Depending on how you measure, Sunday River is one of the largest ski areas in New England. The ski is built along a ridge line with eight distinct peaks. As a result the area is laterally expansive, although vertically rather diminutive on any given peak. They will advertise a vertical drop of 2,340 ft, but the reality is that most peaks have a vertical drop of 1,500 ft or less, with only White Cap being greater at 1,630 ft vertical drop.
Length of Season
Sunday River prides itself on having one of the longest seasons in the East. It will open as soon as it can in the fall, usually in late October, and pushes aggressively to expand terrain as the weather allows.
In the spring its target closing date is May 1.
Base Areas and Parking
At the eastern most end of the ridge, the White Cap lodge is the base of the tallest and steepest trails at Sunday River. The mountain's signature trail, White Heat, is located here. The Grand Summit Hotel is at this base, as is the easiest parking on the mountain. It is our recommended base area, but be warned the lodge is very dated. Tickets are sold in the ski shop downstairs.
The Barker Lodge is the oldest (though recently remodeled), and the base of operations early and late season. During the mid season it is also the most crowded base area and should be avoided. The surrounding Locke, Barker, and Spruce peaks are the location of the most popular (crowded) intermediate terrain on the mountain.
South Ridge is the base for the vast majority of the mountain's beginner terrain which is accessed off of North Peak. This base area can get very crowded, especially in the lodge. Despite the crowds, this is your best bet for beginners. It is also the base lodge you'll need to use for night skiing.
The South Ridge area is the beginner area at Sunday River. The South Ridge HSQ is one of the best beginner lifts in the east. It services about 500 vertical of consistently pitched, but very gentle terrain. The lift does not usually have much of a line either when the North Peak Express and Chondola are also open.
Little White Cap, by the Grand Summit Hotel, is a less known and less traveled beginner area. This 600' vertical area is serviced by a sheltered fixed grip quad. Take your beginner or low-intermediate skier or rider to this area on the busiest Saturdays and find the slopes empty and no line at the lift. The easiest route is the Green Cheese-Lower Moonstruck. Take a right off the lift and cut back under the lift immediately. The two blue trails off the lift, Upper Moonstruck and Starlight, are generously rated blues. A confident beginner should be able to handle these groomed trails as well.
Lastly the Lollapalooza trail is another option. Be warned that this trail has narrow sections, sharp turns, can be crowded, and is a challenge to get to from the rest of the resort. I'd only check it out if you're REALLY bored with the other beginner terrain.
Intermediate terrain one area in which Sunday River excels. The mountain prides itself on its grooming and snowmaking, and thus the snow quality on its intermediate cruising terrain is usually superb. Since the resort is so spread out, except for a few very popular intermediate trails, much of the terrain is not overly crowded or skied off by 10:00 AM like other resorts.
The intermediate skier has a variety of terrain available too as some trails are winding and rolling (Northern Lights) while others are your traditional wide-open blue boulevard from the 1980s and 1990s (American Express).
The intermediate terrain is roughly isolated into 3 or 4 trail 'pods,' Jordan, Aurora, Spruce/North Peak, and Barker Mountain.
Jordan has 3 groomed intermediate trail options, Lollapalooza, Rogue Angel, and Excalibur. Moderately pitched with some rolls and knolls, the mountain usually tries to get this terrain open in time for the Christmas Holidays. These trails are some of the longest on the mountain, but can see crowds, especially on Saturdays. Excalibur is the favorite cruiser of many locals.
Aurora Basin has only 1 real intermediate trail, Northern Lights, but it is one of the resort's best. This trail usually opens around Thanksgiving and offers a consistent yet interesting rolling pitch winding down into the basin. Airglow, a black diamond next to Northern Lights is not terribly challenging either.
Spruce Peak has some of the most popular intermediate cruising terrain for the resort. American Express and Risky Business are wide open, groomed boulevards similar to trail options at Bretton Woods. Despite being heavily trafficked, Spruce usually doesn't have much of a line and the runs are wide enough that any crowds are not unbearable. The tops of these trails can get wind swept though, so on windy days they are often icy up top.
On North Peak, the Dream Maker, Escapade, and Grand Rapids trails are all nicely pitched and always groomed. The North Peak Express usually does not have a bad line too, despite being in the center of the resort. Try out the 3D trail for some excellent bumps and the woods on the skier's left of Escapade are great starter gladed trails.
Lastly Barker Mountain has a plethora of groomed blue trails. However, this area is the most crowded with the longest lift lines to boot. The Lazy River trail, though marked blue has some long flat sections that can be frustrating for a snowboarder, but your beginner intermediate skier will love its winding turns and stunning views. The other options from Barker are reached either by the Ectasy trail or Jungle Road, a traverse trail towards Locke Mountain. All the blues by Locke are wide open with a steady pitch. Sunday Punch is one of the first trails to open every year. It is narrower and winding up top opening into a wider section crossing by the Locke Midstation and under Barker.
Looking at Barker Mountain from Escapade on North Peak:
The River has a good variety of both groomed and ungroomed advanced options. There are advanced trail options off of every peak at the resort, which makes skiing with an intermediate or beginner skier/rider even easier as you can meet at the bottom of the lift.
Starting at the Eastern Edge of the resort, White Cap has it all with its 3 trails and additional glades. Shockwave features snowmaking, but is always left ungroomed except for a few rare times a year. This trail has steep drops as it winds around the mountain. It shines brightest in the spring season often softening early in the day with a more eastern aspect. White Heat is the mountain's signature expert trail. Straight down the fall line White Heat is wide, straight, and groomed. Obsession, though not as steep as White Heat, is winding and a whole lot of fun. It is the favorite groomed trail of many regulars. Lastly in the White Cap area is Tempest, a steep, straight, groomed black that leads to the White Cap lodge. Jibe is a blue that runs next to Tempest, but is often ungroomed providing a more interesting option down to the base.
Locke Mountain features narrower advanced trails that are often very uncrowded at the top because the triple is so slow. Bim's Wim, Upper Cut, Locke Line, and Jim's Wim are all uncrowded, mostly ungroomed, and great fun. The long triple ride is worth it to ski these trails in their entirety, in my opinion, especially when everywhere else is jammed. If Bim's Wim and T2 are open and groomed, you can often find corduroy on these trails even in the afternoon because their see such low traffic.
Barker Mountain allows access to most of the advanced trails on Locke and other advanced trails. Right Stuff is a standard groomed black with a fun pitch. Top Gun is another snowmaking trail left to bump up. It also shines in the spring as a mogul paradise. Agony runs right under the lift and is the most difficult option off Barker, but not horribly steep or difficult, even by Sunday River terms. Be warned that Agony can get really icy due to the way the wind often strikes this trail.
Spruce, in addition to its blue cruising terrain, has a few nice ungroomed trails too. Downdraft is a great mogul run that holds snow well. Gnarnia, a new (to the map) trail added a few years ago, is one of the tougher trails at the resort featuring a small optional cliff in the upper half of the trail above the 3 mile trail and a steep, tight lower section under the lift that eventually leads into the Last Tango Glade. Hit it on a powder day.
Off North Peak there are two more ungroomed advanced trails. Northern Exposure and Quantum Leap are often closed, but are great fun on a powder day or warmer day when they are open. Quantum Leap is a favorite in the springtime, but it tends to close earlier than most trails. Watch for ice on midwinter days too!
The Aurora Basin features Airglow, another regular groomed black and Vortex, a sometimes groomed sometimes ungroomed double black. Vortex is one of the steeper trails on the mountain and runs right down the fall line. This trail can also be icy, but holds snow better than Quantum Leap. The Black Hole trail is a short, groomed, alternative way down near the end of the Airglow trail.
Looking up Black Hole from the Aurora lift:
Oz features a unique skiing experience, but not in a great way in the opinion of some. Oz has a variety of semi-gladed terrain and the pitches of the trails are some of the best on the mountain, but the glading work leaves something to be desired. As you move closer to the lift (coming from Aurora), the trails become more and more open and a little easier. Many of these trails, such as the Lost Princess actually even feature snowmaking (and occasional grooming) so they reliably open in January, but also can be icy because of this. Ski these trails when they are good, but avoid them on boilerplate days after a thaw/freeze even more than the natural trails because of this. The newer glades like Poppy Fields on the eastern edge of Oz (by Aurora) are better, in my opinion.
Tree Skiing/Gladed Terrain
Almost every peak at the River has glades cut somewhere (on map and off). The most difficult tree skiing is located at the ends of the resort on White Cap and Jordan/Oz. The White Cap glades are a fun experience as the trees and shrubs are a little shrunken towards the top. Be warned though, the beginning of these glades are essentially a giant rock, so make sure snow cover is good! There are easier glades that are not steep off Little White Cap too. These are tight, but can be a good introductory glade.
The trees off Locke/Barker/Spruce are fairly traditional New England glade skiing with numerous tight lines, river beds, and variety. Anywhere that looks like an opening to some trees usually is in this area of the resort. Ask a local to show you around! Make sure that you do not accidentally head off the backside of the resort though, as you will have a tough slog to get back.
The gladed terrain off Aurora is a little more open than the Locke and Barker trails, but still has a classic New England feel. Look in between Vortex and the lift in gully type mountain features for some fun lines.
The easiest glades on the mountain are on North Peak. The Enchanted forest is wide open and even has a little hut belonging to "Eddie the Yeti" in the middle. It is fun to take kids in there and explore. The other side of the North Peak Express has the North Woods with an entrance skier's right of the entrance to 3D. This glade is a little narrower and more difficult than the Enchanted forest, but doesn't see a ton of traffic despite its central location. The lower half of this glade is also one of the first to open every year too.
Enchanted Forsest and the lower portion of North Woods in early January 2017:
Lastly Oz and Jordan contain more open glades. The mountain went a little cutting crazy in parts of Oz, but the Flying Monkey and Poppy Field glades are excellently spaced and Blind Ambition and Wizard's Gulch off Jordan are huge and long. Again in this area of the resort, ask a local to show you around to where some of the best lines are. Be careful not to accidentally leave the resort boundary if you explore here though!
Night skiing at the resort is limited, but a nice bonus if you want to truly maximize your on hill time. Only the Chondola and South Ridge Express run for night operations, but access most of the terrain on North Peak and South Ridge. Escapade is the only real intermediate or higher difficulty trail accessible during this time.
Most lifts are fixed grip, but none have terribly long ride times. The longest lift, Spruce, has a conveyor belt to shorten the ride to under 10 minutes. The high speed lifts at the resort usually feature longer lines, especially Barker and Jordan, so riding the fixed grips usually results in more skiing. Because the resort is so long east-west, individual lifts are rarely crowded.
When there are crowds, the bottom line is skip everything off of Barker and South Ridge Lodges. Head for Oz and Jordan Bowl or White Cap. Be warned that Jordan, being a high speed lift, often accumulates a large line, especially around lunch due to hotel traffic.
Aurora will have a line most Saturday and Sunday mornings, but clears out. White Cap is always empty, but trail options are more limited over here and you have to take Barker to reach anything else.
Dining and Drinking -- On Mountain and Off
- Avoid the Peak Lodge. It's very popular which means too busy.
- There is a nice restaurant called Sliders in the Jordan Hotel
- Cinnamon rolls at Sunday River are semi-famous. Sold in Barker and the Peak Lodge, get them when they are fresh!
- The Foggy Goggle at South Ridge is packed. If that's your scene head over.
- The bar at the Barker Lodge often has a lively apres crowd.
- Off-mountain on the access road, the Matterhorn is the place to go.
- Matterhorn. Period.
Annual Special Events
Lift tickets are free if you wear a costume on Halloween!
Keep an eye out for registration for their annual Santa Sunday in December. If you wear a Santa suit and donate to charity, you'll receive a free morning ticket to join the other Santas for a ski run down the mountain. In addition, you'll receive another lift ticket voucher to return another day.
For their last day of the season, they offer free lift tickets on May 1 for Ski Maynia.
Local Ski Shops
There are a number of ski shops on the access road up to the mountain. Check out Sport Thoma in Bethel.
Where to Stay
Sunday River lift tickets are the most expensive in Maine, and very difficult to find on discount. Expect $79 Monday - Thursday, and $99 Friday - Sunday. While most ski areas offer discounts if you look around, these guys don't play ball.
For more information: http://www.sundayriver.com/
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First hand report and photos by Jim Kenney:
I visited Sunday River for two days in March 2012.
Often March midweek skiing in New England can be like a ghost town. I was surprised at how active Sunday River was - in a good way. We were there for my son's two day PSIA skiing exam along with dozens of other aspiring instructors including extreme skiing pioneer Glen Plake.
There was also a large contingent of vacationing Canadian families on school break, but the real excitement was provided by the hundreds of college students representing 80 schools competing in the 34th annual U. S. Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association National Championship. Sunday River had built a tremendous array of venues/courses for the different competitive disciplines including boardercross. Despite all the activity at no time during our midweek visit did we wait in any significant lift lines.
2012 U. S. Collegiate Ski and Snowboard Association National Championship boardercross course at Sunday River:
We started at White Cap Lodge on the far eastern edge of the trail layout and skied White Heat as a steep first run. We gradually made our way towards the mid-mountain North Peak Lodge and found some nicely groomed intermediate cruising on Risky Business and American Express trails off Spruce Peak (~1500' vertical). We also sampled a challenging bump run called I Caramba under the Jordan express chair (~1500' vertical).
On our second day temperatures moderated greatly to about 50 sunny degrees and we found softer surfaces. My son was busy much of the day with instructor exams. I went free skiing in the Oz trail pod and followed (before they left me in the dust) some hot college racers through a pretty glade called Flying Monkey. Nearby the warm sun made two huge open glades called Tin Woodsman and Eureka soft and fun to ski. Mount Washington is only about 25 miles as the crow flies from Sunday River and I stopped to enjoy some beautiful views of New Hampshire’s Presidential range from the observation tower atop Jordan Peak.
Flying Monkey Glade at Sunday River:
We stayed two nights in Bethel, ME at the Norseman Inn for about $80 per night (2012 prices). It’s three miles from Sunday River and the room was very clean and included a microwave and minifridge. Sunday River has an excellent variety of terrain for all skill levels including challenging bump runs with sustained verticals in the 1300-1500' range, expert level glades, and tons of groomed intermediate runs. It’s large enough and with reliable snow conditions for a one-stop, multiday ski destination. There is considerable lodging, dining and service infrastructure at the mountain and in nearby Bethel, including affordable package deals that make it attractive to groups and vacationers. We got a good deal one night on pizza at the very atmospheric Matterhorn Ski Bar less than a mile from the slopes. Sunday River has reasonable proximity to Boston (~3 hours) and a seasonal calendar packed with fun events.
Edited by Jully