The word “ordinary” has never been used to describe Sun Valley, Idaho. This mountain town is cut from a different cloth, and visiting for yourself is the best way to experience its unique and wildly wonderful vibe. From the rivers, mountains, and trails that have honed the skills of local adventure athletes to the cultural and wellness events bringing together people of all ages, this a place that rewards those willing to dig into the good life, Sun Valley style. Here’s how to do the mountains differently on your trip.
Get oriented: A river runs through it
If the five mountain ranges that surround Sun Valley are the heart of this region, then the Big Wood River is the soul. Tumbling north to south from its headwaters in the Boulder Mountains, the river’s clear waters are never far from sight, whether you’re mountain biking at Galena Lodge, watching the stars from Central Idaho’s International Dark Sky Reserve, or casting a fly at Silver Creek Preserve.
Get to know a section of the river on the 22-mile paved Wood River Trail, which traces the Big Wood River from Ketchum to Bellevue. This low-key spot to walk, bike, skate, and show off your pup is most beautiful in the early morning and late evening, when the rising and setting sun turns the air into liquid gold. On a warm day, check out the swimming hole at Big Rock, right behind the Presbyterian Church of the Big Wood in Ketchum.
Indulge in homegrown ingredients
Speaking of soul, you’ll find it in spades in the small but growing community of local food producers in Sun Valley. A new generation of young farmers is digging in and creating some of the tastiest homegrown ingredients to grace your dinner plate.
Get the good stuff straight from the source from vendors like Squash Blossom Farm, a Bellevue farm run by Sara Berman and Ed Zinader that grows fresh veggies while working to maintain the overall health of the local ecosystem. Find them at the Ketchum Farmers Market at Forest Service Park every Wednesday from June through October. Also check out Hillside Grain, which produces fresh flour from family-grown grains using stone milling (available at Atkinsons’ Market in Bellevue, Hailey, and Ketchum). Or head to a local restaurant that utilizes farm-to-table ingredients, like CK’s Real Food or The Konditorei. Find a list of all local eats and eateries in the online Wood River Valley Locally Grown Guide.
Soak in the mountain culture
How Sun Valley packs so much culture into a small mountain community is a mystery, but I gave up on trying to crack that code long ago. It’s best, I’ve found, to just soak it in. The highlight of the summer cultural calendar is the free Sun Valley Music Festival at the Sun Valley Pavilion (July 30 – August 24, 2023). Pro tip: Pack the swankiest picnic you can muster and arrive at least two hours early to feast, sip, and socialize on the Pavilion lawn before the concert begins. You can BYO chairs, just be sure they’re low-backed so as not to obstruct anyone’s view.
And don’t miss the Sun Valley Museum of Art’s generous calendar of shows, classes, and exhibits, or the talks given by the distinguished writers-in-residence that the Community Library hosts at Hemingway House, the last home of author Ernest Hemingway.
Hang with the giants
Giants of adventure, that is. Sun Valley’s supportive community and rugged landscape have cut the teeth of many adventure athletes, but you don’t need to have climbed Everest to hang with this crowd (if you have climbed Everest…you’re welcome, too).
Take Rebecca Rusch, for example. This seven-time World Champion endurance athlete is known as the “Queen of Pain,” but she’ll be the first to cheer you on with a cowbell in hand at Rebecca’s Private Idaho, a four-day gravel biking event that takes place each Labor Day weekend. There’s a riding distance for everyone, but if biking isn’t your jam, you can still participate by cheering on the racers at the iconic Wagon Days Big Hitch Parade. The ride supports Rebecca’s Be Good Foundation, an amazing organization that uses the power of bicycles to inspire healing, empowerment, and growth in communities both at home and internationally.
Get kitted out
If you’re not catching on, allow me to yell it from the rooftops: The magic of Sun Valley is in its people! You’ll feel it as soon as you get to town and, fair warning, it’ll linger for a long time after you go. It’s best to take a piece of Sun Valley with you when you leave, and lucky for us all, these mountains have long been home to innovative entrepreneurs, especially in outdoor apparel and gear.
Snag a new adventure fit from Wild Rye, a technical apparel company for women+; First Lite, whose popular hunting apparel can be found at their flagship store on First Avenue in Hailey; and Club Ride, which produces cycling and adventure clothing inspired by life in Sun Valley.
Take a moment to relax
Sure, Sun Valley has adventure in its DNA, but it has plenty of chill, too. Take the Garden of Infinite Compassion, for starters. Created in the Sawtooth Botanical Garden for the Dalai Lama’s 2005 visit, this peaceful plot is now home to a 400-pound Tibetan prayer wheel filled with over a million hand-written mantras — a gift from the Dalai Lama himself and one of only a few blessed by His Holiness in the United States. Stroll through the garden and give the prayer wheel a spin, adding a few good thoughts into the mix if you feel so inclined.
Other places to find some quiet and relaxation include soaking in the saltwater hot tub at Zenergy Health Club & Spa, joining a meditation class with the local nonprofit Flourish Foundation, and paying your respects to “Papa” at the Hemingway Memorial.
The higher you get, the higher you get
Painted on the roof of Pioneer Cabin — a backcountry ski hut built in 1937-38 and reachable via a challenging but absolutely worth it 8.5-mile loop hike — are the words “the higher you get, the higher you get.” Sun Valley’s nearly 6,000-foot base elevation is at play here, but the statement sums up the spirit of this mountain community tucked into the big peaks. The deeper you dig, the further you go, the more you find. So slow down, breathe deep, and cherish each moment.
That’s the vibe of Sun Valley, and it’s the vibe of the people who call this place home. Visit with curiosity and respect, and you’ll no doubt meet locals who are only too happy to share the area’s secrets with you. Then you’ll truly be doing the mountains differently.