For many, skiing in Maine conjures up images of the state’s two largest ski resorts, Sugarloaf USA and Sunday River. Those mountains, each with more than 120 trails and a dozen lifts, attract skiers from the world over.
But the state has 19 other ski areas that are often overlooked. With expansions at three of those areas — Black Mountain in Rumford, Big Rock in Mars Hill and Saddleback in western Maine — the lesser-known mountains are drawing notice of their own. Skiers who hit the slopes at those three mountains this season will have new trails, new lifts and new base lodges, thanks to major expansions during the offseason.
Black Mountain and Big Rock are owned by the Maine Winter Sports Center, which is funded through The Libra Foundation, a Portland-based philanthropic organization.
Andy Shepard, president and CEO of the center, said the projects are part of the center’s effort to create healthy communities. While the larger ski areas have grown over the years, the smaller mountains have lost skiers because they weren’t upgrading their equipment and trails, he said.
Skier visits to Maine ski areas have hovered around 1.3 million in recent years, with Sunday River and Sugarloaf accounting for about two-thirds of those visits. Shepard said it’s important to get more people on the community ski areas’ slopes for the future of the entire Maine ski industry.
“Our commitment is to get as many people on skis as possible, to re-establish skiing as a lifestyle in Maine,” Shepard said.
Black Mountain in Rumford and Big Rock in Mars Hill are community ski areas that cater mostly to local residents. Saddleback in western Maine is primarily a destination resort.
“To have three individual ski areas putting in new lifts is a substantial statement that a lot is going on in Maine skiing,” said Greg Sweetser, executive director of Ski Maine Association. “And for two community areas to do it in the same year is of note.”
‘We’re a reborn giant’
Saddleback, located in Sandy River Plantation next to Rangeley, underwent a $12 million dollar construction project during the summer.
The resort built a new four-person chair lift, expanded its lodge from 16,000 to 39,000 square feet, cut seven new trails and expanded two others. Snowmaking now covers 80 percent of the mountain.
The expansion is part of Archie “Bill” Berry Jr.’s plans to bring the ski area back to prominence and profitability after having skier visits fall by more than half. Berry’s family bought ski area 14 months ago for $8 million.
“We’re a reborn giant,” said Peter Fox, Saddleback Inc.’s marketing director. “We are the up-and-coming family destination resort.”
In Rumford, Black Mountain has installed a new triple chairlift, snowmaking equipment and lights, and built a 13,000-square-foot lodge. Its new trails more than double the skiable acreage and vertical drop, from 470 feet to 1,150 feet.
In Mars Hill in Aroostook County, Big Rock ski area has installed a triple chairlift and blazed three new intermediate tails. It has also upgraded and expanded its snowmaking capabilities.
Skier visits at Big Rock doubled to 22,000 in 2002-2003, the first year the center owned the mountain. Skier visits fell to 16,000 last winter, largely due to the brutal cold.
Black Mountain last year had 8,000 skier visits, which Shepard says could grow to 30,000 in the years ahead.
Sweetser said the projects at Black Mountain and Big Rock show that community ski areas are gaining strength.
“They have clarified their identity, their brand,” he said. “Their brand is that they’re convenient, they’re close, they’re less expensive. They’re a community asset.”
As for Saddleback, Sweetser said the resort becomes only the third Maine ski area with a 2,000-foot vertical drop. The Maine ski industry can now claim that it has two large mountains, Saddleback and Sugarloaf, close together.
“To have two big mountains within 40 minutes of each other, over time this will be an attractive feature for national and international business,” he said.