To write a review of the Sugarloaf Mountain is easier said than done. That’s because there is not just one Sugarloaf Mountain, or even two. Around the world there are no less than 450 mountains, hills, ridges and rock formations named Sugarloaf.
The most famous is probably the Brazilian Sugarloaf Mountain, located in Rio de Janeiro and known throughout the climbing world. Ireland has five sugarloafs dotted across the emerald isle, including the Great and Little Sugar Loafs of County Wicklow. New Zealand has a group of islands named Sugar Loaf near New Plymouth and the UK has four sugarloafs, though most are only hills. The USA, not wanting to be outdone, has no less than 200 Sugarloaf entries.
Here we look at four of the most well known:
- Sugarloaf Mountain in Brazil
- Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine (USA)
- Sugarloaf Mountain in Wales
- Sugarloaf Mountain in Maryland (USA)
Here, we take a look at four of the better known Sugarloaf Mountains. But to begin with, we need to ask an obvious question: what is a sugarloaf and why are so many geographic landmarks named after it?
What Is a Sugarloaf?
Up until the late 19th Century, a sugarloaf would have been a regular fixture in many lives (assuming a certain degree of wealth). This was the form in which refined white sugar was produced and sold. It was a tall cone with a rounded top.
Looking like a fat piece of chalk, or the top of a space rocket, the high-sided shape is what lends it geographical popularity. As we’ll see, even in these examples below, there is either quite a loose connection between sugarloaf and the mountains, or a variation between the shape sugarloafs used to take.
Sugarloaf Mountain – Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Other name: Pão de Açúcar
Height: 396 m (1,299 ft)
Climb time: 3 minutes!
Standing like a guard at the mouth of Guanabara Bay, this Sugarloaf Mountain offers visitors a chance to look back at the panorama of the great city of Rio in one direction and the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean in the other. For centuries, Sugarloaf Mountain has acted as a visual reference for sailors arriving or returning to these shores,a s well as a recognisable symbol of this world city.
Naming the mountain:
Its name was coined during the sugar trade of the 16th Century, although it wasn’t formalised until the middle of the 19th Century.
Portuguese colonists in the 16th Century were using Brazil as the centre of sugar cane production. This name was perhaps not only apt for the sugar trade activities of the time but also spoke of prosperity, at least for the colonists and traders.
Other names for the peak have existed. As well as translations of the name into other languages (such as the French Pot de Sucre), the indigenous population’s name for it was Pau-nh-açuquã. This Tupi word from the Tamoios Indians means ‘tall, isolated and pointy hill’.
It was also at the base of this mountain that the city of Rio was founded. On 1 March 1565, the city of São Sebastião do Rio de Janeiro was declared by the founder Estacio de Sà, the day after he’s arrived there. He then embarked on creating “the wonderful city”, with Sugarloaf its the most easterly point.
Geography and Wildlife:
Sugarloaf Mountain was formed underground, probably within a fracture in the sedimentary layers above it. Over time this granite was forced up through the softer rock, which eroded and fell away. The granite rock is some 600 million years old and very hard. The process of arriving to the surface was thus a very long one, even in mountain building terms.
Around the base of the mountain is tropical vegetation, most of which is typical of the rainforests of the Atlantic coast of southern Brazil.
Yet the forest that once existed along this coast has been mostly destroyed, cleared to make way for farms and other habitations or logging activities. Estimates vary between 85-93% of the original rainforests that have been lost to human activity within the last two centuries.
What remains are stunning examples of this habitat, and many are being fiercely protected so as not to lose this habitat entirely.One such area is Serra de Orgaos, a landscape an hour north of Sugarloaf containing sloths, rare monkeys and delicate orchids amongst its treasures.
Climbing Sugarloaf Mountain:
With steep sides and strong rock, this mountain is most commonly used by rock climbers. Between this and two other peaks—Morro de Babilonia and Morro da Urca—they boast some 270 climbing routes. This makes the area, known as Urca, one of the largest urban climbing sites in the world.
From beginner’s slabs to more advanced routes, all are available within 30 minutes of each other (walking). They are also accessible year-round, thanks to the tropical climate. Best climbing is in the winter (May-September) when there is less rain.
But be warned, the weather on Sugarloaf can turn very quickly, and forecasts are only half guidance of what will actually take place. As this account attests, when the rain arrives, get back down the rock and fast.
Here are some of the well-known options:
• Via dos Italianos – 260 m (853 ft): The most commonly climbed route, up the west face of Sugarloaf under the cable car. It has many permanent bolts and so is preferred by less experienced climbers. It is rated at 5.10 (US) and has nine pitches in total (some accounts combine these into four longer ones).
Given the route, it might be worth taking the cable car up first, so you can survey it before attempting it.
• Coringa – 101 m (330 ft): A three-pitch climb rated at 5.6 (US) up the south face of the mountain. Straightforward climbing, it requires a long rope as the first pitch is significantly longer than the other two, though this is also the easier of the sections.
• Secunda Costa Neto – 244 m (800 ft): a 10-pitch climb rated at 5.11 (US). This route represents one of Sugarloaf’s more challenging and lengthy routes. It climbs the north-west face, where many of the tougher climbs are found (the highest rating on the mountain is 5.14 (US)).
• Other classic routes include: Waldo, Bohemia Gelada, Largatão and Lamanjà.
Hiking Sugarloaf Mountain:
Despite its steep sides, it is still possible to hike up to the Sugarloaf summit…or rather scramble.
The east face of Sugarloaf was the first route opened to the summit of the mountain and doesn’t require the kind of climbing expertise the other faces do. It is known as the Costão hike and is widely available through local professional guides.
The hike begins where Sugarloaf meets the Atlantic Ocean, with the whole of the mountain towering above you, moreso illuminated by the morning sun. The route then quickly cuts to the back side of the mountain for a couple of hundred metres of steep scrambling, unroped but safe.
In the middle of the climb is a short 15 m (49 ft) pitch of technical climbing, for which you would be roped (really, this is a route where it is strongly advised to go with a guide). This is not a difficult section, but certainly more than a scramble.
The rest of the climb is easier uphill walking and scrambling, passing Philosopher’s Rock with its impressive views back down to Copacabana beach and the city. Descent is usually via the cable car, though a few bold enough may choose to descend if the day is quiet enough.
The Sugarloaf Cable car:
Sugarloaf Mountain is more often ridden up than climbed. Since 1912, a cable car system (known locally as bondinhos) has led visitors to the top to enjoy the panoramic views. At the time of its construction, it was only the third such cable car system in the world.
This was a project dreamed up by the local engineer Augusto Ferreira Ramos in 1907 and was built with the support of German manufacturing expertise. The company he founded continues to run the enterprise today, though, (you’ll be glad to hear), the system itself has had several modernisations over the century.
The route consists of two cable cars: one ascends to Morro de Açúcar, a nearby shorter hill (220 m/ 722 ft). The second then takes you to the top of the peak. All-in-all, the ascent takes around three minutes, so it’s also one of the fastest mountain climbs in the world!
Sugarloaf Mountain – Maine, USA
Height: 1,291 m (4,237 ft)
The highest of our selected Sugarloaf Mountains, this one is part of the US State of Maine’s Western Mountain Range. Located in the Carrabassett Valley in Franklin County, it is close enough to be accessed via Portland and Bangor, and at something of a stretch, Boston and Montreal too.
Sugarloaf Mountain is Maine’s third highest mountain, after Baxter Peak/Mount Katahdin (1,606 m/ 5,269 ft) and Hamlin Peak (1,450 m/ 4,756 ft), both visible from the summit. Flanking the mountain to the south is Mount Spaulding (1,222 m/ 4,009 ft).
Legends of Sugarloaf:
According to Abenaki legend, Sugarloaf Mountain is where a giant beaver landed after being flung from the the Restigouche river.
The local people depended on salmon for food, particularly during the winter. But the salmon had stopped swimming upstream to spawn because the beavers, which were much larger in those days, had built a dam. The people couldn’t get to the dam to destroy it, so instead they called their Creation God, Glooscap, to ride to the rescue on his whale.
He smashed the dam, sending pieces far and wide. One of these became Heron Island, another Bantry Point. Sugarloaf was where the leader of the beavers landed after Glooscap swung him by the tail.
Glooscap then stroked the rest of the beavers gently, causing them to shrink to the size that beavers are today.
Sugarloaf’s north face is a very popular ski resort, the largest in the Rocky Mountains, and has the only lift service that reaches above the tree line to the mountain’s summit in the eastern US. This resort was developed in the early 1950s and, while it has had numerous financial struggles over the years, is the primary draw to the mountain today.
Viewed from a distance during the summer, the mountain has an impressive face, often laced with white streaks of ice and snow. This makes it appear like the ski runs are grooved into the mountain year-round, though in truth it is only open for these thrill seekers during the short winter season.
The epic Appalachian Trail (AT) skirts around the west of the peak, though thru-hikers can summit the mountain via a short side trail, called the Sugarloaf Trail. It was originally part of the AT but was redirected around as the ski resort grew.
For more information on the AT, read our guide to the Top 5 long-distance hikes in USA & Canada.
The other way to summit the mountain is via the ski trails, of which there are some 96.5 km (60 miles) in total. However, note that these are only open to hikers outside of the ski season, for obvious safety reasons!
A popular hike bags three peaks: Sugarloaf Mountain, Mount Spaulding and Mount Abraham (1,234 m/ 4,049 ft).
Beginning in the south, this route leaves Rapid Stream Trailhead along the Fire Warden’s Trail to the summit of Mount Abraham, via a couple of river crossings. The Abraham Side Trail then takes you down to join the AT, heading north across Mount Spaulding’s summit to reach the Sugarloaf Trail, with which you gain this mountain’s summit and the route’s high point. To finish, it’s a 3.7 km (2.3 mile) hike down to Caribou Valley Trailhead. The route is 20.2 km (12.6 miles) in total, making it a long day’s hike.
The Sugar Loaf – Monmouthshire, Wales
Height: 596 m (1,955 ft)
A spectacular backdrop to the South Wales town of Abergavenny, the Sugar Loaf is one of the Black Mountain’s highest peaks. With gently curving sides, this mountain is more reminiscent of the shape of volcanoes around the world, in stark contrast to spire-like formation found in Rio de Janeiro. But perhaps that’s how a sugarloaf looked by the time it arrived in Wales!
The mountain is covered in heather and bracken and is bordered by two wooded valleys: St Mary’s Vale and the Cibi Valley. These are filled with oaks, while above these is largely open moorland. The River Usk runs through the valley to the south of the Sugar Loaf, and there is plenty of gentler walking to be found around here.
It can be climbed year-round, with wet weather and high winds the only threats to a stunning day out. The main route begins from a car park in Llanwenarth to the south-east, although it can also begin in Abergavenny itself.
Another popular route is the Sugar Loaf Circuit. At 6.4 km (4 miles) the loop takes around 3.5 hours and includes climbing the peak. Beginning in Abergavenny, this route heads up the east of the summit, initially exploring wooded areas before emerging onto the open moorland of the mountain. It returns via the western side of the valley.
Part of the attraction of reaching this summit is the wide view across the Seven Estuary and the Brecon Beacons that are absolute highlights of this part of the world.
Sugarloaf Mountain – Maryland, USA.
Height: 391 m (1,282 ft)
Part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, this slight peak is near the town of Frederick. It is only 244 m (800 ft) higher than the surrounding farmland, and so to say that it dominates the skyline is to be a little generous.
But height is not where this peak’s real value lies.
In 1969, it was designated a National Natural Landmark, one of only five in Maryland. These are exceptional examples of natural history and are designated with the aim to preserve them for future generations to enjoy.
In the case of Sugarloaf Mountain, it is a prime example of a monadnock. These are isolated peaks that rise suddenly from the surrounding plains. The rock, a very hard quartzite, is resistant to erosion and so has remained while other rock has worn away around it. It is also an eastern extension the enormous Catocin Mountain, which has no defined summit itself.
In human history, Sugarloaf Mountain has made several appearances. First seen and sketched in 1707 by a Swiss explorer, it was also noted by both Union and Confederate forces during the American Civil War. An important look-out point, it gave views out to the Potamac River and the surrounding countryside.
President Roosevelt also considered using it as his presidential retreat, though nearby Catocin Mountain became the eventual site for Camp David.
There are several different circuits of the area that extend into the undulating terrain north of the summit, and each involves climbing the small peak. You can view these on this map, (Sugarloaf is in the bottom third). The longest of these hikes is 11.25 km (7 miles), the shortest a mere 2.5 km (1.5 miles).