hit the lifts sidewise. On the second day of my recent visit, Sugarloaf was able to open only two lower-mountain chairs, and a t-bar on the upper mountain. They also were running their “transport lifts” which carry condo denizens to the slopes, but since these don’t service any real ski terrain, they don’t really count . . .

The “SuperQuad” detachable is a very popular lift at Sugarloaf, but the line moves quickly. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com)

When Sugarloaf is fully open, however, it has many more lifts, much faster lifts (two detachable quads), and much higher uphill capacity than Saddleback. This means shorter lift lines and more runs on busy days, but it also means more people with you on the slopes.

Saddleback has much less lift capacity—the main summit chair is a double—which can mean longer lift lines, but once you make it to the slopes you have more space and the snow is less beat up by traffic. Who wins on this is a matter of personal preference, either you like fast lifts or you don’t. The number of skiers and riders who use the “SuperQuad” at Sugarloaf tells me that lots of people love the high-speed lifts.

As to prices, there’s a world of difference. For 2010/11 Sugarloaf was $77 every day for an adult one day ticket. There were deals to be had on multi-day tickets. For 2010/11, Saddleback was $50 on weekends, $35 midweek and two for $45 on Wednesdays.

You notice another real difference between Saddleback and Sugarloaf as you drive there and arrive at the base area. Even mid-week, Sugarloaf is “busy.” Sugarlaof has a huge and very comfortable hotel right at the base. The slopes around the base area are covered with condos and homes and more are hidden away in the trees. A lot of people can ski-in, ski-out at Sugarloaf, and even more are just a short shuttle ride from the slopes.

There are a dozen or so dining options on the mountain and the access road, and many more down on Route 27 and in Kingfield and Stratton. There are shops and art galleries on the hill and in the town. Sugarloaf is the home mountain for the Carrabassett Valley Academy, one of the great prep schools for student athletes. There’s almost always a race or some sort of serious race training going on somewhere on the mountain. Some days, there are more racers on the mountain than “civilians.”And there’s even some serious nightlife here . . .

Saddleback is definitely quieter than Sugarloaf, but which mountain is better is a matter of personal preference. (Tim Jones/EasternSlopes.com)

By contrast, Saddleback bustles on the weekends and some school vacations, but is otherwise best described as “quiet.” The access road is empty except for the Nordic center; there are a few comfortable condos tucked away here and there and big plans for more in the future, but most are still empty mid-week. The only restaurant on the mountain is the “Swig and Smelt” on the top floor of the base lodge (where the food has always been excellent). There are a few restaurants and shops down in Rangeley, nothing that I know of for nightlife. For the foreseeable future, you come to Saddleback in winter to ski or ride. Period.

So which mountain is better? I honestly don’t know. I simply wouldn’t think of visiting one without spending equal time at the other. I’ve enjoyed epic days at both on fabulous terrain, with wonderful views and, usually, lots of great natural snow. My advice is simple: ski them both and decide which one YOU like best.

Here’s one thing I’ve noticed, though. Few people you meet skiing Sugarloaf have ever bothered to try Saddleback. Apparently, they see no reason to go anywhere else. But almost everyone you meet at Saddleback has skied both there and Sugarloaf and keeps coming back to Saddleback.

If you have a decided preference for one mountain or the other, or see something I’ve missed that makes one of these hills stand out for you, please use the comment section below to let me know. I’d like to hear your opinion.

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About Tim Jones

Tim Jones, Founder and Executive Editor, started skiing at age 4 and hasn't stopped since. He took up Telemark a few years ago and is still terrible at it. In the summer, he hikes, bikes, paddles and fly fishes. In addition to his work at EasternSlopes.com, Tim also writes a pair of syndicated weekly newspaper columns.