Super Eight and Counting – Maine’s Sunday River is an American Classic
—by Jay Flemma
special to JF.com and NASJA—
NEWRY, ME – You can’t help but love plucky, authentic Sunday River, the winter resort that just keeps getting bigger and better with every passing decade.
A little bit rustic, a little bit opulent, Maine’s Sunday River is part expert skier proving ground, part grommet convention center and everything in between, with something for everyone: young or old, champion athlete or klutz-tastic Jerry.
The resort handles the dichotomy smoothly, without anything feeling forced or out of place. And it does it all with a completely civilized panache and flair that’s never over-the-top or stuffy. True to its local, family-oriented roots, but built on some of the wildest and most diverse terrain in the eastern USA, Sunday River has grown from the proverbial “little mountain that could” to one of the brightest gems in the American winter sports diadem.
Situated at 44 degrees 29 minutes North, 70 degrees 49 minutes West, Sunday River lies just east of the White Mountains, at the junction of the Sunday and Androscoggin Rivers, only a few miles from the southwest Maine town of Bethel. It’s an excellent geographic location for weather systems as the resort, unprotected by satellite mountains, gets the unimpeded brute force of nor’easters as well as plentiful yearly snowfall.
Sprawled across eight well-connected peaks and featuring no less than four base lodges and a mid-mountain station, Sunday River’s 135 named trails run the gamut, a smorgasbord of scenic cruisers, thrilling chicanes, hair-raising steeps, ferocious moguls, and idyllic glades. The overall mountain plan is highly unusual, but – for the most part – surprisingly ergonomic. Seven peaks stand side by side, running in an east-west direction, while the eighth terminates at a mid-mountain station at roughly the center of the complex.
The base elevation clocks in at 800 feet above sea level, and the summit of the highest peak tops out at 3,140 feet. That technically makes the vertical descent 2,340 feet, but that’s deceiving because none of the eight peaks individually boast a vertical descent greater than 1,630 feet.
From east to west, this handy-dandy chart (“HDC1”) outlines the various peaks and their vertical descent:
* White Cap Peak: 1,630 ft.
* Locke Mountain: 1,460 ft.
* Barker Mountain: 1,400 ft.
* Spruce Peak: 1,500 ft.
* North Peak: 1,000 ft.
* Aurora Peak: 1,100 ft.
* Oz: 1,100 ft.
* Jordan Bowl: 1,490 ft.
While there are eight separate peaks, Sunday River is more easily divided into four parts: White Cap, Locke-Barker, Spruce-Aurora (which includes North Peak) and, furthest westerly, Oz and the Jordan Bowl.
Guests staying at the Grand Summit Hotel will ski in and out from their hotel rooms to the White Cap peak. Located at the eastern end of the resort, this area features some of the steepest terrain and tightest glades on property…and we mean steep. White Heat, the lift line, has been bucket list material for years, a favorite of experts across America, and with, perhaps, the steepest pitch on property, it must be a level of Hell a la Dante’s Inferno bumped out. Sign me up!
To skiers right and doubtless commanding the attention of every skier and boarder, the mighty profile of Shock Wave, a big buttonhook of a run with mogul-studded double fall lines, whips its way sharply like a sidewinder. For those looking for a warm-up before tackling the previously mentioned double blacks, a spin down Obsession->Tempest will rev the engine for the challenge of White Heat.
This begins a theme carried on throughout the resort: it’s refreshing to see a trail map where you have to respect the denominations, and it’s nice to find a resort where there are no blue squares masquerading as black diamonds. So when I say Tempest is a good warm up for White Heat that’s most certainly not comparing “Junior Varsity to Varsity.” And it’s not just Tempest, but it’s all across the map and mountain. If it says expert, it’s expert – for whatever reason, usually steeps.
We love that. At the end of the day, the true test of a resort is the gnar; the gnar is the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning. That’s what Sunday River has – beneath all its animal mascots and smiling kids – it’s got the goods at the highest level, starting right out of the gate with White Heat and Shock Wave, lightning and thunder. And that was a theme that carried on throughout the mountain and across the trail map.
Locke Mountain, the next peak westerly from White Cap, is Sunday River’s original summit and home to the resort’s oldest terrain. The peak is divided into an upper and lower half by a cross-run off Barker’s summit called Ecstasy. The wild T2 is the most popular choice off the summit, while the wonderfully rumbling Monday Mourning is the heart of Locke’s lower half. Tightrope is a strong alternative. The lower section of Locke is also home to Lift 5, a T-Bar underneath the Locke triple for Gould Academy students as they train.
Yes, Sunday River has an outstanding student-athlete winter sports academy, Gould, located on Church Street in Bethel, for grades 8-12. Several world class athletes are graduates, including Olympic mogul skier Troy Murphy, who many of you will know from his hilarious social media alter ego, Donnie Pelletier. Donnie is a wise-cracking version of a hammed-up Maine denizen, and his antics delight the kids especially. Sunday River also has it share of free ride world tour veterans, including Colin Boyd, who now writes articles for Blister Review, and Jackie Paaso, dubbed “the Queen” by her mates At Teton Gravity Research. All three return regularly to Sunday River for exhibitions, avalanche trainings, or just to spend the summer. Monday Mourning and its satellite area play host to a wide variety of races. Both White Cap and Barker are easily accessible from Locke’s summit.
Barker Mountain has just a smattering of trails, but some are important gateways to the other mountains. Serviced by a high-speed quad, the double black lift line Agony, along with Top Gun, and Right Stuff, are the most popular expert runs, and glades Last Tango and Hollywood are strong. But Barker’s summit also serves as the genesis for cross-mountain trails taking you to other peaks. Three Mile Trail, for instance, is a novice run meandering westerly all across the mountain through Spruce Peak and Aurora, before heading off to OZ and the Jordan Bowl.
Further to the west, things start to get even wilder at the summits. Spruce and Aurora offer a galaxy of high energy options. Downdraft, Supernova, Gnarnia, Airglow: take your pick, they’re all booster rockets of adrenaline. Your Author’s personal favorite is Vortex, bisected into a wider upper face and a narrow, tree-crowded lower flume by novice trail Lights Out, a traverse trail from west to east and connects OZ to Aurora, Barker and points east.
Still, there are plenty of novice options as well, since North Peak and the South Ridge area and base lodge sit directly below Barker and Aurora. Starting at the main base lodge, South Ridge services kid-friendly novice trails via three magic carpets, a high speed quad, and a Chondola.
Yes, Chondola. That’s not a typo.
That’s not an iconic politician (Nelson Manchondola), nor a new age wine (the finest ruby porto from the Chondola Estate’s private reserve), nor a hanging light fixture (that’s a chandelier, but thanks for playing). It is, instead, a hybrid high-speed lift featuring alternating six-pack chairs and eight person gondolas. You pick which one you want to ride up in, and get in the corresponding line.
I see what the focus group and research department were trying to do: “Chondola! The loveable lift with the funny name!” or maybe “Chondola! It’s like Burger King – Have it your way!” or maybe “Chondola! Portmanteaus all around!”
But branding fail! They did what the B Sharps a capella group did on The Simpsons TV show…came up with a name that sounds clever at first, but then gets dumber every time you say it.
I’ve ridden both – chair and gondola – and I assure you, at the end of the day, it’s a lift. Left Twix? Right Twix? Red Head? Brunette? Chair? Gondola? Pick either or try both, it runs to the North Peak mid-mountain lodge. North Peak also services more beginner and intermediate terrain, similarly oriented toward families and kids, and is also home to the entire state of Maine’s largest terrain park, T72. During weekends and holidays, North Peak offers night skiing on trails Escapade and Dreammaker serviced by the Lift That Can’t Make Up Its Mind.
This is it. This is the vortex, the chakra, the lightning strike. OZ is why you want…need…ache to come to Sunday River: to be transported to a magical world, a lost world, a world where time stands still. The true soul of skiing – every pulsing heartthrob – lies here in these wild woods plucked straight from a fantasy epic.
Eminently natural and bold features are just the beginning. Servicing only difficult, steeply pitched, and ungroomed expert terrain, a high speed chair runs along a wide, but steep lift line, Ruby Palace. The rest of OZ lies to skier’s right, accessed by a trail called Kansas, which begins all the way to the west at the Jordan Bowl summit. As you traverse right, each trail becomes more and more peppered with trees. The Woodsman has but a few trees, as though the Tin Man and his axe had been by, but starting with Lost Princess runs get tighter, darker, steeper, and more thickly choked with hardwoods. The Poppy Fields are anything but somnambulant; instead they are a heart-stopping, turn-a-second leg-burner as you dodge getting smeared. And finally, at Flying Monkeys, you might as well be skiing through actual flying monkeys, because trees are in your face every turn at a breakneck clip.
The epitome of sheer exhilaration, OZ alone is worth the price of admission at Sunday River. Sadly, it only opens on the weekends and holidays. Get there as early as possible, and frolic over the rainbow to your heart’s content. When you’re done, Kansas exits the peak to the east and brings you back to the rest of the resort. You’ll be sad to leave. Guaranteed.
The newest jewel in the Sunday River tiara and the most westerly expansion to date, the Jordan Bowl has a mix of terrain that covers all ability levels. Serviced by a brand new Doppelmayr D-Line 8-pack, the “Jordan 8,” the area is the new rising star of the resort. The sparkling new, ski in-ski out Jordan Grand Resort Hotel is located off novice trail Lollapalooza. Other routes include Rogue Angel and Excalibur, but the expansive glade system, growing ever larger with each passing year, is the hot ticket item, as are the stunning long views all the way to Mount Washington to the southwest and Sugarloaf to the north.
Look for more trail expansion in this sector of the mountain soon. In fact, continued westerly expansion seems likely, particularly in both the Jordan Bowl and the Merrill Hill area, further westerly from the Jordan Bowl.
“West of Jordan is what we call the Western Reserve. There are new trails, but they’re really only used as access to the houses that will be there,” explained Sunday River’s Communications and PR Manager Abby Borron. “Right now that’s the purpose they serve – getting to your place. But we are interested in terrain expansion in the Western Reserve long term. That is a goal.”
In that regard, Sunday River’s being part of the Boyne Resorts family plays great dividends. Boyne has made big investments, the new Jordan 8 being the latest coup.
“We also get to work in partnership with many other resorts, such as Big Sky and Sugarloaf, our sister resort,” added Borron. “And we also have more resources because of Boyne, and turn to large projects as a result. Jordan 8 is a perfect example.”
Boyne has been a sterling steward thus far, but the story of Sunday River’s steady rise from local mountain to alpha predator of the American winter sports scene cannot be told without tipping your hat to developer Les Otten. Otten spent decades at Sunday River, starting in 1972. He was made general manager just a year later. And in 1980 he bought the resort outright. Under Otten’s leadership, there were many years when Sunday River turned a half a millions skiers and boarders through its turnstyles season after season.
“Les was a major part of the expansion, he had really big ideas for the resort. Not all of them panned out, but he’s the major reason the resort grew so significantly, especially in the late ‘90s and early 2000s,” Borron stated.
Presently Otten is now developing what my turn out to be his magnum opus: reopening the fabled Balsams Resort in Dixville Notch, known as much for its masterful Donald Ross original golf course, the Panorama, as it is for its white glove, sterling service. For decades, the Balsams was a glittering scene, a glamorous jet set stop, even before anybody even called rich travelers a jet set.
Now as part of a $180 million master plan, Otten seeks to open the resort this coming season and expand the trail system of the old ski area by an order of magnitude. A proposed initial 500 acres of added terrain and more than 20 lifts would, according to reports, put make the Balsams the same size as Okemo and Stowe, but the full build out proposes a Brobdingnagian 2,200 skiable acres, “dwarfing even Killington,” according to SkiJournal.com. If his plans come to pass, the Balsams may become the northeast’s premiere winter destination.
“Les’s working on big things like that makes sense to me,” Borron noted admiringly.
[Author’s Note: We will continue to follow that story as well as visit the Balsams as part of the Border war series.]
Several skiers confirmed what ergonomics seems to dictate: that folks staying at the Grand Summit take early morning laps and late afternoon laps on White Peak before heading off the explore the rest of the mountains. The vice-versa is true for Jordan Bowlers, who’ll open and close the day with the Bowl and Oz, perhaps making their way to White Cap for lunch before working their way back to their ski-in, ski-out accommodations at the Jordan.
As a footnote, strictly from a geological point of view (and for those of you who prefer to be pedantic), White Cap, Locke Mountain, and Barker Mountain are, technically, all part of a mountain called Barker Mountain, with Locke Mountain being the actual summit. Confused? It gets deeper: North Peak, Spruce Peak, Aurora Peak, OZ, and Jordan Bowl are technically all part of a prominence called Black Mountain (elev. 3,162 ft.), with the highest point of the entire ski area being the summit of OZ.
OVERALL MOUNTAIN PLAN
Once again proving how eastern skiing tends to be horribly underrated, Sunday River not only shows you myriad faces accessible to every level of skier and boarder, it tests the best athletes to their limits.
Depth and breadth – it’s a potent combination.
“If you can ski well at Sunday River you can ski well anywhere,” claimed Borron, and she’s right. Sunday’s fiercest terrain is nothing short of a final examination for the expert skier and boarder.
Better still, the intermediate and novice options were equally splendid. A far cry for your boring, straight flavorless run at homogenized places, the trails are often adventurous – glorious grand vistas, and hurly-burly rolls. At Sunday River, the gnar sleeps cheek and jowl with kid and family friendly runs, no matter what peak you choose, perhaps excepting OZ, so the kiddies and Jerries won’t be missing any killer views. Shared summits for all! As a bonus, White Cap peak also features an entire separate novice section at the eastern end of the resort. Across the board, Sunday River’s combined, varied terrain truly places it among the highest echelon of American winter experiences.
Best of all the snow is downright sublime, and the season can run from late October to early May. “Legendary snow” beams more than one snow sports publication, and it’s true. Year in and year out, you can always count on the conditions being pristine. Last year in particular Sunday River saved the day spring weekend after spring weekend. While many other resorts had glumly closed in mid-March – an early end to a crap-tastic snow season in the east – Sunday River was still firing on all cylinders well into April. Hard to get to, but totally worth the pilgrimage, Sunday River is an imperative of American skiing, a bucket list destination that keeps getting better every year.
THE SUNDOWN REPORT
Happily, Sunday River hums in the evenings as well. While Greater Bethel is not quite the wild party central atmosphere of some places – there’s no raves or clubs – the overriding vibe is kick back and chill. What’s not to love about that? On mountain dining offers a broader array of options than nearly every one of their east coast competitors, including Asian options and Mexican as well as typical ski lodge fare.
But apres in Maine is chiefly fueled by craft beers and jam bands and comfort food. Sunday River Brewing Company and Matterhorn are quintessential ski bars, packed as soon as the sun goes down with libations and buoyant hearts and stories. As expected, everybody has some version of an over-the-top culinary invention, so I shouldn’t have been flabbergasted as much as I was by my wingman’s dinner: a steak and egg burger…which the chef took entirely to literally.
Let’s review this monstrosity more closely: bottom bun, six-ounce beef patty, gobs of cheese, middle bun, more gobs of cheese, an entire Philly steak, more cheese, two cracked eggs, top bun. I call it a Hindenburger, and sell T-shirts..
FRESH “LOBESTER??!!” A SIGN OF THE TIMES! GOOD TIMES!
There was only one thing wrong with the whole weekend, and it had nothing to do with the resort. I’m still flabbergasted as I sit here at the computer. How the heck could someone from Maine miss-spell the word “lobster” on a gigantic roadside restaurant marquee, I asked myself, but there it was, blaring at me biliously:
Everyone knows if you’re going to miss-spell that word it’s “LOB-STAH!!!” with Boston accent.
Of course, I had to know the story.
Welcome to Smedberg’s Crystal Spring Farm, and if you’re coming to Sunday River from points south and west, you’ll see it on the drive in and out. It’s a Maine institution, now 54 years young, and well known for their excellent beef…and their “lobester” sign.
It seems that back a generation, the mother of the current owners, Gayle Smedberg, got led astray by a girl that worked for her. Unable to afford a professionally crafted sign, Gayle simply sprayed-painted a piece of wood white and then painted “Fresh Lobster” in red on one side. The young lady saw it, and told her, “You left out the “e.”
I hope that girl was better at making change…
Anyway, poor Mrs. Smedberg obliged the girl on the other side of the side of the sign, painting “Fresh Lobesters.”
That’s right: the original sign had it spelled two different ways on either side. Mrs. Smedberg put it up that way. You might say it garnered attention. But hey, there’s no such thing as bad publicity, right? The public loved it. They just chalked it up to good ol’ Mrs. Smedberg being Mrs. Smedberg.
Cut to decades later, and when it came time for a new sign, everyone was having so much fun, so they decided to make the sign an icon. Now a new “Fresh Lobester” sign – miss-spelled on only one side – beams the message even more proudly. Here’s to another 54 years!
And the one guy that didn’t like it? The guy that accused them of making people from Maine look stupid? The Smedbergs (and others) felt differently. So they made T-shirts with “Home of the Lobester” on it…in fact a whole line of “lobester” merch. And does lobester merch ever move! Hats and t-shirts sell almost as fast as the fresh beef and seafood, and who wouldn’t want to get in on the joke?
“We love everyone’s reactions, it’s been so positive,” said a grateful Roger Smedberg, Gayle’s son and second-generation owner. “During the ski season the traffic backs up, and you’ll see people taking pictures of the sign or doing a double-take, driving around to really see if it says something different on the other side.”
All in all, it’s just part of the fun of visiting Sunday River. And as for Mrs. Smedberg, I hope she didn’t try to go on Wheel of Fortune. Who knows where she’d buy a vowel next.
Quality of Snow/Grooming – 9.5
Variety of Terrain – 9.5 (Some glades, some moguls, some freestyle, some piste – there’s plenty for everyone)
Lifts – 9.5
Snow coverage – 9.5
Natural Setting – 9
On Mountain Dining – 8.25 (Better options than most, but still overpriced. The food, however, is average at best)
Kid/Family Friendly – 9.5
Character – 9.25
Challenge – 9.5
Overall – 9.300
[Author’s Note: Just for comparison, we are nine articles into our Border War series between Vermont and New Hampshire, with 15 left to review. Were Sunday River in that series, it would have just tied for the lead.]