QUICK TRAIL FACTS
- Preserve Size: 12,000 acres
- Trail Mileage: ~14 miles one way
- Pets: yes
- Difficulty: challenging
- Sights: views, thru-hikers, Carrabassett River
If you’re doing this loop, bring plenty of water and be prepared for a long, hard day. It’s about 14 miles from the trailhead of North Crocker to the base lodge of Sugarloaf, and the cumulative elevation gained is over 5,000 feet. Sugarloaf is the second highest mountain in Maine after Katahdin’s two peaks — Baxter and Hamlin. You’ll need two cars, or you can hire a local taxi service.
North and South Crocker often get a bit maligned (along with nearby Mt. Redington, not shown on my map) for being anticlimactic 4,000-footers. Peak baggers feel as if they have to do them to complete their quest to hike every mountain in Maine and New Hampshire over 4,000 feet, but grumble about it because their views aren’t extraordinary like so many of the tall peaks around here.
I’m glad they do grumble, though, because my expectations were so low that I found the long, gradual hike up and over North and South Crocker really satisfying. And beautiful in its own right! Lots of overheard warbler songs. The mountains are located within a 12,000-acre protected area.
Starting at the parking lot off Route 27, where the Appalachian Trail crosses the road, it’s 5.2 miles up North Crocker. The trail begins climbing right away, but levels off in the middle for at least two miles, making the hike sort of a slog but fairly easy. It starts climbing again around 3,000 feet. Once you get closer to 4,000 feet, the fir trees get stumpy and short, and while you’re not on an open ridge with stunning vistas, you definitely feel that otherworldly sensation of being high in an Alpine-like ecosystem. Hikers have scratched out a little path at the 4,228-foot summit to the west, where you can get some views.
The trail dips steeply down and then turns up slightly less steeply to the 4,050-foot summit of South Crocker — 1 mile farther one. The summit, with a view, is 50 yards off the main Appalachian Trail — there is a prominent sign at this intersection. The small ledge at the opening offers nice views of Sugarloaf, Spaulding, and Mt. Abraham. If you happen to simultaneously arrive with a peak bagger, they might have some tales to tell about hiking all three of these peaks in one day.
Some people at this point head over to Mt. Redington because it’s over 4,000 feet. The trail is not blazed, but I hear it’s easy to follow, especially if you have an online map from Gaia or AllTrails to use for navigation. There’s more than one way to summit Redington, but the fastest route is from the summit of South Crocker. It’s 1.2 mile one way from this point.
Going down the AT from South Crocker to Caribou Valley Road (or Caribou Pond Road) is quite steep and rocky in parts. The distance is 2.1 miles. If you want to check out the Crocker Cirque about halfway down, and the adjacent camping site, it’s 0.2 miles off the main path. The cirque is a little bowl with a tiny pond nestled among the Crockers, carved out eons ago by glaciers. I saw moose tracks in the mud.
From the cirque, it’s a relatively easy 1 mile down to the Caribou Valley Road. (Some people drive in on the road, which my guide book says is maintained to 3.8 miles. You can hike the last half mile in. I think the condition of the road is unpredictable.) If you are continuing onto Sugarloaf from here, take a deep breath! There is a steep section coming up, where you clamber over large rocks. A hiker I met going down had badly twisted his ankle and gave me a dark warning. But before that, enjoy the crossing of the deliciously cool Carrabassett River’s South Branch at the lowest point between the two big mountains.
Once you conquer the steep section on Sugarloaf’s side (it lasts about 0.5 miles, I’d say) the trail levels out some with great views of the Crockers, Spaulding, and Abraham. Eventually you’ll reach the intersection with the side trail to Sugarloaf’s 4,250-foot summit. Turn left here and hike the final 0.5 mile to one of the best panoramic views in Maine. I think a lot of people get up here and never want to leave. Or hurry away because the beauty is overwhelming! (Or they’re cold.)
I really hated the hike down the ski slopes of Sugarloaf. It is uncomfortably steep and exposed, and it doesn’t seem as if hikers have settled on one route to take. Not that I could tell at least. I started on the gravel maintenance road, which I believe extends all the way from base to summit tower, but whenever I could, jumped onto a grassy ski slope—the ones that weren’t too bushy and overgrown, that is. I think there are probably many different ways down—choose whatever route seems most sensible and easy. The gravel roads are challenging because they’re so steep the gravel can slip out from under your feet.
Directions: To start at the North Crocker trailhead: From the junction of Route 27 and the access road to Sugarloaf resort, continue 2.6 miles north on Route 27 toward Eustis. There’s a large parking area on the left (or south) side of the road—signs for the Appalachian Trail crossing will warn you when you’re coming up on it. The trailhead for North Crocker is closer to the northern end of the parking lot.