By Phil Brown
At 5,460 acres, the Sugarloaf Public Use Area is the largest tract in the Sable Highlands that’s open to the public, but I had a hard time finding it. Fortunately, I eventually succeeded and enjoyed a springtime outing that combined a mountain-bike ride with an easy bushwhack to the top of Sugarloaf Mountain.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation’s interim recreation plan for the Sable easement lands calls for three parking areas to facilitate access to the Sugarloaf Public Use Area, but none has been built—even though the plan is more than 11 years old.
My search for the Sugarloaf PUA became somewhat comical. The plan identifies three logging roads to access the tract—two in the south, off Piney Ridge Road, and one in the north, off Ragged Lake Road.
I first tried to find the access road identified in the plan as Linear Recreation Corridor (LRC) #11. It begins on Piney Ridge Road and crosses lands leased by a hunting club before reaching the public use area. Because you can’t park just anywhere in the Sable Highlands, I rode my mountain bike several miles from a legal parking area on the edge of the easement lands. When I arrived, I found the road was gated and posted. There was no sign indicating that the public has a right to use the road.
On another day, I rode my bike in search of Linear Recreation Corridor #1, which also starts on Piney Ridge Road and crosses leased lands. I found a well-maintained logging road that I thought might be the route, but it was heavily posted. Deterred, I pedaled east and saw an obscure overgrown road—gated, no signs. I started up this on my bike and soon after passing a wetland came to a T-intersection with the road I had seen earlier. I turned right and continued up the good road. After uploading my GPS data when I got home, I ascertained that I had been on the right track.
The recreation plan also calls for building one trail to the Salmon River from LRC #11 and another to Ragged Lake Outlet from LRC #1. Neither has been built. The plan also proposes four campsites along the two roads. These have not been created.
The PUA’s northern sector is accessed via the Sugarloaf Road, a logging road that is unmarked and at its start looks like one of the dirt roads maintained by the town of Bellmont. This caused some confusion, but I eventually followed Sugarloaf Road to a large clearing. Beyond here, the road narrowed and soon led to a vehicular barrier. I parked my car in the clearing, hopped on my mountain bike and pedaled up the road past the barrier.
The logging road trended southeast but then curled around the southern flank of Sugarloaf Mountain, ending in a clearing after 3.5 miles. Along the way, I enjoyed views of Indian Lake and several peaks, including the Owls Head Range, Ragged Lake Mountain and West Mountain. I gained about 400 feet in elevation during the ride.
The edge of the clearing appeared brushy and uninviting, so I began my hike by walking back down the road a few hundred feet and then cutting into the woods. The Sugarloaf summit lay less than a mile away to the southwest. I generally followed a bearing of 200 degrees. For the most part, the bushwhack was easy going through open woods or along old logging tracks. This being late May, wildflowers were in bloom, including trout lily, spring beauty and red trillium.
I reached the 2,313-foot summit in about 0.8 miles, while gaining 300 feet of elevation. Although the summit is wooded, I could discern several peaks through the trees, among them Ragged Lake Mountain, West Mountain and Loon Lake Mountain. I also could see pieces of Mountain View Lake and Indian Lake.
In “Adirondack Canoe Waters: North Flow,” Paul Jamieson describes an outcrop just below the summit on the west slope that offers “fine views of the valley of the Salmon, the two lakes, and the encircling peaks.” Alas, I was unable to find it. Perhaps, if you go, you’ll be luckier.
The bushwhack back to my bike took only 30 minutes. The ride back, mostly downhill, was a blast.
The Sugarloaf Public Use Area is large enough that you could spend days exploring it, but without trails and better access, it’s likely to be underutilized. Until then, the bike-hike trip may be the best introduction to the region.
Directions: From the junction of County 27 and Ragged Lake Road in the hamlet of Owls Head, drive east on Ragged Lake Road for 2.4 miles to a dirt road (no sign). Turn right and drive 1.0 mile to a sandy clearing on the left.