Legend has it there’s an unidentified Union Pacific rail worker on the Boise line to thank for finding one of the country’s great ski towns, Ketchum, Idaho. Granted, an Austrian count by the name of Schaffgotsch, commissioned by U.P. rail baron Averill Harriman, generally gets the credit. He spent the winter of 1935–36 traveling the Western U.S. in search of a site for the perfect destination ski resort. But it was this forgotten yard worker or conductor who gave the count the tip, telling him the Ketchum spur racked up the largest snow-removal bill of the entire line. And so it goes: The rich and famous write the headlines, but the quirky, passionate locals add the color. Despite its “nation’s first destination resort” upbringing and A-list clientele, it’s this arrangement, a culture driven by nearly eight decades of skiers dedicated to little more than the feeling of a face shot or a well-carved turn rather than big money, that’s kept the heart of this off-the-beaten-path town beating.
In an era when megaresorts are hell-bent on maximizing the number of lifts, acres, on-mountain restaurants, and adventure zones, Ketchum keeps things relatively simple. On Bald Mountain, which rises almost directly out of downtown, it’s all about high-speed-lift-served vertical, over 3,000 lightning-fast feet of it on exquisitely manicured groomers. Natural snow can be fickle, yet the mountain’s state-of-the-art snowmaking system keeps things buffed. With few crowds on Baldy, except during the obvious holiday weekends, you can fly down the mountain—one of the reasons ski bums love to winter here. There are more beautiful skiers on Baldy than anywhere on the planet, and the town race series is the World Cup of beer leagues. When pretty much everyone in town can set an edge and drag a hip, there are no bad ski days. Just bad tunes.
It’s this “make turns, not war” mentality that drew industry icons like Bob Smith, of goggle fame, Ed Scott, of pole fame, Bobbie Burns, of hotdog fame, and Warren Miller, skiing’s original dirtbag, to the area. Here skiing has always been the most relevant topic of conversation and a surefire way to identify with the stranger a few barstools down. You can still experience parts of Ketchum in the same manner as those legends every time you grab lunch at the Roundhouse (est. 1939), poach the famous circular Sun Valley Lodge hot tubs (est. 1936), feast on a 22-ounce cowboy-cut steak at the Pioneer Saloon (est. 1940), or sip late-night whiskey and water at the Casino Club (est. 1920). History has been Ketchum’s calling card, perhaps to a fault, given the prevailing hairline in town. But it’s also something that new lifts, restaurants, spas, and condos—the metrics other ski-town marketing departments like to hype—can’t even begin to re-create.
>> Distance to the Nearest Target: 79 miles
>> Famous Resident: Tom Hanks
>> Local Event: Trailing of the Sheep