Sun Valley Invented the Great American Ski Resort — Now It's Time to Experience It Yourself
Welcome to Mountain Mondays, our eight-week series introducing you to some of the coolest mountains in America. Stay tuned each week for a new mountain for you to explore.
Our trip to Sun Valley could have easily turned into a travel disaster.
You see, our flight from Los Angeles to the famed ski town that appears on the radar as nothing more than a teensy blip smackdab in the middle of Idaho, was diverted just before landing. The visibility, the pilot said, had turned into a thick pea soup making it impossible to land. So instead, we were forced to land at the nearby Twin Falls Airport, about a 90 minute drive away.
That’s where the frustration could have seeped in. But, thankfully, it was thwarted by the true spirit of ski bums everywhere with a good, cold can of wine.
“You guys want a can of red wine?” the passengers to our left gleefully offered as we stepped on the bus from the airport to our intended destination of Sun Valley. My travel companion and I heartily said yes and quickly came to realize that joy, friendship, and good vibes like this is what Sun Valley is all about.
We finally made it to Sun Valley sometime after dark. We checked into the Sun Valley Lodge, where we met even more people who were ready to assist with our every need, and jetted off to dinner at The Ram, a restaurant that’s been serving up delicious bites for adventurous mountain vacationers since 1937. Helming the entertainment at the restaurant is Larry Harshbarger, a piano man who’s played at The Ram for some four decades. And, because this is the real friendliest place on earth, Harshbarger is willing to take just about any request you’ve got.
After a long day of travel we tucked in for the night without knowing what was around us. And like Christmas morning, we awoke, looked out the window, and saw the monumental beauty of Idaho’s mountain landscapes for the very first time.
“There are so many things that are great about this place,” Ray Gadd, marketing director of Visit Sun Valley, said when asked just what makes this tiny town so damn lovable. “If I had to lean on one it would be the access to the outdoors.”
Like a laundry list, Gadd rattles off all the possibilities one can experience in Sun Valley including endless backcountry skiing, heli-skiing, thousands of acres of groomed Nordic Trails, incredible snowmobile access, hockey rinks, snowshoe and fat biking trails, fly fishing, and more. And, of course, “in the winter you’ve got an incredible ski mountain right in town with nonexistent lift lines.”
And really, if any mountain knows how to manage lift lines it’s Sun Valley, considering they literally invented them.
Sun Valley’s history goes way back to the 1930s when Count Felix Schaffgotsch, under the hire of Union Pacific Railroad chairman Averell Harriman, set out to find and build America’s first ski resort destination. Upon its completion it became the first ski resort to have a single chair lift, changing the industry forever, and cementing itself as the place to be for outdoor winter enthusiasts.
“The town culture embraces and encourages getting out there to enjoy what we have,” Gadd says. “You’re expected to be on the hill in the morning if it’s a powder day, lunch hour mountain bike rides are the norm, and weekends are meant for exploring versus resting. These are the sorts of work-life balance rituals that continue to keep us smiling on a daily basis.”
Spending a few days with Gadd on Bald Mountain made it very clear why olympic-level skiers, laymen, and some of the biggest celebrities in the world, love it so much.
The terrain on the hill is unlike any other you’ll find in the United States. It may not be the biggest ski mountain in America, but it could be argued that it comes with the most expansive and breathtaking views around.
The mountain itself also comes with a steeper than average pitch, including its most difficult run, Inhibition, which sits at a hearty 70 percent grade. However, if you’re looking to linger, it’s possible to take a three-mile run from the top to the bottom of the mountain in one go.
Though, this isn’t to say Sun Valley doesn’t have something for beginners, too. However, anyone who is truly just starting out is encouraged to head over to its sister hill, Dollar Mountain, to take a few lessons before upgrading to Bald Mountain.
“Bald Mountain delivers on consistency,” Gadd says. “From the grooming to snowmaking to down the fall-line pitch to lack of lift lines, you know what to expect and it’s going to be good. It’s that diamond in the rough that is slightly off the beaten path. It’s a place where you feel like a local and fit in as opposed to a place to be seen.”
That attitude is exactly why you’ll likely spot a celebrity or two on the mountain, like Arnold Schwarzinegger (whose painting hangs in the main lodge), or Tom Hanks, or maybe even see Oprah wandering around. But, no one will bother them here, because Sun Valley leaves the limelight to everyone else.
“Sun Valley still is that ski town that I grew up wanting to someday live in,” Gadd explains. “What keeps me living here is the community and culture that the Valley offers. You can get that big city arts and culture experience, eat some amazing food, and feel like something bigger all without having to deal with any sort of pretentious attitudes.”
As for our canned wine friends, we didn’t see them again until boarding for our flight home. But, we found them just like we met them, with ear-to-ear grins rattling off just how fun their own trip to Sun Valley had been. Sadly, all their wine was gone.
How to Ride:
Where to Stay:
The Sun Valley Lodge is the absolute best place to lay your head at night while staying at Sun Valley. It has both rooms, suites, and condo apartments available to rent, all situated around its famed ice skating rink that you too can take a lap on. While staying at the lodge don’t miss its epic spa and massive heated outdoor pool.
Where to Dine:
As far as historic dining destinations go, few places are as spectacular as The Ram. Though it’s upgraded its menu over the years, it still highlights a few time tested favorites like liver and onions that simply can never be changed. Again, pay a visit to Harshbarger and ask him to play your favorite song.
Looking for a bit of romance? Book a horse-drawn sleigh ride to the historic Trail Creek Cabin. Originally built in 1937, this mountain-style log cabin sits next to the soothing waters of Trail Creek and offers delicious prix fixe meals that will delight even the pickiest eaters.
Bonus meal: Located at the very top of the mountain at Sun Valley visitors will find the historic Roundhouse:. Though it’s open each day for lunch, the restaurant only serves its Prix fixe dinner on Friday and Saturday nights so plan accordingly.
Where to Apres Ski:
Located just a short bus ride from the mountain, travelers can find a bit of post-ski fun at Grumpy’s. Don’t worry, they don’t really live up to their name. They’re more than happy to pour you a beer, wine, or cocktail of choice. And just around the corner from the mountain guests will find Apple’s, the most low-key apres ski destination in Sun Valley. Belly up to the tiny bar for a pint, or, on sunny days enjoy it out on Apple’s patio that looks up onto the stunning mountain above.