SUN VALLEY, IDAHO — it’s the gateway to an epic mountain playground, made for families looking to have transformative outdoor experiences. Here are some solid options for doing exactly that.
Go hiking and show the kids the joy of the backcountry.Photo: Sawtooth Mountain Guides
Find Sun Valley on Google Earth and you’ll see how neatly it’s fenced in by three mountain ranges. The Pioneers, the Boulders, and the Smoky Mountains are distinct geologic formations that give hikers and backpackers limitless options.
For an easy, family-friendly walk, some of the trails on the edge of town offer a quick outing that’ll still make you feel like you’ve fallen into a postcard, especially when you catch a glimpse of local wildlife that includes moose, beavers, deer, and elk. A few minutes north of town, Adams Gulch has a beautiful network of mellow trails. On a hot day try the Shady Side trail, which takes you under a cool canopy of pines; or, if the weather’s on the chilly side of things, hop over to the opposite side of the narrow valley for a wander among the wildflowers and fragrant sagebrush.
For a more adventurous family outing, overnight trips to one of the hundreds of high mountain lakes near Sun Valley can be an incredible experience. A multi-day trip into the Sawtooth Wilderness or the newly designated Boulder-White Clouds Wilderness is always unreal — one of my best childhood adventures was a week-long family backpacking trip through the Sawtooths when I was 7. Hire a guide from Sawtooth Mountain Guides and you won’t need any equipment, expertise, or much advance planning, just a desire to get out and about in the mountains.
Grab bikes and take to the trails.
Modern-day mountain bikes and easy-going trails make family biking in Sun Valley more appealing than ever. Even young kids can get off the pavement and hit the area’s vast network of single-track. If you’re looking to stay close to town, drop by the Elephant’s Perch or Sturtevant’s bike shops and the crew will dial you in with gear, maps, and even a guide.
With a little more time, you can drive 23 miles north of Ketchum to Galena Lodge. Once the hub of the Wood River Valley’s mining community, today Galena is the newest hotspot for biking. If your family’s new to the mountain biking game, give the Harriman Trail a go. Starting from the lodge, cyclists will ride a soft descent on an old jeep road that parallels the highway through the scenic Big Wood River corridor. It’s 18 miles down to the SNRA Headquarters, but you can exit back to the highway at various points depending on your level of commitment, fitness, and age range.
For a more challenging ride, stay on the east side of the highway and head out on the new single-track network that offers everything from easy to strenuous riding. I rode the Pioneer Cemetery Loop with my 8-year-old daughter last fall and she loved it — almost as much as she enjoyed the post-ride “grownup grilled cheese” back at the lodge.
Cast a line and fly fish Sun Valley’s rivers.
The Sun Valley area is world renowned for its fisheries. The Big Wood River, Trail Creek, and Warm Springs Creek are loaded with native and stocked rainbow trout. Farther south and just 30 minutes away is the iconic Silver Creek — a spring-fed stream that offers pristine habitat and enormous brown trout.
To the east of Sun Valley, up and over the Trail Creek Summit, the Big Lost River system and Copper Basin provide a unique high-desert, tall-mountain fishing experience. Local guides at Silver Creek Outfitters and Lost River Outfitters know these waters intimately and offer full-day and half-day guided trips along with tips for every level. They’ll also provide all the gear you need. Many of the high mountain lakes in the Pioneer Mountains have excellent fishing for families looking to combine their experience with a bit of hiking in some of Idaho’s most impressive alpine terrain.
And then there’s the Salmon River, a unique spawning ground for native chinook, sockeye, and steelhead that travel nearly 1,000 river miles from the mouth of the Columbia River in Oregon to spawn in Idaho. For young fishing enthusiasts, a day trip up to the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery on the banks of the Salmon along Highway 75 is a great option. Visitors are welcome to take a tour of the outdoor pools filled with thousands of tiny smolts preparing themselves for their arduous trip to the Pacific.
Get a feel for the Old West on a horseback ride.
Seeing Idaho from the back of a horse has been a popular activity since the 1800s, leaving a legacy of horse-friendly trails that meander across the state. A quintessential Sun Valley experience, when you’re riding a horse it’s easy to imagine yourself as one of the early settlers who explored the Wood River Valley by horseback, carrying their minimal provisions in saddlebags from camp to camp.
Stop by the Sun Valley Lodge to arrange a day trip on some of the nearby trails, or plan ahead and book with Sun Valley Outfitters for an overnight pack trip that will put you deep into the Idaho wilderness — with the unexpected luxuries of gourmet food and comfortable camping.
Test yourselves on a rock climbing trip.
Most people without prior experience might think dangling from a rope in extreme terrain is a lofty and dangerous pursuit that doesn’t exactly equal a family-friendly day out. The beauty in that perception is that those who give it a go will be rewarded with a sense of empowerment that only comes from overcoming fears and realizing you’re capable of navigating up and down spectacular landscapes. And nothing bonds a family faster that being able to collectively say, “We did it!”
With the expertise of a guide, nearby areas like Trail Creek Canyon become easily accessible for inexperienced climbers. For more capable rock climbers, iconic ascents in the Sawtooth Mountains and the nearby City of Rocks will give big and little kids alike a profound respect and appreciation for Idaho’s geology — a lesson that lasts a lifetime.