In the same wild, mountain-carved territory as Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier National Parks — with perhaps even more off-grid adventure opportunities and beautiful backroads to explore — Sun Valley, Idaho, is the ultimate pit stop on any Western road trip. Though how you experience it is completely up to you.

Between free camping and luxurious hotels, ski resorts and mountain lakes, small-town charm and big-city culture, there’s no wrong way to go. Just make sure you stop for a bit — here’s why.

Five-hour radius: Wilderness in every direction

Sun Valley pit stop: A road tripper’s guide to Sun Valley, ID

Photo: Ray J.Gadd Photography / Visit Sun Valley

A hard-to-believe nature hub, Sun Valley is surrounded by vast wilderness areas, unbelievable ski resorts, geological wonders, mountain lakes, and historical sites. Within a five-hour drive, you’ll find numerous other world-class mountain towns like Jackson Hole, Park City, McCall, and Driggs, along with the smaller mom-and-pop ski areas such as Soldier Mountain, Bogus Basin, Pomerelle, and Lost Trail. Some of these are also on the Epic Pass like Sun Valley, which should make this part of the country a no-brainer for your next winter-season road trip.

The otherworldly volcanic landscape of Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve is just a couple hours away; so too are the surprisingly large inland sand dunes of Idaho’s Bruneau Sand Dunes State Park. If rivers are what you’re after, head north towards the Salmon, Big Lost, South Fork of the Boise, or the Payette River system, all of which are inside a half-day’s drive. And quality campgrounds can be found in every direction, with the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Trail Creek campgrounds offering hook-ups and bathroom facilities.

Looking for uncharted wilderness? The largest roadless area in the Lower 48, the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness, is just out Sun Valley’s backdoor. So are other incredible wilderness and recreation areas in the Sawtooth, Pioneer, and Boulder Mountains. Lakes? The jaw-dropping vista from Redfish Lake’s main beach is always a crowd-pleaser, as is McCall’s Payette Lake and Jackson Hole’s Jenny Lake. Spoiled for choice doesn’t even begin to cover it.

Five-minute radius: Exploring in town

Sun Valley pit stop: A road tripper’s guide to Sun Valley, ID

Photo: Ray J.Gadd Photography / Visit Sun Valley

Highway 75 turns into Main Street in Ketchum, where Warm Springs Road and Sun Valley Road merge at one of three stoplights in town. The Pioneer Saloon is a few steps from this intersection — Sturtevants is too, with its convenient rental fleet and full-service bike/ski shop. Sun Valley Resort’s, pools, spas, restaurants, and four-season recreation options are about a mile down the road.

Despite its size — and lack of stoplights — the town of Ketchum is packed with shops, restaurants, bars, things to do, and art and culture opportunities. Try the wings at Sawtooth Brewery & Tap Room and burgers at the iconic Grumpy’s, or nab delicious take-out from Rickshaw — the Szechuan beans with locally raised Lava Lake Lamb is a favorite.

The swimming hole behind the Ketchum Skate Park is a great place to cool off in the summer; catch a rainbow trout here come fall and winter. And the wide-open, dog-friendly, grassy fields of Atkinson’s Park are perfect for stretching all six of your legs, regardless of season. (Just please clean up after your pet!)

Looking for history? Ernest Hemingway’s favorite place to fish, Silver Creek — with its legendary and hard-to-catch brown trout — is close by, as is the house where he was living when he died. You can pay your respects at the Hemingway Memorial, just east of the Sun Valley Lodge, or at the Ketchum Cemetery, the site of his grave.

There’s also the Ernest Hemingway Festival every September, one of many world-class events to grace Sun Valley throughout the year. Keep an eye on the local calendar for upcoming happenings including concerts, gallery openings, stage performances, and the famous Basque Trailing of the Sheep Festival.

Getting there

Sun Valley pit stop: A road tripper’s guide to Sun Valley, ID

Photo: Hallie Macpherson / Visit Sun Valley

Driving into Sun Valley for the first time is unforgettable no matter which direction you’re coming from. The north? You’ve already passed through spectacular wilderness areas, along deep river canyons, through the Sawtooth Valley, and by the headwaters of the mighty Salmon River — one of the last great free-flowing wilderness river systems in the country. The experience of cresting Galena Summit and heading down into Sun Valley is a sweet one.

Coming from the east? Well then, you’ve driven right over the jaw-dropping and white-knuckle-inducing Trail Creek Summit. The road is long and dirt most of the way, rattling right through the divide between the Pioneer and Boulder Mountains before joining the meandering Trail Creek. Eventually, the dirt turns to pavement and vivid views of Bald Mountain and Sun Valley Resort come into frame. The first building you’ll see is the stunning Sun Valley Resort Clubhouse, and it always feels like arriving, no matter how many times you’ve done the drive.

If you’re coming from the south — which most people do — high-desert prairies and large swaths of flat farmland run right up to the mouth of the Wood River Valley. If you catch yourself wondering just where the heck the mountains are, you wouldn’t be the first. Until about 30 miles south of Sun Valley, it’s mostly wide-open pastures and fields of alfalfa. But the valley slowly begins to narrow as you head northward, passing through the towns of Bellevue and Hailey; as you round the turn and cross the Big Wood River one last time, just south of Ketchum and Sun Valley, you finally set eyes on the mountains. It’s always a bit surprising — and inspiring — even for longtime locals. Bald Mountain’s famous ski-resort bowl runs rise quickly to the west, and layer upon layer of peaks unfold to the north.

Sun Valley truly is the gateway to Idaho’s vast and storied wilderness. Don’t miss it on your road tour of the great American West.