Idaho’s Celebrity-Favorite Ski Resort Is Just as Fun For Non-Skiers
Sun Valley, the storied ski town in Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, evokes images of an alpine Shangri-La for movie stars, literary celebrities, and socialites. Initially popularized by Felix Schaffgotsch, an Austrian count who searched the world for the perfect ski town, Sun Valley’s glamorous reputation makes sense: John F. Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and countless Hollywood icons vacationed here regularly. Ernest Hemingway spent his later years fishing, writing memoirs, and patronizing local public houses in Sun Valley. Today names like Musk, Schwarzenegger, and Gates pop up frequently on guest lists at the Sun Valley Lodge.
However, you certainly don’t need to be an A-lister to have a blast in this gorgeous mountain town. Lodging, dining, and playing in Sun Valley, and the adjacent town of Ketchum, won’t necessarily break the bank— which is harder to pull off in Aspen or Vail. In fact, many of the most compelling attractions—dark sky viewing, the local art museum, and Hemingway’s old haunts—are free or nearly free. And with so much wilderness surrounding the area, a Sun Valley road trip is worth exploring,too.
Upon getting to know Sun Valley, most find the culture laid-back and welcoming. Spencer Cordovano, a young man who recently ran for mayor, loves his hometown for many reasons but particularly for Sun Valley’s egalitarian spirit.
“This is a place where everyone rubs shoulders and it doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve accomplished,” Cordovano says. “Out of love for the beauty around us, Sun Valley unites the likes of movie stars, athletes, movers-and-shakers, and plain-old regular folks.”
Sure, you could spend all your time on the slopes. Skiers from all over the world flock to Sun Valley for a reason. But mountain sports are only part of the allure. Below are a few of Sun Valley’s quintessential charms, none of which require a chairlift or ski pass, and a handful of the town’s coolest restaurants and bars. Sun Valley is also family friendly, for those who travel with kids. Who knows, you might even run into a professional Hemingway lookalike at the local saloon.
Ernest Hemingway history
Hemingway, an author who forever changed American letters, adored Idaho—as much for the Gem State’s untamed wilderness as the colorful characters who hunted, fished, and drank with him. Hemingway’s larger-than-life spirit still permeates the town; he’s even buried there. You can sit in the writer’s old bar stool at the Sawtooth Club, a Sun Valley mainstay for steaks and strong drinks. The Sun Valley Community Library houses a large collection of Hemingway’s personal photographs and memorabilia. The library also manages the Hemingway House and Preserve, formally the author’s residence and now lodging for a non-profit writers-in-residence program.
Finally, you can pay your respects at Ketchum Cemetery, a sleepy burial ground about a mile from downtown Sun Valley. Hemingway’s headstone is easy to find. It’ll be the one adorned with wine bottles, cigars, and scribbled notes from admirers.
Sun Valley Museum of Art
Located right in downtown Ketchum, the Sun Valley Museum of Art is small but mighty. The museum exhibits nature photography from around Idaho as well as an impressive variety of Indigenous art. The museum takes only about 30 minutes to explore, and the docents are glad to point you to cultural goings-on around town. If you need a pick-me-up before venturing into the Sun Valley Museum of Art, Maude’s Coffee, right down the street, pours espresso-based goodness with aplomb.
Where: 191 5th St E, Ketchum, ID 83340
Central Idaho, sparsely populated and largely undeveloped, has less light pollution than almost anywhere else in the Lower Forty-Eight, and on clear nights, the skies sparkle with clusters of stars.
As light pollution becomes ever more ubiquitous, Sun Valley and Ketchum take extensive measures to remain an officially recognized Dark Sky Reserve. You can view the Milky Way’s band, whizzing comets, and more stars than the mind can fathom, all within the city limits. However, a few minutes’ drive yields even more majestic vistas. Locals go to Knob Hill or Sun Valley Lake, both just a few miles outside Ketchum, for night-sky gazing.
If you’re up for a worthwhile splurge, pamper yourself at Zenergy Spa, one of the most luxurious retreats in the Rocky Mountains. There are Olympic-quality workout facilities and jacuzzis overlooking the mountains and state-of-the-art saunas. While membership fees are understandably high, there is a workaround for enjoying Zenergy without signing up. If you book a massage, you’re entitled to spend the whole day on the premises, with access to the weight rooms, outdoor hot tubs, and steam and sauna rooms. The standard deep tissue massage, 50 minutes long, will run you $150, but the shorter spa treatments are around $100. You don’t even have to leave the spa for lunch. The excellent café sells delicious smoothies and acai bowls.
Where: 245 Raven Rd, Ketchum, ID 83340
Where to eat in Sun Valley, Idaho
With its long mahogany bar, exposed brick walls, and impressive selection of fine whisky and wine, it’s easy to understand why Hemingway loved the Sawtooth Club. Aged steaks and hearty sides like mashed potatoes, onion rings, and creamed spinach are the house specialty in this historic restaurant.
Besides famous steaks, the menu offers simple and comforting dishes like meatloaf and cheddar burgers, plates perfect for the winter in Idaho. After your meal, post up at Hemingway’s bar seat and order a pint of Idaho craft or the Western Old Fashioned, a cocktail crafted with Yellowstone Select Bourbon.
Where: 231 Main St S, Ketchum, ID 83340
Warfield Brewery and Distillery
Warfield Brewery & Distillery combines pristine mountain water and state-of-the-art brewing tech to create superb beers and spirits. Alex and Josh, distiller and brewer, respectively, practice their craft with the precision of chemists and the playful creativity of artists. Warfield’s gin, infused with Douglas fir tips, wild sage, and other Idaho botanicals, is a standout, known to convert even those who thought they would never enjoy gin. After a brewery and distillery tour, grab a table at Warfield’s restaurant. The sausages, burgers, and pub-grub are a delicious way to soak up the booze.
Where: 280 N Main St, Ketchum, ID 83340
Sun Valley Wine Company
With views of the ski slopes from a heated patio, Sun Valley Wine Company is the place to learn about Idaho wine. The Snake River Valley, recently designated as an American Viticultural Area, may well be the nation’s most underrated wine region, and Sun Valley Wine Co. showcases the best of these high-altitude, cold-climate wines. This winery also has some truly precious international vintages stashed away, including treasures from Burgundy, Bordeaux, and Napa. You can order wine by the glass and hor d’oeuvres in the tasting room upstairs, and owners Crystal and Dexter are happy to chat about wine or life in Sun Valley.
Where: 360 Leadville Ave N, Ketchum, ID 83340
This Mexican restaurant, located across from the city hall, is a hidden gem. Always busy during lunch, La Cabañita serves hearty, satisfying fare at reasonable prices. The smothered burritos, succulent al pastor or chicken drowned in salsa verde or mole negro, come in big portions, but are so tasty you’ll devour every morsel. The menu has cheap and delicious Mexican pilsners to wash down the zippy flavors of fresh salsa and chilies.
Where: 160 5th St W, Ketchum, ID 83340
Where to stay in Sun Valley, Idaho
Lodging in Sun Valley tends to be the most expensive aspect of a trip there, but you can find Airbnbs and hotels for around $100 a night.
Hotel Ketchum (around $110 per night) is within easy walking distance of most of the restaurants and attractions listed here. The hotel’s accommodations are comfortable and snug, exactly what you want on a wintry day in Idaho. Most rooms sport a cushioned, window-side nook with views of the mountain, a comfy corner to post up with a laptop, book, or cup of tea. Staying in Hailey, Idaho, a few towns over from Sun Valley, is another wise option for budget-conscious travelers.
Where: 600 N Main St, Ketchum, ID 83340