There are not very many ski mountains in New England that are still on the Guru’s “to do” list. Now there is one less. I was fortunate to hit Saddleback, ME in Rangeley last Sunday. I bagged it on a perfect ski day.
When I pulled into the region (via the jungle route from Sunday River), I could see the mountain in the distance and it was an impressive peak, covered in snow and sun. It looked steep. It looked real.
form apx. 9 miles out
Long Looks: A view of the slopes at distance is always special. Not many places I have visited in New England offer better lines of sight form the roads compared to those approaching Saddleback. The cool thing is the enormous mountain vanishes before your eyes as you approach.
As stated, I had never been to Saddleback or Rangeley. I had always heard the whispers.
Rangeley, ME is not a town entrenched in - or - with the ski area. It most certainly has its own identity. In fact the ski area is a good ten minutes (call it 7 miles) away.
In town, I found a community -- that for lack of better words -- I would describe as still virgin to the crush, of hoards, of weekend ski warriors. That is a good thing. Local folks are used to the Sled Necks up there and extremely grateful for them. The parking lot at the Saddleback Motor Inn (my home for a day or two) typically had a 50/50 split between snow machines and vehicles with 4 wheels. I have to be honest that I worry about the change I think that town will see in the next 10 years. Change it will…
Place to Crash Now: The Saddleback Motor Inn is right in town. The place had very recently been completely remodeled, read new and clean. The on-premises restaurant called the Hungry Trout Bar & Grill made for an easy choice. Taking the wheel out of the occasion is always a nice option, especially if the roads are greasy due to weather (and you do not have a sled).
Patrol Hut at the top of the Kennebago T-bar, LOTS OF SNOW!
Ski Area Stats
• 4120 ft. & Snowfields
• 2000 ft. Vertical Drop
• 85% Snowmaking
• 200" of Snow Yearly
• 5 Lifts & More to Come
• 60 Trails & Glades
• 3.1 mi. Longest Run
The Skiing at Saddleback
Let us cut to the chase. It is an exceptional ski mountain! After one good day – as a destination – Saddleback, ME went form the top of the “must ski” list to one of the “best places” to visit in New England. I am not going to do much justice in this script. You need to experience it yourself, on a good day.
First impression: Arriving on the resort’s property is uneventful. The views on the ride in, already accounted. My thought was that parking might be an issue. The place was packed to the gills on Sunday at 11:30 am. This is usually a good time to catch an early riser with a front row spot, stopping for the day. This afternoon ski strategy worked again, parking was not a problem.
Misread: I never really understood why Saddleback would boast about having the highest Base Elevation in New England. Sure, it is true. Always best to be first in something. Then I entered the Main Base Lodge. It immediately became clear. I felt like the structure was hanging from the edge of a cliff. The northern facing windows expose exceptional scenery. Bragging rights remain intact and justified. Having the base lodge with the highest elevation in New England is worth trumpeting.
The Base Lodge: Only on the sophomore season and the crowd of "new" skiers there is already outgrowing the space. The resort is in the process of a multi-phase development plan they are calling, get this --- “The 10 Year Master Plan!” --- Which will make this place a mega resort, hence my concern for the town’s vibe.
Terrain is constantly expanding. Saddleback increased acreage by 44% last summer. New chairlifts and additional facilities are already permitted and are a part of the 10 year agenda. Saddleback is going places. No doubt about it….
In another life: The set up of the base area rather reminded me of an infant Sugarloaf (not that I ever saw it in person, but pictures do not lie). A quad slowly rolls over beginner terrain providing ski-in and ski-out access from the sparsely populated condominiums on the lower part of the slopes.
Expert Terrain: The real deal skiing was Off the Hook. No pun intended since the new people in charge renamed most of the trials after locally tied flies, which have become legend to anglers over the decades. I made a quick beeline to the Kennebago T-bar from the Rangeley Double chair.
I caught this gent sizing up his decent down Supervisor, I asked if he wanted to check my fishing license...
The T-bar, which is slated to be replaced by an aerial chairlift this summer, is the key to unlocking some of the finest (and freshest for the Guru) expert terrain in New England. I personally do not mind using a T-bar to gain vertical. It sure beats hiking and you will never get stuck on one waiting for an E-Vac.
The S.G. Sitch: Never been there before and skiing alone. There are days when I really enjoy being on my own dime and this was most certainly one of them.
I went with my usual strategy. After unloading from the T-bar, first run left. Second, right, etc… This went on for seven laps. It is not a ton of vertical feet (about 900), but the terrain will challenge you and make you work. The kick in the shins is that you do not get to take a break and sit down on the chairlift; you have to stand and navigate.
The skiing experience was wonderful. I hit everything marked on the map and ducked in for some shots in the woods every now and again (off the T-bar).
Quick S.G. Slope Story
I was standing at the top of Warden’s Worry waiting for some folks to clear. This is when I came across a mad man on skis. He was perched on the same headwall as I, and screaming at his two buddies (who were not so skilled). They were kind of picking their way down the steep upper section shouting “rock” every now and again (for the record – I did not see any rocks, no idea where that came from). Then it was his turn. I could not resist.
I gave him a “Ski Angry!”
He looked over noticing me for the first time.
“I like that!” he yelled back and then started his way down the hill, continuing the vocal announcement of his extreme shred-ness. Once I actually decide to ski, I eventually caught up to this group.
The same person was stopped, yet still yelling at his friends. “It’s Warren Miller Time Baby!” as I sped past on the far edge of the trail. Classic stuff, we need more of this. All smiles and turns for the S.G. at this point.
3 skiers taking a moment to watch the weather roll in from the summit in the afternoon
Ski Day Waning: Took a couple of wind down laps under the Rangeley double chair before calling it a day. That run under the lift is a nice shot of vertical feet that one can easily have fun on while making their way toward the base lodge.
I ultimately found myself enjoying a spectacular view, sipping a beer, wondering when I was going to be able to get back for a second visit.
Saddleback is a gem! It will never not be a gem; it just may become one of those pricey rocks everyone who is “in the ski scene” seems to know, own, and love. I have little doubt this place is going to continue to gain momentum over the next ten years. I was glad I was able to get there when it still had the big mountain, small local hill feel to it.
Make plans for your trip soon. Great pick for a spring weekend this season!
Think Snow and then go to Saddleback, ME.
Pics ~ S.G.
Eric Wilbur is a lifelong recreational skier who spends most of his winter and spring in the mountains of New England. He does not ski in jeans. You can read more of Eric's work here.
Heather Burke is an award winning ski journalist with over a decade of ski news coverage. As a former ski instructor and a ski parent, she knows the ski biz from the inside out. She and her family visit New England ski resorts, as well as the West and Canada, to report on the latest trends and their best family finds. Her husband Greg takes all the accompanying photos, and their work can be seen at www.familyskitrips.com and www.luxuryskitrips.com.