Sugarloaf's Alpine Turnover

Changing hands—twice—turned out to be a blessing for the East’s biggest resort.
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Admit it, you thought it was a recipe for disaster. 

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The year was 2007…remember the Valentine Blizzard? Sugarloaf, the pride of hardcore Maine skiers, announced that it had been purchased by Michigan-based Boyne Resorts. Suddenly one of the East’s biggest and most iconic ski areas was in the hands of Midwesterners. 

But it got weirder. Boyne then announced that it had sold Sugarloaf to CNL Lifestyle Properties, one of those real estate investment trusts that seemed to be buying up everything as though money were no object. Proud Maine skiers found themselves at the mercy of Florida real estate speculators and their investors. 

A look at CNL’s other holdings did little to quiet the nerves of loyal ’Loafers. Sure, the portfolio included ski properties—all or parts of almost two dozen resorts are listed among CNL’s holdings today, including many A-listers, such as Copper, Stratton, Crested Butte, Okemo, Whistler, and Loon. But it’s far more heavily dominated by properties that have nothing to do with skiing. Among them, marinas, golf courses, a couple dozen water and theme parks, and, weirdest of all, some 60 senior-housing facilities. 

Remember, Sugarloaf at that point had long languished under the ownership of debt-crippled American Skiing Co. But one had to wonder: What did the people who owned Wet ’n’ Wild Hawaii and Amber Ridge Assisted Living know about running a ski area? 

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Fortunately, CNL managed to quickly demonstrated that it’s smart enough to leave the ski business to ski people. And to all appearances, those Boyne guys, who operate the resort under a lease agreement, understand what matters to Sugarloafers. It’s not spas, condos, or water parks. It’s terrain. Lots of it. The tougher the better.

To that end, Sugarloaf made an announcement in 2010 that changed the landscape of Eastern skiing. A massive all-glades expansion onto neighboring Burnt Mountain would double its acreage, making it the East’s largest ski area and doing so without adding a single trail. The new terrain would be patrolled and lift-accessed (via an easy traverse from the existing King Pine chair), but the dense spruce and scrubby understory of Burnt would be thinned only enough to create a 655-acre tree-skier’s playground. The first phase—270 acres in Brackett Basin at the resort’s eastern edge—opened that winter.

Naturally, some bark-eating locals preferred having Brackett Basin unimproved and all to themselves. But to anyone else, it’s a capital improvement that succeeds brilliantly on multiple levels. For starters, it didn’t cost much (there’s even some logging revenue, and the logger is himself a Sugarloaf skier). It treads far more lightly on the environment than the broad trails of a typical terrain expansion. It steals an important marketing superlative—“biggest in the East”—away from former acreage king Killington. And it plays perfectly into the burgeoning sidecountry movement, elevating Sugarloaf into the realm of Jay, Stowe, and Mad River for off-piste terrain. 

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But CNL isn’t done. Lift upgrades, a new Competition Center, more low-energy snow guns, and base-lodge improvements are all part of a plan known as Sugarloaf 2020.

And yet as transformative as the Burnt Mountain project is—and Sugarloaf 2020 will be—the ’Loaf seems little changed, especially if you visit on a warm spring weekend, as I did, when the new terrain is melted out and closed. Carrabassett Valley is still scenically remote, with little development beyond the base area and Access Road. The runs are still satisfyingly long, even with the summit closed. (In the East, only Whiteface has more vertical than Sugarloaf’s 2,820 feet.) The famous Bag Burger still vanquishes a skier’s lunchtime appetite. And while Sugarloaf is still a bring-your-own-party kind of place, there was a special event on tap that late-spring weekend: the annual Snowmaker’s Ball.

It’s a black-tie affair in the Widowmaker Lounge. The husky, bearded snowmakers look spiffy in their rented tuxes, but that’s where the formality ends. It’s a room full of skiers—real skiers, Sugarloaf skiers—letting loose at the end of a long season, and for a night, everyone’s happy—and unapologetically glad to
be ’Loafers.

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