Skiers take off from top of the Locke Mountain Triple at Sunday River last weekend. The ski area is now open daily for the season. Josh Christie photo

Ski season has arrived in Maine. It’s a bit later than last year, when Sunday River opened in mid-October, but this season kicked off when the Newry resort opened its Locke Mountain Triple last weekend. The area was open for skiing and riding on 25 acres across four trails before closing for a few days midweek. On Friday, it reopened for daily operations.

Sugarloaf, Sunday River’s sister resort in Carrabassett Valley (the two are owned by Michigan’s Boyne Resorts), also opened for the season on Friday, a week ahead of schedule thanks to favorable weather.

When skiers and riders visit the two resorts during the early season, they’ll be greeted with a number of changes. Some of these big capital improvements to infrastructure, like lifts and dining areas, will be immediately apparent. Others, such as new programs and capacity, are a bit more behind-the-scenes.

At Sunday River, the most immediately obvious change is the addition of four new surface lifts. The Gould Academy Surface Lift on Locke Mountain, which crosses under the Locke Mountain Triple (they actually share a lift tower), will be used for training and competitions on Monday Mourning and the Flow State boardercross course. Meanwhile, three covered conveyor lifts replace the single conveyor that was on Sundance, allowing for progressive “steps” up the beginner slope rather than a single lift.

Sunday River also installed almost two miles of snowmaking pipe connected to its eponymous river, coupled with a new 600-horsepower pump to increase snowmaking water capacity by 15 percent. Four additional 500-horsepower pumps added yet another 10 percent to water capacity for snowmaking; all part of an effort to fully double snowmaking capacity in the coming years.

In terms of amenities, Phase 3 of the Mountain Room (the on-mountain dining option developed in 2015 in partnership with Harding Lee Smith of Portland’s Front Room, Corner Room, and Grill Room restaurants) has been completed. There’s also the debut of SkiWork, a co-working space in White Cap Lodge, which will have space available for daily or season-long rentals.

At Sugarloaf, the centerpiece of the off-season improvements has been the renovation of the iconic Widowmaker Lounge, a favorite spot in the base lodge long in need of a little TLC. Changes include relocation of both the bar and stage to open up the space, renovation of the loft area, and a new outdoor loft deck. On the operations side, relocation of the beer cooler and a new HVAC system are largely invisible changes that should pay dividends in service and experience.

Sugarloaf also worked with Portland’s Puelle Design to update both the logo and visual identity of the space, which means visitors in the base lodge will now be greeted with a new look. The new logo – Sugarloaf’s triangle flanked by a set of wings – makes sly reference to the logging term that gave the bar its name while also “acknowledging the location’s importance as a little slice of Sugarloaf heaven.”

Visitors will also notice that Sugarloaf lifties have resumed hand-scanning passes at major lifts. It’s part of a move toward radio frequency identification in tickets and passes, with the goal of RFID gates at the resort in coming seasons. If you’ve ever skied in Europe or out west, you may be familiar with these gates, which replace ticket checking with an automatic entry gate.

On the snowmaking side, Sugarloaf gained approval this year to build a new dam at Caribou Pond, which will allow the mountain to control water levels and increase the strength of its snowmaking system. Construction is expected to begin next summer.

Parent company Boyne also launched a new season pass this year aimed at coaxing younger visitors to the slopes – the Nitro New England Pass. Available to skiers age 29 and younger, the $499 pass (which offers access to Loon, Sunday River and Sugarloaf with a dozen holiday blackout dates) is a full $300 less than the Silver New England Pass, the equivalent pass for those 30 and older.

Most other resorts in Maine are expected to open in early to mid-December, weather and conditions permitting.

One exception is Eaton Mountain in Skowhegan. In October, owner David Beers announced that the area will not be open this winter (though they intend to reopen for the 2020-21 season).

And Saddleback, the long-dormant resort in Rangeley, is finally seeing signs of life. The ski area has been sold to the Boston-based Arctaris Impact Fund. While new General Manager Andy Shepard reports Saddleback won’t be opening until the 2020-21 season, the coming year will see significant investment including two new lifts, snowmaking equipment and renovations of the base lodge.

In the coming weeks, I’ll report on what changes can be expected at these other areas.

Josh Christie is a freelance writer living in Portland. Along with his brother, Jake, he writes about great Maine destinations for outdoors enthusiasts. Josh can be reached at: [email protected]

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