Via the Appalachian Trail (A.T.) and the Sugarloaf Side Trail 9.8 miles plus short road walk
Sugarloaf Mountain is well known as a ski resort and winter destination throughout the Northeast. It is also the third highest summit in Maine after Katahdin’s Baxter and Hamlin peaks and offers some fantastic views of the Carrabassett Valley, the Bigelow Preserve and far into Canada. Due to it’s geographic location in a snow-belt there is great skiing here long after most of the resorts to the south have closed. There are acres of surrounding wilderness land and tons of trail networks for many types of recreation. Included is a stretch of the Appalachian Trail, which passes .5 miles below the summit of Sugarloaf. From the junction with the Sugarloaf Side Trail, Spaulding Mountain is another 2.1 miles to the south. Although this is a wooded summit there are views of Sugarloaf a short distance north of the summit via a visible trail. Due to the isolated nature of Spaulding Mountain it is often climbed together with Sugarloaf or with Abraham via the Fire Warden’s Trail.
There are various ways to climb to the summit of Sugarloaf including a steep dirt road that leads from behind the maintenance area in the parking lot of the ski resort to the abandon summit building. People also climb up the ski trails to reach the summit once the snow has subsided for the year. We chose to approach from the north via the Appalachian Trail, a slightly longer but more gradual approach. Depending on the objective of the hike any one of these routes will get you to the summit with varying degrees of difficulty and steepness.
Getting to the Appalachian Trail approach on the Caribou Valley Road is interesting. This road is located a mile from the access road to Sugarloaf ski area on the south side of ME 27. It is an unsigned logging road that is privately owned and maintained. It should only be driven by a vehicle with high clearance and all wheel drive. In wet conditions I would recommend bringing boards with you just to be safe as the mud can be brutal. It is an easy walk, cross country ski, mountain bike or snowshoe on the road if your car is not equipped for the conditions. There is a locked gate about 4 miles from the start of the road, parking for the trail is allowed here but do not block the road or gate. Parking is available for probably 5 or 6 cars. Immediately behind the gate there is a wire bridge that crosses a stream, I had to carry my dog across the bridge because the grate was the size of her paws, so keep this in mind if you attempt this hike. The Appalachian Trail crossing is .5 miles up the road from the gate and is signed with a cairn and the customary white blazes of the AT.
Take the A.T. south (left) from the intersection with the Caribou Valley Road. The trail begins by descending to a branch of the Carrabassett River, this crossing used to be difficult, especially in high water but recently someone has installed a board making is easier. Once across the river the trail rises moderately to a section where trail maintenance has created a plethora of stone stairs. Above the stairs the trail becomes quite steep over large granite slabs. There are a few scrambles to gain this part of the trail, and I would caution that people should be aware that once up, you also have some come down. If you have a dog without much experience hiking there are two particular rocks they may struggle to get up and down. The first mile from the road is steep but quickly rewarding, as views to the south circe of Sugarloaf and the distant mountains open up once you are through the scramble. From here the trail moderates but continues to climb to the blue blazed junction with the Sugarloaf Side Trail at 2.3 miles.
We knew going into it that the views from Spaulding were less spectacular than Sugarloaf, and due to its isolated nature it was the primary objective of the hike, so we continued south on the A.T. rather than climb Sugarloaf first. The trail follows the crest between the peaks with some views and steep cliffs on the left. It passes through some interesting forests of spruce and birch, as well as an old blow down where most of the trees are dead but still leaning in place. There was a lot of evidence of moose including some fresh tracks in the mud but we sadly did not see one. At mile 1.5 the ascent up Spaulding begins, first steeply then more moderately. Near the top there is a wooden sign and a side trail leading approximately 150 yards to the true summit. The summit marker is a wooden sign with the hight of Spaulding listed at 3,988 feet, it has not been replaced since the reevaluation of elevation. To the north of the summit marker there is a path leading to an area where some dead trees have been cleared and the views to Sugarloaf are impressive.
When done enjoying retrace your steps back down the side trail to the junction with the A.T. and return across the ridge to the junction with the Sugarloaf Side Trail in 2.1 miles. The Sugarloaf Side Trail leads a gradual .5 miles to the summit. It is blazed in blue and is easy to follow as it climbs the last few hundred feet in elevation up to the top. Along the way there is a spring box and old method of storing water on the side of the trail. Lift the lid and there is fresh water to drink for you or your dog, once treated properly. From the trail the tower on the top of Sugarloaf is visible and soon you are right upon it. The trail pops out on a maintenance road leading to the various out buildings on the summit. Continue to follow the blue blazes up the rocky exposed cone to a large cairn and the outbuilding on the summit. To the south there is the abandon summit building, it is still standing but full of broken glass so be careful if you approach it. There is also a large tower and a chairlift. The actual summit it covered by a shed building that holds electrical equipment and other ski mountain essentials. There are impressive views from the summit but they are distracted by all of the stuff up there. A full 360 degree panorama is blocked by the center building’s presence, but otherwise the views continue as far as the eye can see in to all directions. Sugarloaf is an impressive mountain with some traces of alpine zone wildlife left however covered up by skiing equipment.
Once done enjoying the sights go down the Side Trail back to the junction with the A.T. Descending is at first gradual and then once the steep section is reached there is some negotiation necessary with the rock slides to safely get down. After you are through the rocky area it is a more gradual walk down all of the stairs and back to the river.
This is a rewarding hike as it is challenging physically and it covers some impressive and very scenic ground. You are likely to come across few people other than occasional thru hikers because this area is quite remote. It can be easy to get distracted or lost on the beginning of the hike, there are a lot of side trails that lead to camping areas before the crossing of the Carrabassett River, so be sure to keep an eye out for white blazes and be aware that Maine likes to put them on birch trees sometimes. Thanks to the addition of the wooden plank the river is easy to cross but without it I imagine it would be much more difficult. The only real troubling spot is the exposed rock slide that has to be climbed up and down. I have a picture included in this post to show what it looks like. Water is available most of the hike with the exception being on the way up Sugarloaf once you start up the stairs. There were some spots on the ridge where there were running streams and some residual puddles. Also the stream box on the way to the summit of Sugarloaf had water in it and pooled in front of it. I would recommend this hike for most people and dogs with experience, as it is a very beautiful and secluded spot. As with any hike, if you start and find it to be too hard then simply turn around and return the way you came.
Distance from the Caribou Valley Road:
Junction with Sugarloaf Side Trail: 2.3 miles
Spaulding Side Trail: 4.4 miles
Return to Sugarloaf Side Trail: 6.5 miles
Sugarloaf Summit: 7 miles
Return to Caribou Valley Road: 9.8 miles