THERE’S NOWHERE ON THIS PLANET I’d rather spend four winter days than in my hometown of Sun Valley, Idaho. For anyone who wants to come and see why, here’s a suggestion of how to spend 96 perfect hours at America’s original destination ski resort…the locals’ way.
Arriving in Sun Valley is easier than ever these days, with direct flights from Salt Lake, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle depositing you right at the southern end of the Wood River Valley via the airport with the best code in the world (SUN). From there, a 20-minute shuttle ride will have you at the lifts in time for a few afternoon laps and a celebratory drink where you and your friends can toast the coming days.
Catch the free bus from the lifts over to the Sun Valley Inn. Drop your gear and head straight to the giant hot pool just down the hall and soak up the view as the sun sets on Baldy and the universe whispers, “Well played, my friend” in your ear. Welcome to Sun Valley.
When you’re ready, give the front desk a call and ask for a courtesy shuttle back over to the River Run Lodge and jump on the gondola for a ride up to the historic Roundhouse for dinner. Built in 1939, this was the first on-mountain lodge in North America. Order a nice Grenache for the table, settle into a fondue appetizer, and treat yourself to the locally harvested elk tenderloin.
If you’re lucky enough to be up here on a clear night with a bit of moonlight reflecting off the snow-caked Pios across the valley, the lights of town twinkling far below, trust me — it will be a dining experience that’s the stuff of legend.
It’s winter in the mountains of central Idaho — expect crystal-clear, cold days. After you pile on the layers, head over to Warm Springs Lodge for a hot coffee (local tip: mix it with a bit of Sun Valley’s famous hot chocolate) and breakfast before hopping on the Challenger lift (#10) at 9am for the ride to the top. Don’t forget to look behind you on the way up for the sunrise light show on the Boulder Mountains to the north.
Following the sun on these cold mornings is always a good call, so start your day by sailing down the ballroom-smooth cruiser of College, which faces straight east and is fully illuminated in that golden morning light. After a couple warm-up runs down College and its slightly steeper neighbor, Ridge, jump into the Bowls, a series of six ridgelines separated by shapely gullies providing some of the best skiing and riding within the resort boundaries.
For the full experience, take a ride on the Lookout triple chair (#11, lovingly referred to as the “lift to nowhere” by most locals) and enjoy the 360-degree mountain-top view as you approach Baldy’s 9,150ft summit. Grab a few deep breaths and drop into Lookout Bowl for the 1,200ft descent to the Mayday lift (#14). Those in the know stay out on the skier’s right, where the northeastern aspect usually holds the best snow on offer. A few nonstop runs down the bowls and the morning cold is long forgotten, replaced by burning legs and screaming lungs. If you’re lucky enough to catch these beauties the morning after a midwinter storm that drops 6-8 inches of bone-dry, high-desert powder overnight and leaves a clear, deep blue sky in its wake, expect a quasi-religious experience that makes you seriously consider dropping everything and moving to this small Idaho town to chase days exactly like this.
As your legs and lungs begin to give out, stay with the sun and make your way from the bowls a little farther south to the crown jewel of Sun Valley’s lodges, Seattle Ridge, for lunch. Grab a hot chocolate, a slice of wood-fired pepperoni pizza, and a table next to the floor-to-ceiling windows near the back with views of the Smoky Mountains to the west. Kick off your boots and set them by one of the giant fireplaces to thaw out — they’ll be ready to go when you are.
Afternoon + evening
After lunch, and if your legs can handle it, head back north to the Warm Springs side of the mountain for a couple of high-speed, 3,140-vertical-foot, top-to-bottom ‘dark side’ runs to cap off the day. When all is said and done, you’ve probably ridden more vertical feet than you’d get in a week at a lot of resorts. End the day right with a stop at Apple’s Bar and Grill for a well-deserved beer (or three) before dragging yourself straight back to the inn and that hot pool to let your tired legs recover while sipping a signature cocktail delivered poolside.
The toughest decision you’ll face this fine evening is which of the many top-shelf restaurants to take advantage of for dinner. After a good day on the hill, I’d suggest the short bus ride to Main Street Ketchum and settling into the Pioneer Saloon for a Bar Marg and a slab of prime rib.
While Sun Valley Resort and Mt. Baldy are the centerpieces of winter life in the Wood River Valley, every local knows they’re really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to winter recreation. After a solid day racking up vertical feet with the help of high-speed chairlifts, it’s time to get out and explore a bit farther afield.
If you’ve got the scratch and are looking to ride the very best terrain and snow available, the whirlybird and crew over at Sun Valley Heli Ski is your best option. Or, if a day in the helicopter isn’t in your budget, check in with the Sawtooth Avalanche Center for a current report on conditions, strap on some skins, and earn those powder turns the old-fashioned way, one step at a time. The variety of backcountry ski terrain that surrounds Sun Valley is nothing short of staggering — from super-accessible, well-tracked zones just outside of town for low-angle powder and glades, to big-mountain couloirs with long, technical approaches — so it really is a pick-your-poison type of deal. If you’d like some help in the picking, give the boys over at Sawtooth Mountain Guides a call and they’ll dial you into the best the region has to offer.
For many independent visitors looking to get out and experience a great day in the backcountry, it’s hard to beat the terrain and accessibility of Galena Pass. Stop in at the Galena Lodge, located about 30 miles north of Sun Valley on Idaho State Highway 75 at the bottom of the pass, for all the information you’ll need about where to ski. After your tour, come back and dry out next to the fireplace, trade stories from the day with other groups, and warm up with some of the best soups you’ll find anywhere.
Watch out for deer and elk on the drive back into town, especially if heading back close to dusk. Make your way straight to Grumpy’s for a schooner and then over to La Cabañita for the best tacos al pastor in Idaho (a more difficult title to secure than you might think).
After a couple consecutive full-on days shredding your legs in that fine Idaho powder, you might be ready to throttle back the pace a bit (maybe not, in which case I suggest repeating either day described above). Depending on your inclinations, slowing it down in Sun Valley can mean anything:
- curling up with a good book by the fireplace, followed by an afternoon massage/spa treatment
- spending the day shopping and snacking your way through the Sun Valley Village and the town of Ketchum
- sleeping through the morning cold and riding the half-pipe / hitting jumps in the afternoon sun at the Snow Park Technologies terrain park over on Dollar Mountain
- strapping on ice skates and gliding around the ice rink just out front of the Sun Valley Lodge
- keeping those legs and lungs working on the 125 miles of Nordic trails that are home to the US Olympic training grounds
- trading your skis or snowboard for a pair of waders and a fly rod to stalk rainbow trout on the Bigwood River
After a good ‘down day’, there are plenty of ways to play a night on the town in Sun Valley, and every local has their preferred route. Mine involves a bus ride into town for a maki combo from Zach and the boys at Sushi on Second. After dinner, it’s a short walk to the Cellar Pub for an expertly poured Guinness and beating my brother in a hotly contested shuffleboard game. At around 11, we make the block walk back to Main Street and over to Whiskey Jacques for whatever band is playing that night, eventually wrapping up the evening with pool or foosball across the street at the Casino before stumbling out into a cold, clear Sun Valley night…hopefully with another 96 hours on the horizon.