There’s magic in Sun Valley. It’s one of those special places that just embodies winter. Bluebird skies, fluffy, dry powder, world-class slopes, and a rustic, authentic town that oozes charm. Sun Valley is that postcard ski vacation that most of us crave. After all, it is home to the country’s first destination ski resort and first chairlift. Yeah, all that history might have something to do with it.
A Mountain in the Sun
In the mid-1930s, Union Pacific Railroad chairman Averell Harriman was trying to drum up railroad business on his underused tracks that ran between Chicago and the West Coast. The problem, he realized, was that there weren’t enough stops along the way to lure people to take the journey. That’s when he got the golden idea: to create an “American St. Moritz,” trying to emulate the success of the Swiss and Austrian trains that whizz skiers to and from glitzy resorts throughout the Alps. Harriman needed to find the perfect spot to build America’s first ski resort.
Who better to send scouting than an Austrian skier? Count Felix Schlaffgosch was dispatched to the Northern Rockies with one simple item on his agenda. Find the best mountain for ski slopes and base area to build a luxury hotel. Once he laid eyes on the Wood River Valley, he was sold, wiring the news back to boss Harriman that he’d found the perfect sun-drenched mountainside just outside the railroad depot in Ketchum, Idaho. The resort started spinning its first chairlift in 1936 and the Sun Valley Lodge opened later that year. The rest, as they say, is history.
More History: The Fire That Saved Sun Valley
Today Sun Valley is comprised of two mountain hubs: Dollar Mountain, site of that first lift, is the smaller area, geared toward beginners and young families. Covered almost entirely with green and blue runs, Dollar is served by six lifts—including two high-speed quads—and is a great place to get your ski legs under you in a safe and easygoing environment.
Bald Mountain, or Baldy, is the beating heart of the resort. Thirteen chairlifts serve 65 runs plus glades, bowls, and some of the most beautiful on-mountain lodges in ski country. The terrain variety is superb—whatever you’re craving, Sun Valley has it in spades, including some rad new terrain that comes online next season (see page 56).
It all rolls up into a ski vacation that checks all the boxes—especially for Epic Pass holders. (Sun Valley and sister resort Snowbasin both joined the Epic Pass for the 2019-20 season, with seven days at each resort.) We dispatched the entire SKI staff to Sun Valley and Ketchum last February and came back with all the intel, from where to ski and après to the backcountry and beyond. If Sun Valley is on your radar—and it should be—here’s everything you need to know before you go.
Sun Valley Mini Tour
Bald Mountain has a bit of everything.
Warm-up: The Seattle Ridge pod. The whole thing is a green mecca. Ride the Seattle Ridge chair (pop into the day lodge at the top to ogle the beautiful architecture and sample a famous loaded baked potato), then lap Muffy’s Medals, Christin’s Silver, and Gretchen’s Gold, all named after local Olympians, until you’re good to go.
Groomers: Long, cruisey blues are abundant, so if this is your jam, you’ll be in heaven. Our picks are Ridge to Upper/Lower Canyon, off the Christmas quad; and Greyhawk, on the other side of the mountain, at the Warm Springs base.
Glades: Dip into the trees that line Muffy’s Medals and Gretchen’s Gold for mellow, perfectly spaced glades that are a total hoot.
Steeps: International, off the Challenger quad, is short but steep. Lengthen the journey by adding on Upper Greyhawk or Upper Hemingway.
Bumps: Exhibition is a long, bumpy ride with a 37-or-so-degree pitch.
Powder Day: Hit the bowls: Take Mayday to Christmas Ridge, then drop in pretty much anywhere. Also, steep and narrow Fire Trail is often overlooked, as it’s located off the Seattle Ridge chair.
Bald Mountain Expansion
Coming Winter 2020: The long-awaited Cold Springs terrain expansion is well underway. When it’s complete, skiers will get to enjoy 380 new acres of glades, chutes, and bowl skiing, plus a new high-speed quad that will replace the old Cold Springs double chair (the oldest lift on the mountain). The new chair will have an uphill capacity of 2,400 people per hour, and drop skiers right at the Roundhouse. The new terrain itself is beautiful, featuring glades and challenging chutes. Until it’s officially on the map next season (2020-21), eager-beaver guests can sign on for a tour of the expansion, led by Sun Valley ski patrol and guides. Reservations are required.
Check out: 2020 Editors' Choice Gear
Sun Valley Resort Dining
With options spread between the village and the different base areas, skiers will never find themselves far from a delicious meal.
Stepping into Konditorei is like entering an authentic Vienna café, from the blonde wood accents, pine chairs with classic cut-out designs, and the wafts of Austrian pastries delighting your senses. Don’t miss the Konditorei breakfast—egg Benedicts, omelets, waffles, oh my, plus excellent coffee drinks. You can order a breakfast box to go from either the Lodge or Inn, as well.
Fondue: The Roundhouse
Set at 7,700 feet at the top of the Roundhouse Gondola on Bald Mountain, the iconic Roundhouse, built in 1939, is one of the resort’s first attractions and is simply not to be missed for the 360-degree views as well as the authentic fondue lunch served with artisan bread, confit potatoes, grapes, apples, and gherkins. Add the sherry mushrooms and a bottle of wine, you won’t regret it.
On-Mountain Lunch: Warm Springs Day Lodge
All of the mountain lodges are a sure bet for a midday refuel, but the rebuilt Warm Springs—which burned down in a fire after the 2018 season came to a close—benefits from a remodeled servery, an airier layout with 100 more seats, plus yummy and filling lunch fare from burgers and loaded baked potatoes to made-to-order pho. Grab a pastry from the Konditorei satellite bakery here, to boot.
Sleigh Dinner: Trail Creek Cabin
Dating back to the resort’s inception, this cabin hidden away along the gurgling Trail Creek with views of Bald Mountain was built in 1937 as Harriman’s hunting lodge. Today, it’s an elegant dinner spot accessed by a 40-minute sleigh ride. The menu revolves around seasonally available local ingredients such as trout and elk, served in one of the coziest, heart-warmed spaces you can conjure.
Sun Valley Resort Lodging
A compact-yet-charming village anchors the ski resort and offers two classic lodges that cater to skiers with all the amenities, plus an authentic ambiance that’s weathered decades of change.
Sun Valley Lodge
The storied history of the Sun Valley Lodge is felt the moment you arrive at the stately property built by architect Gilbert Stanley Underwood in December of 1936. The lodge was designed at the centerpiece of America’s first destination ski resort, and was intended to provide everything guests would need to be not merely comfortable, but pampered. Not surprisingly, the lodge lured celebrities such as Ernest Hemingway, who famously wrote portions of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in room 206. (Stroll through the first-floor hallways for photos of many more celebs, from Marilyn Monroe to Tom Hanks.) A renovation in 2015 provided larger rooms, enhanced lobby gathering spaces, a restaurant refresh, and a new 20,000-square-foot spa with 15 treatment rooms, fitness studios, pool café, and more convenient access to the lodge’s enormous, 55-square-foot glassed-in heated pool. Stay here to be in the middle of it all and treated like royalty.
Sun Valley Inn
The lodge’s sister property, the Sun Valley Inn, opened one year later in 1937 as a quieter, more relaxed alternative to the glitzy lodge. There’s no lapse in the service or amenities here, though. A renovation completed in 2018 refreshed the 97 guest rooms, the Ram restaurant and bar, and the meeting spaces. The Inn also added a new casual eatery, Village Station, with a full menu of family-friendly pizzas, sandwiches, salads, and more. The décor is reminiscent of an Austrian chalet, and while the Inn doesn’t have a spa of its own, guests are welcome to use the one at the Lodge. The Inn’s outdoor heated pool is a big family pleaser, and the new, updated rooms are very generously sized and elegantly appointed.
Off-Hill Activities around Sun Valley
Build in a day or two off the slopes to see what the locals love so much about living here: abundant opportunities to get outside.
Rent a fat bike with mammoth tires at the Sun Valley Nordic Center and cruise the trails open to biking, including Dog Loop and Boundary Trail. Both offer rolling terrain with enough uphills to get the heart rate up and ample downhills to make it all worthwhile.
The famous Sun Valley outdoor ice rink sits in the center of the village and plays hosts to some of the best figure-skating competitions in the country. Grab a seat on the bandstand and watch aspiring Olympians train, or rent some skates and get out there to practice that triple salchow.
Huddle under blankets during a horse-drawn sleigh ride from the Nordic Center through a scenic valley with 360-views of the mountain landscape.
Getting to Sun Valley
The fact that Sun Valley isn’t the easiest of places to get to is no doubt one of its greatest advantages. After all, once you’re there, the experience is sweeter when you’re not sharing it with Interstates full of other visitors. Here’s what you need to know.
The nearest airport is in Hailey, Idaho, about a 20-minute drive from Sun Valley. Friedman Memorial Airport is a small airport that hosts daily nonstop flights in the winter from six cities—San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver, Chicago, Seattle, and Los Angeles on United, Delta, and Alaska Airlines and their respective partners. Good to know: Flights occasionally get diverted from Friedman airport due to snow or fog; those flights land at either Magic Valley Regional Airport in Twin Falls (one hour and 45 minutes) or Boise Airport (three hours), and passengers are bused to Sun Valley.
Once you’re there, a car is not essential if you’re planning to stay in the Sun Valley/Ketchum area. Complimentary shuttles from Friedman airport are available to guests staying at the resort, and Mountain Rides runs free shuttles between Sun Valley and Ketchum continuously, stopping at Dollar and Bald Mountain, plus the neighboring community of Elkhorn Springs.
For more info on the logistics of getting to and around the Sun Valley/Ketchum area, check out visitsunvalley.com.