If you consider yourself the Goldilocks of skiers, always on the lookout for the resort that’s just right, you might be able to stop your search at Sunday River in Newry, Maine. It offers up enough variety of terrain to keep everyone from enthusiastic beginners to fearless straightliners happy. And thanks to its northerly location, it gets (and keeps) plenty of snow and makes even more. The base area and nearby town of Bethel have no shortage of options for family fun, and the aprés-ski scene will keep foodies full and partiers dancing. Best of all, Sunday River is close enough to be reachable for a long weekend but far enough away that it never gets too crowded.
With 135 trails spread over 870 acres and 15 lifts to get you to the top of its eight peaks, even the most gung-ho skier or boarder will have a tough time hitting everything on offer at Sunday River in one weekend. Novices especially are in for a treat, as over 75 percent of the River’s trails are rated beginner or intermediate, but many of those runs are wide enough to allow for huge carving turns and steep enough to offer advanced downhillers a thrill. Even better, Sunday River’s prodigious snowmaking means you’ll rarely deal with trail closures due to inadequate cover.
A nice feature of Sunday River’s topography is that you’ll always find a challenge and yet rarely end up in terrain that’s over your head—you’ll find a green circle, a blue square, and a black diamond on most of the River’s peaks. The biggest complaint among those who don’t know their way around Sunday River is that they end their ski day feeling like they spent most of their time traversing from one area to another. It’s true that Sunday River’s eight separate peaks can make navigation a challenge, so it’s best to study a trail map (or rely on a handy online guide) and make a plan before setting out for the day.
Three factors should guide your organization: making early morning tracks on Sunday River’s signature corduroy, getting to a good lunch spot, and taking a ride on the mountain’s new Chondola lift. Those in the know arrive early enough to snag a good parking spot at the Barker Lodge area in the middle of the mountain, then catch first chair to warm up on the heavenly rolling groomers found in the here. For lunch, plan a stop for BBQ at North Peak Lodge, pub grub at the Shipyard Brewery at the White Cap Lodge, or a noodle bowl at the Cho Sun Sushi and Noodle Bar at the South Ridge Lodge. In the afternoon, it’s worth the effort to take the Chondola—a chairlift/gondola hybrid that climbs 1,110 feet of vertical in less than seven minutes. This fun feature is the highlight of the $20 million investment in the mountain made by Boyne Resorts, which purchased Sunday River in 2007.
Unless you’re a complete newbie (in that case, stick to North Peak), start your day by steering towards the mountain’s right (or west) side. Beginning from the South Ridge Lodge, take the Chondola up and choose between a series of green circles and blue groomers like Northern Lights and Firestar as warm-ups on your way to Jordan Bowl Express. Once you arrive at the top of the Jordan Bowl climb the observation deck, if it’s a clear day, and feast your eyes on a breathtaking, panoramic view that stretches from Canada to the mountains of New Hampshire and as far away as as the Atlantic Ocean.
For beginners, Lollapalooza, on the mountain’s far right side, is one of the best green cruisers to be found in the East. Long and fun, this route offers magnificent vistas of the surrounding northern Appalachian mountains. Once you tire of that run, take the epic Kansas back towards the resort’s middle. Do a few laps on Borealis and Aludra, both green circles off Aurora Peak, until you get hungry. At that point, stop at the conveniently located mid-mountain Peak Lodge for lunch. In the afternoon, check out Three Mile Trail off the Barker Mountain Express, Green Cheese and Moonstruck off the Little Whitecap Quad, and Over Easy and Roadrunner off the White Cap Quad. Or you can challenge yourself with blue squares like Wildfire, Monday Mourning, or Sunday Punch. End your day with laps off the Chondola until you’re ready to call it quits.
For intermediates, Sunday River is paradise, as blue squares with nice pitch and plenty of space to navigate are the resort’s bread and butter. Once you arrive at Jordan Bowl, hit up Rogue Angel and Excalibur. On your way back east to lunch, do a couple of laps on Northern Lights off the Aurora Peak Quad, then make your way to Spruce Peak and check out American Express and Risky Business. Up the Locke Mountain Triple, dare yourself to connect Goat Path with Lazy River and Tourist Trap—it’ll be the highlight of your day. Cascades, Jibe, and Tempest are good day-enders.
Advanced skiers aim themselves directly at Oz, a magical land with classic New England all-natural skiing and advanced to expert terrain. Ruby Palace, Tin Woodsman, Eureka, and Emerald City are the signature challenges of Oz. Before lunch, hit up the bumpy iCaramba in the Jordan Bowl area, then the serious steeps on Vortex, Supernova, and Black Hole off the Aurora Peak Quad. After eating, continue to work your way east, sampling Northern Exposure, Gnarnia, and Top Gun. White Heat off White Cap Peak, is burly enough to host an Olympic moguls competition and the River’s biggest challenge. End the day alternating between rolling screamers like Right Stuff, Bim’s Whim, Obsession, and Shock Wave.
Large enough that it never gets boring but small enough to feel cozy and familiar, Sunday River is the type of place you find yourself returning to again and again. No matter what your preferences are in regards to terrain, food, and nightlife, Sunday River will have you declaring it’s “just right.”
True backcountry experiences are not a huge part of Sunday River’s repertoire, but its boundary-to-boundary policy, which allows skiers to venture into any area within the resort’s marked ski area, opens access to an additional 1,000-plus acres of glades. Adventurous skiers can find tight lines and hidden powder stashes by taking a chance and following a confident-looking set of tracks heading into the woods.
For those not into taking chances, you can find ample soft stuff in the trees on the sides of trails with snowmaking (marked with a snowflake on Sunday River’s trail map). Try the underappreciated glades off North Peak, which don’t attract too many skiers as they’re surrounded by beginner-level trails. Locals love it up on the plethora of black and double-black tree runs found at Oz and the Jordan Bowl, including the large gladed area of Blind Ambition, and the glades off White Cap, which range from eminently skiable to intensely steep. If there’s enough cover, head to the riverbed on the west side of Oz. The challenging Chutzpah glades off White Cap were cleaned up in 2013 and subsequently quadrupled in size, and the Last Tango glades, accessed off Barker Mountain, are a good test for advanced intermediates (warning: it gets tighter the lower you get, but you can always bail out skier’s right onto the aptly named Right Stuff).
Thrill-seeking youths test their mettle on the North Peak’s T72 and 3D, the resort’s respectable terrain park, designed by local phenom and X-Games regular Simon Dumont. In 2008, Dumont landed Sunday River in the center of the skiing world’s consciousness with a world record 35-foot quarterpipe air. He continues to bring attention to the mountain with his annual Dumont Cup, which brings in top-level huckers and jibbers for the biggest freeskiing competition in the East.
For those interested in keeping their skis on the ground and moving at a more pedestrian pace, Bethel offers more than 60 miles of cross country skiing at four different ski centers. Flatlanders should head for the Bethel Nordic Ski Center at the Bethel Inn, a full service cross country ski center, with just about 22 miles of groomed trails starting outside of the resort’s front door. A favorite for families is the five-kilometer ski to the Artists’ Covered Bridge, built in 1872 and on Maine’s list of nine historic bridges in the state.
Carter’s Cross Country Ski Center has more than 34 miles of trails at its Intervale Road location plus another 40 kilometers of trails in nearby Oxford. It has a lodge, two off-the-grid cabins, equipment rentals, and lessons. There are even special fat bike trails. If you’re up for a challenge, head up the Farwell Mountain Overlook Trail, which rewards with an expansive and beautiful vista after a tough climb.
A 30-minute drive from Sunday River, the Great Glen Trails in Pinkham Notch, NH, provides about 25 miles of classic and skate-groomed trails, as well as snowshoeing and snow tubing. Their Mount Washington Snow Coach (a glorified snowcat) is a one-of-a-kind adventure that takes passengers into one of the harshest winter climates in the lower 48 (reservations recommended).
If you happen to work your way through all of the cross country ski trails in the Bethel area and you’re looking for a new challenge, check out the trails in Grafton Notch State Park (10 minutes north of Bethel) or the network of local snowmobile trails.
Many a modern-day Rocky Mountain ski bum can trace his or her roots back to childhood weekends spent at Sunday River. The large contingent of families who spend their winter seasons at the River would argue that no resort in the East is as family-friendly for the price. Child-toting parents can choose from a wide range of activities and accommodations to keep all members of the family smiling from sun up to sun down.
There are seven condominiums complexes at Sunday River, all of which are perfect for hosting a family skiing adventure. Check out the Brookside and Sunrise condos. If you’re looking for a more traditional hotel, choose between the Grand Summit Hotel or the Jordan Grand Hotel, both slopeside and comfortable. The hot tub at the Grand Summit is a particular attraction as it’s large enough to easily absorb the 5 o’clock rush. And, it faces the Moonstruck trail, so if you call it an early day, you can still get your skiing fix vicariously by observing the afternoon skiers. Also highly recommended are the funky inns of nearby Bethel. A top recommendation is the Inn at the Rostay. The Bethel Inn Resort, which celebrated its hundred-year anniversary in 2013, has traditional rooms with fireplaces and separate “townhome” units that can accommodate larger families.
The resort runs a licensed daycare facility at the South Ridge Lodge and the well-regarded Perfect Turn ski school for youngsters. Tiny Turns is a program designed to introduce skiing to three- and four-year-olds and includes a one-hour lesson with a private coach, a lift ticket, and rental equipment. For children who have skied before, the Mogul Munchkin program includes a half-day group lesson and day care. The Children’s Festival at Sunday River, which takes place in January, is a great deal, as kids stay, eat, and get rentals, passes and lessons for free with a three-night stay.
For those who prefer to ski with their children, families can spend all day on the North Peak and not get bored—with tons of easy trails, the kid-friendly Yetiville glades, a beginner-level terrain park (Whoville), the fast-moving Chondola to keep the kids warm, and the South Ridge Lodge in case they get hungry. Be sure to take a break from skiing and visit the Sugaring House off the Sundance trail near the South Ridge Lodge. During the March sugaring season, the shack produces maple syrup and offers tours and demonstrations. Youngsters will love the free candy and syrup samples. Kids also can’t get enough of the Waffle Cabin in the Barker basin.
If your kids are of the high-energy variety (and whose aren’t?), night skiing is a great way to drain the last bit of excess energy out of them. Sunday River offers lighted skiing from 4pm to 8pm on eight beginner and intermediate trails through winter weekends and holidays. Daytime lift passes work for night skiing or you can buy a night-only ticket.
After skiing, while parents seek out a hot tub or an aprés-ski beer or cocktail, kids can continue the fun with the resort’s twin 750-foot zip lines (top speed 40 mph), towline-assisted snow tubing on the Sundance trail, and ice skating on the rink near the Snow Cap Inn (free but no rental skates available). There’s also dogsledding available through the Bear River Mushing Company and sleigh rides and horseback riding at Meadow Creek Farm.
For evening entertainment, look no further than the Black Diamond Series. Throughout the winter, the series brings in family-friendly entertainment including magicians, fire dancers, break dancers, comedians, and even laser tag competitions. The mountain’s mystical mascot, Eddy the Yeti, makes frequent appearances at these events. Check out this year’s schedule for more information. Regular fireworks shows, taking place at 8:30pm on selected dates throughout the winter, also light up kids’ faces.
The nearby town of Bethel, only a 10-minute drive from the mountain, provides great options for a family-friendly night out as well. A year-round destination with a classic New England feel, Bethel has two great pizza places (Homeslice and Pat’s) as well as a movie theater. Early in the evening, the Matterhorn Ski Bar is also an excellent option as it has kid-friendly menu items, Geary’s Maine draft root beer, and arcade games on its second floor. The Mountain Explorer, a free shuttle bus, makes regular rounds between the town and the resort area throughout the day and evening.
Further out of town, in Oxford, you can find the Lil’ Leapin’ Lizard Family Adventure Center, featuring inflatable slides and jump castles, obstacle courses, and arcade games. It’s open from 10am until 8pm and as late as midnight on some Fridays and Saturdays.
The quest for fun at Sunday River continues after the lifts close and the sun sets. Sunday River provides a host of options for those looking beyond the slopes for entertainment, whether you’re looking for a post-ski pub, a spa treatment, or a late-night dance party.
On-mountain, your first stop has to be the Foggy Goggle, a Sunday River classic serving up local microbrews like the thirst-quenching Sebago Frye’s Leap IPA. Pair that with an epic plate of nachos, lobster rolls you can’t resist, and live music, and it’s hard to beat. For a more subdued scene, the Barker Bar in Barker Lodge has a large fireplace and a view of the mountain to watch last-run stragglers make their way down. On a warm spring day, opt for the sun-drenched deck at Sliders at the Jordan Grand Hotel, where you can grab a brew and a burger. Or try Sunday River’s new offering for this season, the Rockin’ & Roastin’ Café & Restaurant, which holds great promise for those looking for a party, given its ownership. Co-owners Les Otten, founder of American Skiing Company, which used to own Sunday River, and Aerosmith legend Joey Cramer will open the restaurant in December. It will serve coffee and baked goods in the mornings and an intriguing lineup of sandwiches for lunch. Even if the menu features kitschy items like “Livin’ on a Wedge” and “Janie’s Got a Bun,” its three bars and frequent musical guests, will make it a popular destination on the post-skiing party scene.
For those seeking a bit of healing after a tough day on the slopes , the Jordan Spa and Summit Health Club offers a full suite of spa massage treatments. Besides the classic Swedish massage, the spa provides wellness classes, manicures, pedicures, paraffin treatments, and even an only-in-Maine (or Vermont) maple sugar body scrub. That’s sure to make you hungry, so for dinner, try the brand-new Camp, at the Grand Summit Hotel, serving Maine comfort food like prime rib shepherd’s pie or lobster mac ‘n cheese. Alternately, a real treat is dinner at The Peak, which requires a lift ride up to a mid-mountain lodge where you will feast on gourmet cuisine. If you’ve sprung for a condo with a kitchen and plan on cooking for yourself, drive into town and check out the Good Food Store, featuring natural and organic foods, produce, and a great beer and wine selection. If you prefer to have your dinner cooked for you, right next door is Smokin’ Good BBQ, which smokes its meat to such perfection it would make a Texan pitmaster jealous. Arrive early, though, as the joint closes at 7pm.
For nightlife, it pays to check out the Sunday River events website as the resort itself regularly hosts a variety of fun events. Worth particular mention is the Spring Festival, with pond skimming and tailgaiting; White Out Weekend, an event geared towards the LGBTQ community, and Parrothead, a two-day Jimmy Buffett-themed party planned for early April. On a night when there’s not much going on at the resort, drop the youngins off at the Summit Hotel, which provides evening child care for children up to six years old, and head into Bethel, a 10-minute drive away.
You would do well to make your first stop Sunday River Brewing Company, where serviceable bar food is helped out by a widely ranging assortment of finely-crafted, house-made beer. If it’s in season, steer towards the malty, golden maibock lager, or if you’re feeling frisky, spring for the eight-beer sampler.
For dinner, the Sudbury Inn is Bethel’s best choice for fine dining, with choices like veal marsala or roast rack of lamb (entrees are in the $20 range). Downstairs, Suds Pub is the more funky and affordable option and has a wide selection of beers on tap. Try the bison burger with a Shipyard Export or the BBQ ribs with an Allagash White. You can find great Korean dishes like bulgogi and bibimbap at Cho Sun Bistro and Hibachi. If you’re in the mood for Italian, 22 Broad Street is your best bet and has a funky martini bar. The tapas at the Mill Hill Inn are a can’t-miss, especially for vegetarians, and the folksy inn also hosts occasional live music events.
To get the party started afterwards, cruise over to the Millbrook Tavern, which has a fun bar. Suds Pub also has a fun post-dinner bar scene, especially on Thursdays, when it hosts a popular open mic event it has dubbed “Hoot Night.” Another can’t-miss destination is the Funky Red Barn, an unpretentious place that can be counted on for good music and great energy. Rated “favorite mountain-town dive bar in the Northeast” by Backcountry.com, the Barn hosts DJs on Friday and Saturday nights year-round. If you like to gamble, the Oxford Casino is less than 30 minutes away from Sunday River and has a large selection of slots and table games.
Eventually, however, you’re going to want to make your way over to Matterhorn Ski Bar. Recognized as the “best ski bar” in the U.S. by Skiing Magazine and as the “best classic ski bar in the East” by SKI Magazine, the Matterhorn has live music up to five days a week during ski season, including every Tuesday, Friday, and Saturday. The food alone is worth the trip, with wood-fired pizzas that taste like they’ve come straight out of an oven in Naples, delicious home-cooked meatloaf, risotto, steaks, and alcohol-absorbing, late-night snacks such as garlic knots and Buffalo-style chicken wings. As the night matures, the scene only heats up. The bar, composed entirely of ‘80s-era, sharp-tipped skis, gets busy. A huge flatscreen TV starts broadcasting ski-porn, and fluorescent drinks, like the Avalanche, a mixture of light and dark rums mixed with fruit juice, make their appearance. If local cover band Last Kid Picked or disco-revival Motor Booty Affair happen to be playing, expect lines out the door and a cover charge.