A visit to Sugarloaf and Sunday River a week ago turned up some excellent skiing on tremendous snow.

The weekend of March 5-7 was one of the busiest in Sugarloaf's long history, but the mountain's many trails and lifts absorbed skiers so that liftline waits were short.

Short, that is, except for the first ride up the mountain when the SuperQuad opened to the public each day at 8:30 a.m. The line began forming shortly after 8, and by 8:30 had swollen to an impressive size.  Even then the wait was less than 10 minutes once the rope was dropped, and as the crowd climbed aboard the chairs it never regained that initial size.

That it formed in the first place is testament to the fervor of locals to get on the trails early, to greet the day by hurtling down slopes freshly groomed.

Why so many people at the Loaf? It was the J2 National Junior Olympics, homecoming for Olympic gold medal snowboard cross winner Seth Wescott, the best snow in years, and the start of spring skiing in New England.

Add in weather that was to die for - sunny days, crisp nights, snow cover that warmed to butter as the day wore on.

First tracks were off the SuperQuad, down Tote Road, Spur Line, King's Landing, Candy Side, and Scoot. When the upper mountain Timberline Quad opened at 9 a.m., many skiers moved there to access the Snowfields and a nice complex of trails off the lift, including Upper and Lower Timberline, and Tote Road Extension.

Sugarloaf is a huge mountain, with sweeping views in all directions from the summit. Mount Washington was visible to the east; it was said Katahdin is visible to the north, but perhaps not that day.

Some trails are narrow and steep, others wide and blue, or light blue, with a Western feel to them, and a way of easing up one's speed to impressive level.

The overwhelming number of skiers and riders that weekend were in helmets.

"We tend to ski fast on steep trails," one helmet-wearing regular opined.

"Wimps," said another, woolen-hatted skier.

The helmet debate continues.

The Sugarloaf Mountain Hotel served as pied-a-terre for the visit. It's in the base area, 100 yards from the lifts, with ski storage, valet parking, and bellboy service for baggage. A walk around the base took in the Beach, a fenced-in area of seats outside the main lodge where skiers and riders gather especially on warm spring days to soak up sun and watch others on the trails; the Bag & Kettle for comfort food including burgers and soup; the Shipyard Brew Haus at the Sugarloaf Inn; and a host of other shops, groceries, sandwich deli, and restaurants.

Sunday River, about 1.5 hours south and west of Sugarloaf, offered terrific snow Monday, March 8.

It sits a tad closer to sea level, and a few miles closer to the coast, so snow softened there earlier in the morning than at the Loaf.

First tracks with GM Dana Bullen and Marketing Director Jim Costello was a good way to get a quick feel of this fine mountain that is in the midst of its 50th birthday season.

Sunday offers skiing and riding off an entire chain of peaks; has consistent snow that is either shot from an incredible arsenal of snowguns, or that has fallen naturally; is closer to the major population centers of the Northeast than areas farther north; and has a lift and trail system that soaks up crowds.

Costello said of Sunday's immense snowmaking power, "We're living on the legacy of Les." Les Otten, who took Sunday River from a very modest local area to a regional powerhouse, also founded American Skiing Co. His business plan rested on snowmaking to ensure cover, and real estate to ensure skiers and riders to buy lift tickets.

First ride was up Spruce Peak on the new Chondola, a combo six-seater chairlift and eight-passenger gondola, with each gondola car separated from the next by four chairs.

Quick runs followed down American Express and Risky Business, two blue groomers that were in wonderful shape.

Rides followed up the Spruce Peak Triple, a fixed-grip lift that gives access to Spruce, from a point up the mountain, so one does not have to return to the base.

The North Peak Base Lodge served breakfast - in one guest's case, quiche lorraine - and a choice of pastries.

After breakfast, author and longtime skier Dave Irons led a history tour of the mountain.

Irons has just written a book, Sunday River: Honoring the Past, Embracing the Future, published by Blue Tree, of Portsmouth, N.H.

It recounts the history of Sunday River, from construction of two t-bars and a rope tow in 1959, through the Les Otten years, to the Boyne Resorts-CNL partnership of today.

It's a fascinating book, well worth reading.

In any case, Irons led the way up Barker Mountain, along Jungle Road, and down Sunday Punch, pausing frequently to point out key spots in the mountain's history.

At one point he stopped and told about an old liftie who taught the kids how to get birds to eat seeds out of their hand. Elsewhere he stopped to talk about how a t-bar once ran here or there, or a lodge was once a third the size of today.

The visit to Sunday River was based in the Grand Summit Hotel, a new hotel less than a mile from the South Ridge Base Area. The hotel has ski-in, ski-out access. Dinner was at the Phoenix, a very reasonable restaurant with bottomless salads, Italian-style menu, and cold beer. Breakfast was at Legends, an in-hotel restaurant, where a seasoned chef made omelettes to order with a variety of fresh ingredients. Lunch was at the Foggy Goggle on the third floor of the South Ridge Base Lodge, which offered a wide choice of dishes, most served with blueberries - it is Maine, after all - including the Down East Mac and Cheese, a macaroni, cheese, and lobster dish with seasoned bread crumbles.

All in all a wonderful visit to the Great State of Maine.