Distance: 6.4 miles (round trip from Caribou Pond Road gate)
Time: 3.5-5.5 hours
Difficulty: Pack the Aleve
Sugarloaf Elevation: 4,237 feet
Elevation Gain: 2,229 feet
Best known for the ski resort, Sugarloaf is Maine’s second-highest mountain, making it a top bucket list hike for peak baggers. Don’t be fooled by the relatively short hiking distance, Sugarloaf via the Appalachian Trail is not for the faint of hiking. Of the 2,229 feet of elevation gain, 800 feet is earned in a butt-kicking, three-quarter-of-a-mile section traversing a rocky outcropping.
(Yes, you can hike Sugarloaf via the ski resort, but where’s the fun in that?)
It’s important to note that the condition of Caribou Pond Road (aka Caribou Valley Road) can significantly change from year to year. It was previously possible to drive this old logging road to the Appalachian Trail crossing, but at the time of this writing, there’s a gate and a parking area 0.4 miles short of the trail (see directions below for more). There’s also a bridge crossing a mile or so before here that is getting questionable to drive over, and could soon become unpassable without repair. In short, be prepared to add a few miles of dirt road hiking to this trek—but don’t fret, it’s worth it.
From the Caribou Pond Road crossing, the Appalachian Trail drops down to the South Branch of the Carrabassett River. Just before the river is a stealth campsite often frequented by thru-hikers. The river crossing is a sequence of large rock-hops with a plank currently available. In normal conditions, the river is easily negotiable, but exercise caution after periods of extreme rainfall or during the spring melt.
Once across the Carrabassett River, the real fun begins with the three-quarter-of-a-mile stretch gaining 800 feet. At first, it’s merely a steep and rocky climb of Sugarloaf’s northwest shoulder, but the rocks get bigger, turning into a full-on ledge outcropping. This section is immense fun, but also tricky on the descent, especially for thru hikers with full packs, so plan carefully around inclement weather.
Once the AT crests the southwest shoulder, hikers are out of the woods on the difficult climbing. For a short stretch, you’ll also literally be out of the woods and exposed to the elements (this is where your mother reminds you to bring layers, including rain gear, but I’m not her, so I’ll just say: don’t be stupid). The views from here are grand, staring down into a 500-foot ravine, as well as across Caribou Valley to Crocker Mountain.
The trail cuts back into the softwoods and is relatively easy for the next 1.4 miles with a gradual ascent to the intersection with the Sugarloaf and Spaulding Mountains Trail.
For thru-hikers who are prone to skipping blue blaze trails, you’ll want to think twice about bypassing Sugarloaf on clear days. The views are worth the extra mile of sweat, and camping is available a short distance from here in either direction. The hike from this junction is a steady and moderate climb to the open summit upon a trail planted with rocks.
Directions to Sugarloaf Hike via Caribou Pond Road
Caribou Pond Road (Caribou Valley Road) is the only dirt road on Maine Routes 16/27 between the Appalachian Trail Crossing (1.75 miles south on the right) and Sugarloaf Ski Resort (1 mile north on the left). From Routes 16/27, it’s 4.3 miles on the Caribou Pond Road to the AT trailhead for Sugarloaf on the left and Crocker Mountain on the right; however, there’s currently a closed gate and parking area at the 3.9-mile mark. Note: the condition of Caribou Pond Road is unreliable, and there’s potential in the future for needing to park well before the gate. Think of this as bonus hiking with wildflower potential: