I just completed a week’s visit to Sun Valley, Idaho. It was my first skiing experience in Idaho, and I give it a mixed review, though the weather was abnormally bad for making a first impression. But read on, because Sun Valley is something special.
Sun Valley is located in the southern half of Idaho, near the town of Ketchum. I reached it by a three-hour bus ride from Boise, which has a sizeable, and very nice airport. There is also a small airport in Hailey, a short distance from Ketchum, served by Delta and Alaska Airlines.
Sun Valley actually offers two mountains: Bald and Dollar. Dollar is the easier mountain, is treeless, and very small. “Baldy” is much bigger, and where almost all the action is. I didn’t visit Dollar, so my mountain remarks are all based on Baldy. Other historic ski mountains, now defunct, are right there as well, including Ruud Mountain and Protor Mountain.
Bald Mountain rises 3,400 feet from the base area at 5,750 feet to a peak of 9,150. I could find no written statement of the ski area’s size, but an employee told me that it had 2,000 skiable acres; it seemed quite a bit smaller than places that I frequent in Colorado.
I stayed in the condos associated with the Sun Valley Lodge. Despite the fact that our group did not spend more than usual for accommodations, I have never been treated to nicer rooming than I experienced there. The condos were in perfect shape, had kitchens that were better than most of us have at home, had nice fireplaces, comfy furniture, large flat-screen TVs in each bedroom and in the living room, big closets, large windows, and plenty of space. And they had free WiFi, thank you very much.
The employees throughout the resort were unusually helpful, genuinely friendly, and very responsive. Among the employees I saw a larger distribution of nationalities than I have ever seen at a ski resort. The Lodge itself is great, and offers the nicest and largest heated pool I have encountered (dating back to the 30s), with pampering facilities around it. They have bowling and pool in the basement, wonderful lounges with big blazing fireplaces, and comfy chairs.
The Lodge is part of a little village that has some restaurants, a deli, some shops, two skating rinks, a theatre, and other lodging and buildings. The village is joined by little walkways that are heated so that they are free of ice and snow (mostly). A free bus leaves every 15 minutes to take you to the mountain (a five-to-ten minute ride). Another free bus leaves every 20 minutes to take you into the lively town of Ketchum (five minutes), which is full of restaurants and shops, and also real estate peddlers displaying absurd prices.
Some food recommendations: The Roosevelt Grill in Ketchum, the historic Roundhouse for lunch on the mountain (expensive, but good and required once), Bald Mountain Pasta and Pizza in the village “mall.” Also in the village mall: The Ram Restaurant. Not cheap, but well worth it. The oatmeal-raisin cookies sold on and at the mountain are divine. You can get sandwiches made to order at the deli in the village. Locals recommend the hot dog stand next to the lodge at the Warm Springs base as a tasty and cheap alternative to the official mountain facilities.
If you find yourself looking for a jacket or other gear and are dismayed by the prices, check out Bill Mason’s Outfitters, located in the village mall.
On to skiing conditions:
The weather gods had not been kind. The last time measurable snow fell on Sun Valley was January 7, 2007, nearly a month before my visit began. To make matters much worse, the high temperature each day was in the 40s (at a time that much of the country was experiencing unusual cold, no less). A temperature inversion sometimes made it even warmer at the higher elevations.
The combination of high temperatures, lack of snow, mostly sunny days, and active skiers had taken its toll. Though the mountain had seen 89 inches of snow, giving a base of 52 inches at the top and 38 inches at the bottom, many of the black runs were piles of rock and vegetation. The bulk of the blue runs were open, though there were coverage issues on some. It seemed that all of the green runs were open and had decent coverage. The mountain has many snow guns, and that probably accounted for much of the condition on green and blue trails. Lots of the runs were groomed, but often suffered from hard-pack. As the week wore on, the groomed areas became “dust on crust” quickly each day. One inch of snow fell on Thursday, but was not enough to make much difference. Fog on Friday did not improve things.
Bald mountain differs from most of the mountains I have skied in The West. It is steeper than most, with trails frequently leading into narrow valleys. The trails marked green have a pitch that would make them blue at most resorts in The West (and black at Whitetail). That doesn’t mean that trails marked blue and black are that much more difficult. The primary difference seemed to be lack of grooming (though pitch was certainly a factor in some cases). Because of the hard-pack, I found some black runs with bumps easier than some greens that had been groomed.
The funneling of traffic into tight valleys sometimes made the density uncomfortable. This feeling was exacerbated by the apparent complete disregard for slow skiing areas and the attendant lack of enforcement. The areas around the lift mazes tend to be smaller than I am used to, and there are several tight places where trails cross in a worrying way. That having been said, the crowds got pretty small after my first day. At no time did I wait in a lift line for an appreciable time.
The terrain at Bald Mountain is beautiful, owing in part to the verticality that makes the runs steep. Incredible vistas kept me taking photographs throughout the trip. And the mountain itself is spectacular. The first lift that you are likely to take (from the base at River Run), has you riding by wonderful jutting rock cliffs.
The amenities on and at the mountain echo those in the lodge. The word “upscale” applies very well. The buildings are beautiful, heated by big real fireplaces, full of nice furniture, maintained well, often furnished with live music, and serving good food. (The food was not cheap, of course.) It is clear that Sun Valley goes to great lengths to make a visit very special.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Sun Valley drips with history. It was the first major ski resort in North America, and the site of the first three chair lifts in the world (the first two installed in 1936) and the first to have lifts to the very top of the mountain (1939). Sun Valley was the training grounds for Olympic phenomenon Gretchen Fraser and for many other skiing trail-blazers. For great historical reading, check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SunValley,Idaho and http://www.svguide.com/w04/w04_proctor.htm. Throughout buildings in the village, at the mountain base, and on the mountain, vintage pictures adorn the walls. And great pictures they are, most from the 30s through 60s, and some more recent. They feature both the resort and many celebrities enjoying themselves at the resort, including politicians, musicians, athletes, actors, and others. The Roundhouse lodge on the mountain dates from 1937, and looks much as it does in the 1941 movie “Sun Valley Serenade.” That movie, which features many scenes in Sun Valley, runs continuously on one channel in the condos. It’s great fun to watch after getting familiar with the mountain.
And here’s something I’ve never heard of another resort doing: those in our party who did not use up all the days on their lift tickets found that they could exchange the remainder for massages, dinners, movies, gifts, and many other entertainments!
My summary: I had a challenging and entertaining week. On the minus side: The conditions made me enjoy skiing much less than I would have hoped, by removing terrain for me to ski on, by making quite a lot of hard-pack, and by concentrating the crowds. On the plus side: I have never felt so pampered at a ski resort, and I never felt a ski resort to be so special.
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