Our introduction to Idaho was back during our Great American Road Trip when we camped on the edge of Lake Coeur d’Alene for a long weekend. It was perfect summer weather, a magical landscape, and we were instantly smitten, not just with that area but the state as a whole. Two years ago, we added Boise and the Payette River to our list of favorites. But as snow lovers, a ski trip to Sun Valley, Idaho was something that was always on our American bucket list, so we were stoked to kick of this year’s travels by tackling this snowy dreamland.
This project is in partnership with Visit Idaho. All opinions are our own.
How Sun Valley got its start
Back during the heyday of rail travel and new-fangled devices called “automobiles,” undiscovered gems peppered all corners of the United States. In the 1930s, pioneer Averelle Harriman—one of the major players in finance and politics in his day, not to mention chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad—sent a well-funded team to explore the Western reaches for a place to emulate the European ski resorts that were destinations for many, many American tourists, believing he could capture market share. His scouts eventually discovered the Ketchum region, but continued on at first, only later realizing that Sun Valley was about as close to perfection as it gets, representing that slice of mountainous utopia for which Harriman so deliberately searched.
Within one year, Harriman’s crew had transformed Sun Valley into the pulsing heart of mountain skiing on the North American continent, installing the world’s first chair lift but also launching a much-needed respite in what was a tumultuous pre-war, post-Depression era for the country.
Celebrities and politicians alike turned out in droves, providing the unpretentious glamour that this privately-owned resort still exudes today; black-and-white photos line the walls of the lodge, offering a glimpse of Sun Valley’s glitterati past and present. The jagged peaks of the Sawtooth Mountain Range etch the magnificent terrain that spans multiple federal Wilderness Areas and hundreds of miles of untouched, natural grandeur, so it’s no surprise that this region attracted the attention of Harriman and his team.
Getting to Sun Valley
If you’re traveling to Sun Valley by plane to ski, you can fly directly into Sun Valley, something we only learned after we arrived—why I didn’t think to search for local airports before booking my flight is beyond me (#travelwriterfail). But the Sun Valley airport, which is technically located in Hailey, is serviced by both United and Delta and has direct flights from Denver, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Seattle daily; even if you don’t live in one of those hubs, you can still likely get to Sun Valley with just a single stop. Sun Valley offers guests courtesy ground transportation between Friedman Memorial Airport and the resort.
If you’re planning to explore Boise on the front or back end, you can also fly into BOI, stay downtown for a couple nights, then drive east to the mountains, which is precisely what we did. From Tennessee, we have several options a day on Southwest and United that connect in Denver, Houston or Phoenix. Before winter weather changed our flights, we had planned to arrive just before noon and log a day of skiing at the local mountain Bogus Basin before hitting the road the following morning. This smallish ski resort serves as the local mountain for Boise residents and boasts night skiing, sledding, tubing and a mountain coaster, in addition to groomers if you don’t have time to head out to Sun Valley.
But Mother Nature had other plans and delayed our arrival into Boise, so we touched down just in time for dinner, immediately checked into the Grove Hotel in the heart of downtown then posted up at the lobby-level restaurant Trillium for a feast of craft cocktails, huckleberry foods, ancho chicken with Manchego fries and bison meatloaf with Pabst gravy. It was divine and just the refresher we needed after braving a winter storm in Denver.
The following morning, we were off early for Sun Valley. Google Maps will likely send you on the most direct route via Highway-20, which takes two hours and 45 minutes from downtown Boise. Even though we had rented a Chevy Tahoe from Enterprise at the airport—pro tip: go ahead and book that full-sized SUV if traveling during peak winter—our local expert told us to avoid this route because of the fresh snow dump that had occurred over the weekend and the likely treacherous conditions. Instead, we opted for Interstate 84 East to Highway 26, and it was smooth sailing, incredibly scenic and only took about 20 minutes longer. Check the road conditions before you go and make that decision for yourself.
Staying at Sun Valley Resort
When we arrived in downtown Ketchum and pulled off onto Sun Valley Road, we immediately experienced the magic that drew many celebrities from Los Angeles out to this remote area of Idaho. Mountains of fresh pow flanked the recently-plowed roads, and a sleek, yet unassuming, timber-trimmed lodge sat as the regal centerpiece for the village we were quickly approaching.
We’ve spent a lot of time at ski resorts, and few impressed us in the way Sun Valley did. Many notable resorts are dated and a bit old-fashioned, at least on the inside, while Sun Valley Resort seems shiny and new, despite her 84 years in business.
That’s partially because Sun Valley as a whole was completely renovated to the studs just a few years back. The upgrades included the addition of a 20,000-square-foot, full-service spa, updated restaurants, much larger rooms with no expense spared on the finishes and expanded common areas that are just inviting for an après-ski.
The outdoor pool, heated to a comfortable 98 degrees year-round, is large and full of steam with an attached bar, a necessity for a post-ski soak. A jacuzzi is attached to the entertaining space off the back of the hotel and overlooks the warm-weather pavilion, which attracts festivals and backs up to one of the 17,000+ yards of golf course greens that are housed at three different locations.
The rooms themselves are luxuriously expansive, with rough-edge tables and plenty of room to spread out with travel and adventure gear. SVV, a reformed contractor and hobbyist home renovator, remarked more than once about the finishings being high-end, and while I couldn’t put my finger on it like he could, the space felt entirely different than almost any lodge we’ve stayed in before.
Within minutes from the lodge is the Sun Valley Village, with other accommodation options like chalets, condos and townhomes, ripe for the picking. Traveling as a couple in this instance, the lodge was the perfect lodging solution for us, but we often visit winter destinations with my family, so having these larger, communal spaces is clutch for keeping everyone together, which is rather the point of a group ski vacation. Not to mention, the village is incredibly walkable and housed in a tight knit.
The Village also includes popular eateries like Konditorei and the Ram, a restaurant which has been open and serving up cuisine since the area hit the map of skiing destinations in 1937. Beloved for the fondue, which should not under any circumstances be missed, this German-influenced restaurant always has fresh seafood and daily Heritage Dinners, which reflect the Bavarian culture that started the snow sports movement in the United States. Schnitzel with lingonberry jam? Spätzle with braised beef? Get in our bellies!
Just don’t leave without requesting a song from pianist prodigy Larry Harshbarger, who essentially has memorized the entire playlist of music in the known universe and has played at the Ram for 40 years last December. In fact, he travels 26 miles—each way, often in snowy conditions—six nights a week to entertain fans and newcomers alike. Without even knowing the devout Andrew Lloyd Webber fan I am, he played his way through the entirety of The Phantom of the Opera before I requested a little Les Mis with a side of “The Rainbow Connection.”
Ski Sun Valley: what to expect
One of the reasons a ski trip to Sun Valley is such a popular option for families is because the resort boasts two mountains: one for beginners and the other for more intermediate and advanced skiers. If you’ve got kids who are new or rusty to skiing, start them out at Dollar Mountain, which is designed for the beginner and staffed with instructors for all ages that essentially double as day-care, so you can go shred the mountain while they learn the ropes (and slopes).
There was even a two year old buckling into boots when we picked up our gear! We spoke with a couple instructors and it seems that families come back year after year for tailored lessons as their skills progress. The mountain—with its five lifts and 628 vertical feet on a treeless slope—seem perfect for that type of setup since the most basic to the most extreme are represented within the confines of the landscape.
The gondola ride up to the top of the main ski area, Bald Mountain, towers over the valley at 9,150 feet. An epic view of these dramatically-shaped peaks, “Baldy,” as the locals call it, is a sprawl of more challenging terrain: 120 runs that are accessed by 13 lifts for its 3,400 vertical feet of drop.
The lifts are anchored by River Run Plaza and Warm Springs Day Lodge at the base and have just the right smattering of beginner runs but, for the most part, are made up of intermediate and advanced level terrain.
The coolest thing about this mountain is that it has both extremes for the taking: The black runs are legit off-piste, with chutes, rock drops and tree runs that only the most skilled of skiers should attempt. And, they were virtually empty! If you love a good calorie-burner, be sure and ski the entirety of Warm Springs, which is three miles from top to bottom and left us in serious need of a beer.
While the Challenger runs down the mountain are fairly straightforward groomers, the landscape is steep and unlike many blue runs we’ve experienced at other resorts. (I’d consider them more “California blacks.”) That said, the mountain is a wonderland of runs that will test your skills and leave you wanting more, and the views are distracting, to say the least. We both just love getting outdoors and being way up on the mountain, so if there’s perfectly groomed snow that’s unpopulated with rookie skiers, so much the better!
There are several on-mountain dining options for those who, like us, prefer to break up their days with libations and a little food to chase it all down. We opted for the Roundhouse, which is a popular spot for proposals and other special occasions due to the sweeping views on the patio beyond the dining room.
And as of this season, Sun Valley is now on the Epic Pass—the season ski pass we used to hold in California—meaning depending on your level of membership, you can use up to seven days to ski at Sun Valley, as well as access big discounts on lodging and more. It’s win-win: You get out of the routine of shredding the gnar on your home mountain and get to explore new terrain for next to nothing.
What to do off the slopes in Sun Valley
Even if you aren’t a big skier, I wouldn’t rule out Sun Valley; there’s plenty to do beyond snowboarding and downhill skiing. There’s the large Sun Valley Nordic & Snowshoe Center with a stunner of a lodge that plays host to flat terrain skiing, with more than 25 miles of perfectly groomed trails that crisscross throughout the picturesque valley. For those who have always wanted to cross-country ski, it’s a perfect place to test out a new hobby, and if you’re one of those crazy people that just love a good sweat and a little peace and quiet, these trails are for you.
The end of Sun Valley Road (NF-51) just past the Nordic Center is closed for the winter and opened as a popular hiking and walking trail, particularly for those with dogs in tow. If you want a little of cardio beyond the slopes, this is a great place to get your steps in. Bonus: You’ll walk away with new fur friends!
Sun Valley Lodge itself boasts not one but two year-round ice rinks, one of which greats like Adam Rippon and Johnny Weir skate on each summer. We both thought it looked easy to jump back into (like riding a bike, yeah?) while watching pre-teens twirl and pirouette with ease so we bolted on some boots and gave it a go. SVV took a turn, then quickly said, “I’m just going to take pictures.”
I didn’t fall and even managed a couple slices across the ice, emerging both unscathed and unbruised, which is winning in my book. Bonus: Fridays and Saturdays have hockey matches on the indoor rink.
One of the coolest things we did during our time in Sun Valley was a sunset sleigh ride from the Village out to Trail Creek Cabin: 45 minutes out, then 45 minutes back at the end of the night.
Once you arrive at Trail Creek Cabin, it feels like being transported into a vintage lodge experience, which makes sense as it was built in 1937 and exudes the Hemingway vibe, fitting given that the wordsmith used Harriman’s hunting cabin while writing For Whom the Bell Tolls. As does the food, with venison and steelhead on the menu, as well as buffalo tenderloin and a ridiculously decadent dessert selection.
If you’re just a bit too chilly to take the sleigh ride back—which is worth the trip on a clear, starry night—no worries: Your server can arrange transport back to the resort. In fact, there’s a free shuttle run that runs continuously among the resort’s properties, including both of the mountains and the myriad dining options, meaning you could easily do a ski trip to Sun Valley without even needing to rent a car.
Eating and drinking around Sun Valley
The town of Ketchum sits squarely in between Sun Valley Resort, with the lodge and Dollar Mountain on one side of Main Street and Baldy on the other. Ketchum is full of independent dining options, cafes and high-end boutiques aplenty, but it also holds our favorite feature in a travel destination: a brewery! Nine years old, Sawtooth Brewery encapsulates what is so innovative about the brewing industry and doubles as a dining destination and statewide distributer of multiple, flagship beverages. Straight from the keg, SVV opted for the cranberry gose, while I gravitated to the Oktoberfest and a smattering of other tasters.
And what’s a thriving town without a distillery? On our final night in Sun Valley, we dined at Warfield Distillery. This establishment, which triples as a brewery and a restaurant, is yet another feature that we appreciate in the Sun Valley repertoire of good things. More of an elevated bistro than a brewery and distillery, the food selections here are superb, with cauliflower steaks, grass-fed steak frites, rock cod, and chicken and waffles leaping off the page. Craft cocktails (of course made with spirits distilled in house), saisons, hefeweizen and other crushable beverages make this one a standout as a dining destination while you’re visiting.
The ski season in Sun Valley lasts through early April, so there’s still plenty of time to plan a trip there this winter. I say I can’t wait to get back to a lot of destinations, and it’s always true, but a ski adventure to Sun Valley is one I’m already actively planning to recreate next winter with my niece in tow. Because while this Idaho mountain trip was perfect for a couple’s getaway, what kind of aunt/sister/daughter would I be if I didn’t share one of my new favorite places with my travel-loving family?
Have you ever taken a ski trip to Sun Valley?