A Beginner’s Guide to Sun Valley, Idaho

A Beginner’s Guide to Sun Valley, Idaho

The best trails and the best eats in America's oldest ski resort

Sun Valley is where it all began – this was literally America’s first destination ski resort, with the world’s first chairlifts, where the very idea of the American ski vacation was born. In the eight decades since, Sun Valley has walked a fine line between a laid back, casual, very athletic, and a little bit cowboy mountain town and an annual rite of passage destination for VIPs and celebrities, who have been flocking here since it opened and immediately drew a list of Hollywood A-Listers like Clark GableErrol FlynnMarilyn Monroe.

Ernest Hemingway wrote his classic For Whom the Bell Tolls here and was so taken with the place he bought a home and stayed. Modern day Sun Valley fans include Oprah Winfrey, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Hanks, Justin Timberlake, longtime regular Clint Eastwood, who filmed Pale Rider here, and homeowner Bruce Willis.

sun-valley-sawtoothSun Valley has long been a family owned mountain placing an emphasis on families, grooming, customer service and friendliness, and it is famously never crowded, with no significant lift lines. It celebrates its 80th birthday this winter, following several years of improvements and reinvestment building up to the big anniversary. There has never been a better time to visit, and here is how to make the most of a winter visit to Sun Valley.

Ski season starts in mid to late November and runs into mid-April, with exceptionally sunny skies much of the winter (more than 80% of ski days), living up to its name. Compared to other Western U.S. resorts it relatively mild all season, though January is the coldest and snowiest month, while most resorts get more snow later. It is more well known for peak season than spring conditions.

Layout: Sun Valley is not the typical American ski resort. It has no ski-in/ski-out lodging or real estate, and is comprised of two different ski mountains a few miles apart, both with limited day lodge facilities at their bases. Between them there are 18 lifts serving 121 trails, superpipe, and three terrain parks, including a large new one opened two years ago. The ski resort village, which was manufactured and built from scratch to resemble a European alpine village, along with an extensive Nordic Center, sits between them, and all three abut the town of Ketchum, which has the bulk of the lodging, dining and après, with a bit of Old West flair. Sun Valley is more spread out than most resorts, with an efficient system of free shuttles connecting everything.

Dollar Mountain: Dollar Mountain is frequented almost entirely by children learning to ski, along with first time skiers and snowboarders of all ages. It is widely considered one of the best places in the world to learn, and offers novices a nice respite from crowds and more aggressive skiers. It even has a kid-centric lodge and cafeteria. The peak rises just 450 vertical feet, but is virtually treeless, and this openness inspires confidence in first timers since there is no trail to go off and little to hit. There is a magic carpet area for first time kids, and a wide variety of slopes of varied steepness, perfect for progression, with purpose-built features for the new more effective terrain-based learning the ski industry is quickly moving to. Dollar Face is the steepest run, a solid blue intermediate, and local tradition dictates that once this run is mastered, visitors head to the big mountain, Baldy – along with those who already know how to ski.

Where to stay in Sun Valley

Bald Mountain: “Baldy,” is famed throughout skiing for its nearly perfect constant pitch from top to bottom. This consistency makes it an excellent place for intermediates to progress and master skills. It also makes the runs ski much longer than they look, and while it is never crowded here, you will frequently see guests stop to regroup and catch their breath. While most ski resorts roll from summit to base in a series of steps, steeps broken by plateaus, Baldy plunges, with its trademark unrelenting constant pitch. It is a big mountain, with one of the greatest verticals in the country, over 3000 feet, but the nonstop gravity makes it feel even bigger, and only those in the best shape can ski it top to bottom without stopping. It wraps around the face with base lodges on either side, and it is well worth remembering that the River Run side is sunny in the morning, the Warm Springs side in the afternoon.

sun-valley-viewBald Mountain offers skiing for every ability, and it is the rare resort where the most famous Signature run is intermediate blue rather than expert black: Warm Springs, which drops from the very top of Baldy all the way to the base. Beginners love the grooming here, always rated in the top three in the nation, while experts still find plenty of terrain, and in particular, Sun Valley is famed for its black diamond bumps, among the best mogul skiing anywhere. It has tree skiing suitable for intermediates and above, and another 50-acres of glades were added over the past three seasons. There is a gondola to the very top that accesses some of the most famous terrain in North American skiing, notably black diamond Christmas Bowl, the place to be after a storm. There is no real extreme skiing here, no cliffs or chutes, but Sun Valley one of the few ski resorts in America with onsite heli-skiing, and the only one where the pickup and drop-off is actually on the mountain. Sun Valley Heli Ski has been at it for 50 years, claims to be the inventor of the sport in the U.S., and has the largest permitted acreage of any domestic operator outside Alaska.

Nordic Center: Sun Valley is one of the most popular alpine destination resorts for the Nordic set, and offers a well-equipped clubhouse and ample classic and skate skiing, as well as trails perfect for the fast growing snow biking trend, using mountain bikes with grossly oversized balloon tires, which can be rented at a couple of shops in town.

Après & Dining: For many first time visitors, the iconic post skiing cocktail stop is the Duchin Lounge, the classic lobby bar in the Sun Valley Lodge, the original hotel here, which was completely rebuilt for its 80th birthday, and is better than ever. This is the place to see and be seen and represents swank Sun Valley, but there are many other colorful and more local choices.

In fact, at Sun Valley après skiing is not always “after,” but starts on the mountain itself, home to a couple of the most vibrant lodges in skiing. High up on Bald Mountain is the lodge on Seattle Ridge, where some of the finest panoramic views in skiing are best enjoyed with a cold beer. At the bottom, both of the two main base lodges have live music most days. River Run is especially famed for its exquisite Bloody Mary’s, while the Warm Springs Lodge woos with Happy Hour specials. Just outside the Warm Springs lodge is Sun Valley’s signature dive bar and local’s favorite, Apple’s Bar & Grill, with a great outdoor deck.

Most of the action is in the actual town of Ketchum, just minutes away. Town’s most famous après watering hole is Grumpy’s, a small shack – smaller than the laundromat it sits behind – that famously has a website but no phone, serves beer in huge quart-sized “schooners,” and has the colorful motto “Sorry we’re open.” Other popular bars in town include Lefty’s Bar & Grill, the Cellar Pub, which mixes British/Irish tradition (fish & chips) with mountain culture (bison burgers), and the Sawtooth Brewery, the region’s craft beer specialist.

For a drink with more Old West flair, visit the Cornerstone, in an 1884 building that is the sole Ketchum structure other than Hemingway’s home on the National Historic Register. For drinks and at least one dinner during a visit, the single most quintessential Ketchum institution is the Pioneer Saloon, equal parts steakhouse, bar and Old West museum, overflowing with historic memorabilia, and despite a humble feel, it serves excellent food. Some regulars eat here several times each trip. Town’s not too hidden gem is Michel’s Christiania, a local’s favorite for six decades. The main restaurant is a French fine dining spot, but many go just for drinks at the Olympic Bar, adorned with pictures and mementos of Sun Valley’s many Olympians, a spot Hemingway frequented so regularly that he had his own table.

Where to stay in Sun Valley