It wasn't long ago that Idaho's Sun Valley was the swankest winter resort in the United States, a fabled high-country retreat where the likes of Clark Gable and Ingrid Bergman came to ski and skate and be photographed building snowmen. You might have run into Ernest Hemingway at the Ram, the resort's most notorious restaurant, drinking Scotch-laced iced tea after a morning working on For Whom the Bell Tolls.Or you might have run into Gary Cooper.
"You'd have to . . . think like a machine to not engrave all this in your head so that you never lose it."
Times change. One evening during a recent visit to Sun Valley, I found myself at the Ram in a wood-grained plastic booth listening to the pianist perform "A Spoonful of Sugar" from Mary Poppins. There were no movie stars in sight, nor did it seem likely that one would soon appear. A waitress in a dirndl dress brought me trout and delicious deep-fried scones with a Matterhorn of whipped honey butter. The baked potato looked like an overstuffed midcentury vision of the good life. It was Saturday night and I was all alone in a sweetly dated restaurant that had once been very glamorous.
And it made me wonder what Sun Valley, America's first great winter resort, stands for in a world where there are dozens of attractive places to spend a week in the snow. Aspen has surpassed Sun Valley as the glitzy wintering spot for the celebrity set; Park City has the big, artsy film festival; California's mountains are more convenient for the masses.
Still, I find I have a soft spot for Sun Valley, the way I have a soft spot for elderly men who wear plaid sport coats to college football tailgaters. And it's not just the luminous history of the place. The countryside here is achingly beautiful, the kind of sage-strewn high desert landscape I love more than I do any other. The recreation possibilities are endless, with skiing and skating in winter and riding, hiking, biking, and bird-watching in summer. The resort itself is charming in a genteel, old-fashioned way. A few celebrities keep houses around here, and every summer the country' s media moguls, from Bill Gates to Oprah Winfrey, congregate for five days of schmoozing and golf. But it is very hard to imagine Leonardo DiCaprio arriving with his entourage; Kate Moss will not be attending the ice show. And if you ask me, that is not a bad thing.
In 1935 Averell Harriman, the patrician chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad, decided that what America needed was a fabulous destination ski resort in the West—a New World Saint Moritz to which Union Pacific would transport Pullman cars full of skiers. Harriman hired Count Felix Schaffgotsch, an old chamois-hunting buddy from Austria, to scout locations. The ideal spot would have plenty of sun and powder snow. And it would be far enough from big cities that people wouldn't just dash up for the day in their automobiles.
Schaffgotsch made a thorough sweep of the West, and reported that Colorado was too cold, Oregon too rainy. Jackson Hole was lovely, but the state of Wyoming couldn't guarantee open roads throughout winter. Just as Schaffgotsch was about to give up, someone persuaded him to pay a quick visit to the tiny old mining town of Ketchum, Idaho.
It was perfect. It boasted "more delightful features than any other place I have seen in the U.S., Switzerland, or Austria for a winter sports center," Schaffgotsch wrote Harriman. Ketchum sat at the narrow end of a long, pretty valley of ranches and mining shacks. It was sheltered on three sides by mountains, protecting it from bitter winter winds. And the slopes of those mountains were largely treeless and skiable. Union Pacific promptly purchased 4,300 acres at $10 an acre, and broke ground on a lodge just northeast of Ketchum in May of 1936.
It was an enormous gamble. Harriman hired one of the world's great publicists, Steve Hannagan, to find a way to market the idea of ski vacations in central Idaho. Hannagan was famous for having "created" Miami Beach by plastering the Northeast with images of tropical sun, golden sand, and bathing beauties. He quickly came up with the name "Sun Valley," and early ads for the resort featured a tanned and handsome young man on skis, shirtless and mopping his brow. Hannagan nixed Harriman's plans for a modest 50-room inn. Who would even pay attention? He envisioned a splashy deluxe resort to which they would coax headline-grabbing celebrities.
Meanwhile, a Union Pacific engineer designed the world's first chairlift—to make its debut on Sun Valley's slopes—basing his plans on the chains he'd seen hauling bananas off ships in New Orleans. The $1.5 million Sun Valley Lodge was finished by December 1936. At the opening, some 300 guests, including Claudette Colbert, David Selznick, and Joan Bennett, sipped manhattans and supped on brioche au caviareand ananas surprisein the dining room of the brand-new resort in the middle of nowhere. Madeleine Carroll and Errol Flynn showed up a few days later. Hannagan's scheme had been brilliant; Sun Valley was an instant hit.
This year marks the resort's 62nd skiing season. (It closed for two years during World War II.) And Sun Valley still regularly ranks near the top of Ski Magazine'spoll of top winter destinations. Respondents cite the balmy weather, meticulously groomed slopes, absence of crowds, and gracious accommodations. Picabo Street, the 1998 Olympic gold medalist in super giant slalom, has called Sun Valley the best skiing in the world. Street's biased; she's an Idaho native who learned to ski at Sun Valley. But people do come from all over the world to ski Baldy, a massive, humpy mountain with wide, generous slopes, 78 runs, and 18 lifts. Atop Baldy (9,105 feet), the view is panoramic. You gaze upon Sun Valley as if you were looking straight down at a small-scale topographic map. It is not for the faint of heart.
In addition to Baldy, Sun Valley—which is currently owned by the Little America Hotels and Resorts—consists of a sprawl of vaguely alpine restaurants, duck ponds, lawns, and shops, where you can buy everything from a jawbreaker to a $275 cashmere baby dress. At the heart of this pleasant pedestrian village—cars are left in lots at the perimeter—there is the massive old lodge. It appears to be made of timber, but is actually reinforced concrete artfully dyed brown and textured to resemble wood. Inside, there are fires crackling in marble fireplaces, 143 plush rooms, two restaurants (one pricey, one moderate), and the Duchin Lounge, a dark and moody bar where the venerable Joe Fos Trio has been performing live jazz for two decades. The walls of the Lodge are decorated with hundreds of black-and-white photographs of all the celebrities who have vacationed here, from Lucille Ball to Leonard Bernstein.
Behind the lodge, a broad terrace overlooks one of the resort's most impressive features: a year-round skating rink where you can take lessons or catch a show featuring Tara Lipinski or Brian Boitano or Nancy Kerrigan. There are two beautiful glass-walled outdoor pools, heated to 102 degrees in the winter; there is a bowling alley, a small movie theater, a gun club, and a superb 18-hole championship golf course. There are 18 tennis courts. Just about everything you would want on a short, sybaritic vacation can be found somewhere on the grounds of the Sun Valley Resort.
But the resort itself holds but a small part of this region's appeal. And winter is not the only time to visit. In the spring Sun Valley is blanketed with wildflowers—lupine, yarrow, sego lilies. There's world-class flyfishing on the Salmon River, and white-water rafting. You can ride the chairlift to the top of Baldy in the middle of summer, have a picnic, and walk down. Or you can hurtle back down on a rented mountain bike. There are horseback riding trips through the dry, quiet hills, and miles of hiking trails.
A five-minute walk from Sun Valley takes you into Ketchum, with its rowdy saloons, trendy boutiques, and Western-style restaurants serving improperly enormous steaks. There's a Starbucks in the 19th-century general store, and a funky bookstore called Iconoclast, where you can buy old first edition novels. Galleries with the work of Western artists abound.
People who live around Ketchum have begun complaining that condominiums and congestion are overtaking their peaceful and rustic community. But by most standards, the area is pastoral; houses haven't even started to crawl up the hills, which are full of antelope, foxes, badgers, and bears.
And then there are the birds. In 1996, Poo Wright-Pulliam looked out the window of her Ketchum-area house and spotted an unusual black-crowned songbird with a yellow brow. She spent hours trying to identify it, and eventually concluded it was a Siberian accentor. No one believed her; Siberian accentors generally divide their time between Siberia and China. But an ornithologist from Idaho State University confirmed that it was indeed a somewhat lost Siberian accentor. Some 1,200 bird fanatics traveled from Sweden and Florida and New Jersey to see it. Some of them were surprised to learn they were but a short drive away from the famous Sun Valley resort. A lot of them also went looking for the magnificent and rare gyrfalcon that is known to winter at Sun Valley.
One brisk fall morning I took a walk with Wright-Pulliam, who now leads bird-watching tours, in the Silver Creek Preserve south of Sun Valley. The trout here grow to eight pounds or more and hover obesely under the bridges; a moose or two sometimes wanders through. Covering 20 feet of path took almost an hour, as Wright-Pulliam stopped to listen to every twitter coming from the dense willow brush. In two hours we identified 15 different birds at Silver Creek. On the drive back we identified 15 more, making abrupt stops to peer through binoculars.
Hemingway was a frequent visitor to Silver Creek, though he preferred hunting ducks to watching them. In 1939, he was wooed to Sun Valley by the publicity-hungry resort, and he liked the place so much he stayed for three months. After that first autumn, he came back between sojourns in Cuba and Europe and Key West, writing most of For Whom the Bell Tolls in Room 206 of the lodge. Eventually he built his own home outside Ketchum, which is where he died in 1961.
Hemingway is interesting because he didn't come to Sun Valley for any of the usual reasons—the skiing, the skating, the celebrity social scene. He came for Idaho. He came for the hills and cottonwoods and trout and sky. Of the countryside around Sun Valley he once told a friend, "You'd have to come from a test tube and think like a machine to not engrave all of this in your head so that you never lose it."
Photos by Kevin Syms and David R. Frazier
This article was first published in January 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
Sun Valley Lodge, (208) 622-4111. Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber of Commerce, (800) 634-3347, has information on air travel to Idaho and area lodging, dining, and recreation. Useful numbers: Sun Valley Resort, (800) 786-8259. Sawtooth National Forest, (208) 622-5371. Tour du Jour bird-watching, (208) 788-3903.