Photo: CSNafzger/Shutterstock

Ketchum, Idaho, Is an Affordable, Underrated Outdoor Playground

Ski and Snow National Parks
by Noelle Alejandra Salmi Mar 18, 2021

Lying at the foot of Bald Mountain and the Sun Valley ski resort — the first destination ski resort in the country — Ketchum, Idaho, is well known as a ski town. But before skiing, Ketchum was a mining town, and it still retains an earthy mountain vibe. At the same time, its ski fame attracted celebrities and artists, adding a touch of refinement to the place. In fact, Ernest Hemingway is buried here, and the Sun Valley Museum of Art is a worthy place to visit. But Ketchum’s real magic remains its place in the Sawtooth range, near rivers teeming with fish, beautiful alpine lakes, and plenty of peaks and valleys to explore on skis, by bike, or with hiking boots.

What to do in winter

Sun Valley Ski Resort, what to do in Ketchum

Photo: CSNafzger/Shutterstock

SkiingSun Valley Resort, which opened in 1936 with the world’s first chairlift, gets inch upon inch of fluffy dry snow that begs for wide GS turns. The resort’s Baldy Mountain, known as Baldy to locals, is one of the best places to ski in North America. Nearby, Sun Valley’s Dollar Mountain is one of our top picks for beginners learning to ski.

Snowmobiling — An amazing way to explore Sawtooth National Forest is to take a guided snowmobile tour, which departs from the Smiley Creek Lodge. You can take a half-day tour that brings you to Redfish Lake or one that takes you up Elk Mountain and gives you an overview of Stanley Lake. (A full-day tour is also an option.)

Snowshoeing — It’s easier to snowshoe than you think, and a good place to start is at Sun Valley’s Galena Lodge, a cozy wooden structure in the Boulder Mountains owned by the Blaine County Recreation District (BCRD). You can rent snowshoes at the lodge for $20 for adults for the whole day. Alternatively, if there are three of you, you could set out with a guide for $45/person. On Tuesdays, you can rent snowshoes, get a trail pass, and end with a hot cup of soup all for $20. A BCRD Snowshoe Trail pass is $5/day for each person and, should they want company, for each dog. (While the Galena Lodge is a day lodge, they do offer yurts for overnight stays.)

Cross country in Sun Valley, Idaho, what to do in Ketchum

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Cross-country skiing — Whether you prefer classic Nordic skiing or the great glute workout of Nordic skate skis, you’ll head through snow-dusted evergreen forests and alongside waterways like the Big Wood River. If, say, you haven’t skate-skied before and want to give it a try, lessons are also available for $65 per person and $35 for each additional person. Rent your gear online 12 hours in advance for $23 for traditional adult skis, boots, poles, and $35 for skate ski gear, or head to shop at Galena Lodge for same-day rentals. Get your BCRD Nordic Trail pass for $18/day.

Summer daytime activities

Alice Lake Sawtooth Mountain Wilderness, Idaho, what to do in Ketchum

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Mountain biking — Galena Lodge is also a great base for outdoor activities after the snow melts, accessing 47 miles of single-track trails. But that is just one option — as there’s an astonishing 430 miles of single-track paths near Ketchum. An easy loop to try is the seven-mile Adams Gulch Loop that’s accessible from town. (Just note that some locals call it the Griffin Butte Loop.) For a more hardcore experience, provided you’re properly suited up in protective gear, you can take the gondola to the top of Bald Mountain and speed your way back down its 3,200 feet. You’ll find plenty of places in Ketchum to rent mountain bikes, among them Sturtevants of Sun Valley.

Hiking — Adams Gulch is not just a great area close to town for mountain biking but for hiking, too. One mellow hike is the 2.5-mile Sunnyside Trail, but there are literally countless options in the gulch. If you prefer something a little longer, but not strenuous, the Baker Lake trailhead is close to town and takes you to a trout-filled lake with less than a 1,000-foot elevation gain; it’s 3.5 miles there and back. One of our favorite hikes is the tough, five-mile hike up to the top of Bald Mountain for a picnic lunch with breathtaking views. You can then save your knees from the 3,200-foot descent and ride the gondola back down for free.

Redfish Lake, Idaho, what to do in Ketchum

Photo: CSNafzger/Shutterstock

Go jump in a lake (or kayak, SUP, etc.) — While Ketchum is near to lots of rivers, a short northward drive brings you to several of the alpine lakes that grace the Sawtooth range. Less than an hour from Ketchum, Alturas Lake is quiet and, because it’s smaller, a little warmer than Redfish Lake for a swim. But if it’s more on-water activities you’re after, Redfish Lake is a must. You can rent boats, kayaks, canoes, or SUPs at the Redfish Lake Lodge marina. Or, check out more options in the town of Stanley, just north of Redfish.

Ride a river — Whether you’re looking for an adrenaline-filled whitewater thrill or a more gentle float, the Sawtooth National Forest is the nation’s unofficial HQ for river rafting. An all-day option with Class 4 rapids is a day-trip on the South Fork of the Payette River. To take it easy, amble down the Salmon River, where you’ll find just a few Class 3 rapids. You can talk to the folks at White Otter about their various options.

Catch a fish — With so many rivers, Ketchum is also a prime fly-fishing destination with two nearby blue ribbon (i.e., high-quality) rivers. Beyond the famed Silver Creek, you can fish for rainbow trout and brown trout in the Big Wood River. . In the Copper Basin just over an hour from Ketchum, you can angle for rainbow trout and brook trout, among other fish.

Where to eat and drink

Sawtooth Brewery

Photo: Sawtooth Brewery/Facebook

The Kneadery — For the best breakfast in Ketchum, one which includes outside seating in the summer, The Kneadery serves up everything from a sausage and egg burrito spiced up with sriracha to brioche French toast. Breakfast is served until 2 PM, but, should you so choose, you could also have a hearty lunch (think bacon grilled cheese with tomato basil soup) or dinner.

Ketchum Public House — The Public House is part of the Sawtooth Brewery, serving up not just a dizzying selection of on-tap brews, cider, and even kombucha, but also bratwurst; beef, elk, or veggie burgers; fish tacos; Korean pulled pork tacos; and the like.

Town Square TavernThe Tavern, the perfect reflection of Ketchum’s more refined edges, offers more inventive mountain fare with menu items like a lamb burger or vegan cauliflower-chickpea curry. While you wait for a table, head to the bar, order a River Bend pale ale, and wash it down with the grilled shishito peppers or parmesan fries.

Enoteca — This eatery/wine bar is the best place for wood-fired pizza, daily Mediterranean specials, or small plates to share of a glass of minerally Sicilian white, a mellow Oregon pinot noir, or a wallet-busting but always memorable Brunello di Montalcino.

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