The Alps of America: Sun Valley Offers Stars and Adventure

By Laurie Sammis

Sun Valley is where it all began. As the first destination ski resort in the United States, Sun Valley brought glamour to skiing in America. It is where skiing learned to ski—the world’s very first chairlift was invented here in 1936, and you can still see remnants of it on Proctor Mountain. Today, the resort boasts nine quad chairlifts, three triples, two doubles and one gondola accessing 121 runs and more than 2,400 acres of skiable terrain, plus the largest automated fleet of snow-making machines in the U.S.

At 9,150 feet, Bald Mountain (called “Baldy” by locals), offers a 3,400-foot vertical drop and plenty of options for powder runs in the trees or bowls, groomed trails and runs for every skill level. There is Dollar Mountain’s terrain park, and endless backcountry access in the surrounding Boulder, Sawtooth, Pioneer and Smoky mountains that have earned the area the title “The Alps of America.”
The moniker was not accidental.

Skiing at Sun Valley
Bobbe Bennett, Edmund Bennett, Alvin McCoy and Nelson Bennett. Nelson served as manager of the Sun Valley ski resort when it was a haven for many Hollywood stars. Photo courtesy of Sun Valley Resort.

Sun Valley was founded after Union Pacific Railroad Chairman W. Averell Harriman hired Austrian-born skier Count Felix Schaffgotsch to travel the Rocky Mountain West to find a spot that would be worthy of a first-class ski resort to rival the storied resorts of Europe (think Kitzbühel and St. Moritz). The Count visited Utah, Colorado, Washington, Jackson Hole, Wyoming and many other mountainous regions before discovering Idaho.

Within three days of arriving in the sleepy mining town of Ketchum, the Count wired Harriman to explain: “Among the many attractive spots I have visited, this combines the more delightful features of any place I have seen in the United States, Switzerland or Austria for a winter ski resort.”

Harriman visited and the rest is history. In less than a year, the luxurious four-story Sun Valley Resort was completed and the doors opened in December 1936 to international publicity. After being dreamed up by Harriman’s public relations man, Steve Hannagan—a well-known publicist most famous for turning Miami Beach from a sand dune into a ritzy and sexy celebrity hot spot—Sun Valley was on the map.

See the Stars

Hannagan coined the name “Sun Valley,” marketed it with the image of a shirtless skier and the slogan “enjoy winter sports under a summer sun,” and celebrities flocked to the obscure mountain town in the 1930s and 1940s to see the grand dame of ski resorts. Harriman’s Union Pacific train made it easy with the “Snowball Special”—a direct ride from Los Angeles to Ketchum with a mail car converted into a dance floor and bar cars on both sides. The Snowball Special delivered Gary Cooper, Ingrid Bergman, Errol Flynn, Lucille Ball and Marilyn Monroe. Ernest Hemingway and Clark Gable were regulars. Other celebrities that have frequented the slopes include Clint Eastwood, Tom Hanks, Arnold Schwarznegger, Bruce Willis, Bruce Springsteen, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore.

It isn’t just the Hollywood stars that make Sun Valley famous. Its 1,416-square-mile Dark Sky Reserve is also reason to celebrate. It is America’s first gold-tier International Dark Sky Reserve—recognition for limits of light pollution and the resulting pristine night sky—and the third largest worldwide. There is nothing quite like experiencing the glittering expanse of the Milky Way while wrapped beneath cozy blankets in the back of a horse-drawn sleigh. Sun Valley Resort operates dinner sleigh rides to the historic Trail Creek Cabin during the winter months for a romantic dining option.

Galena Lodge, a historic cabin built from the remnants of a once-booming mining town north of Ketchum, also offers Full Moon Dinners each month where diners can enjoy a snowshoe or nordic ski before or after dinner in the quiet of the Boulder Mountains. For the ultimate experience, book one of the four mountain yurts to stay closer to the outdoors after your meal.

Restaurant in Sun Valley
The Roundhouse Restaurant. Photo courtesy of Sun Valley Ski Resort.

For a bird’s eye view of the night sky, ride the gondola (or for the more adventurous, hike or ski up by your own power) to The Roundhouse for dinner. Perched at an elevation of 7,700 feet on Bald Mountain, The Roundhouse is a historic railroad roundhouse (reassembled on Baldy in 1939) with stunning views of the night sky and surrounding mountains, matched by elegant white linen table service. The restaurant also serves an incredible mid-mountain lunch and some of the best cheese fondue in town.

Explore the Mountains

Sun Valley also lays claim to the first helicopter skiing operation in the lower forty-eight states. Founded in 1966 by U.S. Olympic Alpine team member, U.S. Ski Hall of Fame member and owner of Sun Valley Resort from 1964 until 1977, Bill Janss, Sun Valley Heli Ski still operates today with access to more than 750,000 square acres of terrain for intermediate and expert skiers—making it the largest heli-terrain available in the contiguous U.S. Enjoy 1,500 to 3,000 feet of pristine Idaho powder in small groups, as well as access to the only fly-in heli lodge in the Northwest.
Want something a little closer to the ground? Enjoy the thrill of snowmobiling in the raw wilderness north of Sun Valley based from Smiley Creek Lodge, which is just thirty-five miles north, on the other side of Galena Summit. Originally built as a sawmill in the 1950s, the lodge now provides accommodations and a rustic restaurant, along with a general store, a gas pump and snowmobile rentals and guide services. The lodge is now owned by a team headed up by local brother duo Reggie and Zach Crist, both former U.S. Ski Team members and X-Games athletes. They have assembled a team of trained guides who are ready to provide a safe, guided experience in the surrounding mountains.

Follow a Track

people ice skating.
Ice skating at the Sun Valley Lodge.

If you want something more tame, head to the snowshoe or ski trails around Galena Lodge. They consist of more than 50 kilometers of immaculately groomed Nordic trails for both skate and classic skiing, and more than 25 kilometers of snowshoe trails through forests, meadows and beneath 11,000-foot peaks.
Or, enjoy a few laps around one of the area’s ice rinks. There are three to choose from—the outdoor rink beside the Sun Valley Lodge has hosted Olympic skaters for the famous summer ice shows and rents skates. Nearby, Ketchum Parks and Recreation built and maintains one of the largest non-refrigerated ice rinks in the Northwest, and it’s free for all to participate. The town of Hailey also hosts a non-refrigerated outdoor rink at the rodeo grounds, as well as the ice sheet at Hailey Ice, which hosts public skates. This is the site of the popular and lively Sun Valley Suns hockey team (a group of high-level players from Europe and North America who play in the Black Diamond Hockey League). Their weekend-night home games are not to be missed if you want to feel like a true local.

Laurie Sammis is the publisher and editor in chief of Sun Valley Magazine. She is a lover of world travel, foreign cultures, the arts, languages, birds of prey, wild spaces and all bodies of water, whether fresh or saltwater.

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