Transforming a Great Ski Destination into an Even Better Mountain Bike Destination in Maine

Carrabassett Valley’s Sugarloaf Mountain has been one of New England’s premier ski areas for over seventy years. The Maine resort hosted prominent ski events that include the U.S. Alpine Nationals, U.S. Freestyle Nationals, U.S. Snowboard Grand Prix, National Junior Olympics, North American Championship Series, and S.I.S.E. Cup Eastern Masters Championships.

Snow skiing has been king in the Valley

All photos: Bob Robinson

That was until a loosely organized group of local mountain bikers believed, with proper backing, the area’s rugged mountainous terrain had the potential to become an exciting network of mountain bike trails. The group had been constructing trails on their own in the area since the mid-1980s, which gave them up-close and personal experience to back their conviction.

In 2009 one of these cyclists, Josh Tauses convinced the town of Carrabassett Valley to fund a study, performed by the International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA), to determine the probability of new professionally constructed mountain bike trails drawing visitors to the area.

Encouraged by the results of this study, four major organizations with a common interest in continued community development — the town of Carrabassett Valley, the Carrabassett Region Chapter of the New England Mountain Bike Association (CRNEMBA), Maine Huts & Trails, and Sugarloaf — formed the Carrabassett Valley Trails Committee (CVTC).

CVTC then created a memorandum of understanding, which laid out their vision statement to develop a mountain bike trail system of exceptional quality, sustainability, and diversity for the enjoyment of residents, property owners, and riders that travel to the area.

From the get-go, their focus was on quality. Per the study’s recommendation, they hired Hardy Avery, a well-respected professional mountain bike trail designer, and builder, to develop a 3-year master plan for constructing bike trails across the valley.

The Town of Carrabassett Valley also added a full-time trail construction crew to their payroll to implement this plan, fittingly hiring Tauses as the Trail Master.

As they say, the rest is history.

Eleven years later, Tauses says, the area now has over eighty miles of bike trails, of which sixty miles is true singletrack.

“As cliché as it sounds,” he explains, “we have always worked to create a mix of sustainable trails to fit every ability level. With a focus on trails that are progressively more technical so riders can grow their skillsets.”

CVTC’s planning and the trail crew’s labor have paid off for the community.

“Second homeowners for skiers were what has been the major driver for the economy of Carrabassett Valley,” says Dave Cota, Town Manager of Carrabassett Valley. “But now, it is not uncommon to have people buy a second home in the area for the mountain bike trails.”

Let’s Ride

Carrabassett Valley is classic New England terrain. Some rocks, some roots, sweet natural flow, and lots of up-and-down. A few of the trails have maintained the “free-ride” tradition hardcore bikers seek. However, the majority have been constructed with sustainability as a priority, and are beginner and intermediate rider friendly.

The trail system is based on a “pod” approach, with several areas of concentrated riding distributed across the mountainsides, each linked together by a backbone of connector trails.

“This is a way to expand our geographic location,” explained Tauses, “and it stretches people out a little bit to avoid bottlenecks.”

One of the more popular pods is the Sugarloaf Outdoor Center (SOC), located at the mountain base. With approximately thirty-five miles of diverse trail, this is a great place to begin your Carrabassett Valley Adventure. Allspeed Cyclery is located here for all your bike repairs and rentals. Moose Café is also at the Center for fresh-made food and cold brews.

Beginning a ride at SOC, riders have the option of jumping on Snail Trail to reach the network of trails across State Highway 27 or dropping into Moose Bog Loop located behind the center. I recommend starting on the Moose Loop. This green-rated trail that circles Moose Lake makes for a nice warmup, and you might be lucky enough to spot one of the massive beasts grazing in the shallow bog.

From this point on, all trails point upward. Riders can climb the mountain via singletrack trails or gravel roads. As a rule, you might want to take the easy route for putting big elevation behind you, grinding up the road. However, the singletrack is very rideable, even on the upsweep. So, peel off Moose onto Jabba the Hut and get this party started.

For a taste of old-school mountain biking adventure, steer onto Bob’s Bruiser next. This is a short, chunky style, black diamond ride that will put a smile on your face or make you appreciate Jabba once you tie back into it further up the mountain.

Buckshot, T.O.A.D., and Sunny Breeze are all fun singletrack. But don’t start down the mountain until you have experienced Hurricane Knoll. It is one sweet ride. My riding partner, Dalene Ketcher, described Hurricane best when riding it, giggling, “Oh my gosh, this trail is so much fun!”

Enroute to Hurricane, you might want to knock out the last stretch of elevation gain on a gravel road named Fifty Trail. The ride up on singletrack has some steep and narrow sections that make for some close encounters of the handlebar kind when you meet descending riders.

For the diehard downhillers, circle back around Hurricane again. On your second ride around, midway through, drop into The Real Deal Trail. This half-mile descent lives up to its name. The CVTC trail crew incorporated the mountainside’s natural features into big jumps, techie rock features, and quick, dodgy switchbacks. This definitely is the most challenging trail in the SOC pod.

After a pause for the cause at SOC’s Moose Café to load up on some much-needed calories, jump onto Snail and Route 27 Connector trails to pedal to the next “pod.”

The Campbell Field riding area has forty-two miles of trail, along with the beautiful Narrow Gauge Trail, a rails-to-trails path that follows the Carrabassett River.

This area includes a gaggle of fast flow-n-go green and blue trails that includes Grassy Loops, Meade, and Spike that are sure to put a toothy grin on your face.

But the signature trail in this pod is Oak Knoll. This is a two-plus mile blue run with an almost one-thousand-foot descent. As riders fly over the rock ladened paths trail crews laid down in potential bog sections, they know that extra money for good suspension was well spent.

When reaching the bottom, you’ll want to head over to Newton’s Revenge to loop back to the top of Knoll for another heaping serving of downhill grins and giggles. Definitely DO mark these routes on your trail map with a bright highlighter for return visits to the area.

And according to Tauses, you will want to start planning that trip soon for an entirely new adventure.

“We are right on top of a huge expansion of trail construction.”

He explained that work has already begun on a new pod that will include a trailhead parking area and another twenty miles of diverse, sustainable trail to the valley.

It takes a village

The CVTC currently spends about $18,000 annually for trail maintenance and another $70,000 on new trail construction. With the combined financial support of the four members of the CVTC, trail grants, and private contributions, Cota estimates expenses over the past eleven years for new trail development, and maintenance, to be just shy of one million dollars.

When I asked if CVTC has compiled an economic impact on the results of the new trail development, he replied they never figured one was needed.

“All you have to do is drive around town and see all the mountain bikes on top of cars,” he explained. “It’s pretty obvious the community is benefiting from the trails.”

The Wire Suspension Bridge spanning the Carrabassett River in the area of the MTB trails.

Visitors and second home owners no longer come to the area just during the ski season. They visit during the summer months as well. That is something that hadn’t happened before the new trails.

He explained how revenue from the influx of riders coming to the area spills over to food industries, filling stations, lodging, and the ancillary expenses incurred when visiting. A few years ago, maybe two restaurants would open during summers months, and now six continue their operations.

John Beaupre, the owner of four convenience/liquor stores in the Carrabassett Valley area, added, “When I first started in this business some thirty years ago, tumbleweeds were rolling down the streets during the summer months. But now, I’m as busy as I am in the winter.”

Beaupre went on to say that sales during the summer months have increased some 45% over the past six years, and most of the vehicles stopping at his stores have mountain bikes strapped on them.

It just keeps getting better

Carrabassett Valley received a huge shot in the arm when CVTC member Sugarloaf was selected to host one of only two American stops on the 2022 Enduro World Series tour. To add even more cred to their resume, they also hosted one of the official Gold Qualifying events for the Enduro World Series with the Maxxis Eastern States Cup Box Showdown on Sept. 12, 2021.

“As an active member of the CVTC, Sugarloaf has a long history of growing the mountain bike scene,” said Ethan Austin, Sugarloaf’s Director of Marketing. “When Adam Craig joined the staff as its Mountain Bike Sales and Events Manager, it paved the way for us to become involved with the Enduro racing scene.”

Craig, a 19-time USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Champion who represented the United States at the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, is also a native son. He has fond memories of racing down Maine’s second-tallest peak on Sugarloaf Mountain when the resort hosted the Widowmaker Challenge races in the mid-1990s. He was excited to personally resurrect Widowmaker, along with four additional gravity trails, for the Maxxis Showdown.

The Showdown was a great success. They easily filled the 340-entry cap for the enduro, with another 150+ racers for the downhill only category.

Craig was impressed with the number of young riders signed up for the race. With fifty racers under the age of twenty, it says a lot for the future of enduro racing.

“These young riders have the skillsets to handle the classic rocky, rooty, challenging Eastern New England style we built in these trails,” praised Craig.

Adam Craig on trail.

Sixteen-year-old Matt Pachniak exemplified this, explaining, “There were a lot of features in the trails that you couldn’t just drop into and pray. You had to be a technical enough rider in order to select the proper lines and hit them hard.”

The large turnout of racers, plus the estimated 1,500 spectators, solidified Sugarloaf’s resolve to move forward with plans for a more extensive trail system. For now, select trails from the Enduro race are open to the public.

“Although we have no definite plans,” Austin explained. “I believe we will have a network of quality downhill trails for all skill levels of cyclists within the next two to three years. They will include lift support.”

Can you say, “World Class” mountain bike destination?

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