As Sun Valley, Idaho, approaches its 75th anniversary, things keep going downhill—in all the right ways.
The year was 1935, and Union Pacific Railroad Chairman W. Averell Harriman had entrusted an Austrian royal, Count Felix Schaffgotsch, with locating the perfect site for a winter resort—one able to lure East Coasters aboard Harriman’s trains for a Western ski vacation beyond compare. The count dismissed Yosemite, Mount Rainier, even Aspen, until finally fawning over the snowcapped terrain surrounding tiny Ketchum, Idaho, declaring, “It contains more delightful features than any other place I have seen in the U.S., in Switzerland or Austria, for a winter sports center.”
To anyone walking through Sun Valley Lodge, it’s clear the count made an inspired choice. Every wall is lined with black-and-white photos of the celebrities who flocked to the resort after its December 1936 opening, including Gary Cooper, Lucille Ball, and Ernest Hemingway (who holed up in Room 206 to pen For Whom the Bell Tolls). They were lured to south central Idaho by the wonders of this winter fantasyland: moonlit sleigh rides, a heated swimming pool, an outdoor ice rink, and the world’s first chairlifts—designed by a Union Pacific engineer—which carried guests up the slopes in unprecedented style.
Today it’s the Roundhouse Gondola and a series of high-speed lifts that whisk me to the top of Bald Mountain (or Baldy, as it’s affectionately known)—a 9,150-foot summit that literally takes one’s breath away. Beginner slopes can be found on nearby Dollar Mountain, along with a ski school and terrain park, but here on Baldy it’s all about the 3,100 feet of vertical drop. Pair that precipitous fall line with groomed runs and no-wait lifts and you’ve got a mountain in motion.
After a morning of infinite inclines, I locate the one flat spot on the mountain: a table at the Roundhouse, the historic 1939 restaurant where skiers can dine on elk loin and schnitzel while enjoying the four-sided fireplace. Fortified by fondue, I attempt an “intermediate” run that has me zigzagging between deep moguls and snow-dusted pines. By slope’s end, I am awed by Baldy. It’s no wonder the mountain inspired Warren Miller’s earliest ski films and served as the primary training ground for Gretchen Fraser, the first U.S. skier to win Olympic gold.
Dinner at the Trail Creek Cabin is equally memorable, beginning with a horse-drawn sleigh ride through the snowy woods. When we reach the 74-year-old abode, it glows with rustic gemütlichkeit, complete with an accordion player who merrily pumps out everything from “Edelweiss” to “Yakety Yak.” We take our seats alongside festive families and order up Idaho trout and Hemingway meat loaf. The red wine flows, and before long neighbors are exchanging stories and bouncing strangers’grandchildren on their knees. The accordionist tosses a red-checkered napkin over his head and launches into a raucous version of “Hava nagila.”
Morning breaks crisp and bright—perfect for exploring a 124-mile network of trails that’s said to feature some of the best Nordic conditions outside Scandinavia. I set off above Trail Creek, the wintery stillness broken only by the occasional schuss of Lycra-clad couples gliding past in unison. As I fishbone up a short slope, I am vaguely aware of the Trail Creek Course hibernating beneath my skis, waiting to greet the warm-weather travelers who will come to play its 18 Robert Trent Jones Jr.–designed holes, hike and mountain bike in the hills, and take in the resort’s summer ice shows, featuring Olympic skaters such as Sasha Cohen and Evan Lysacek.
At sundown, I bring my ski-honed appetite into Ketchum, a former mining town whose Old West ambience and big-city convenience appeals to modern celebs including Tom Hanks and Demi Moore. Ketchum’s culinary offerings range from Asian tapas to upscale Italian, but tonight I’m drawn to Sego, where chef Taite Pearson concocts hearty dishes such as house-cured bacon flatbread and beef strip loin with smoked blue cheese. As happens in a place as small as Sun Valley, my waiter is the same friendly fellow who fitted my skis on Baldy. As we talk, he’s clearly zinged about the resort’s new general manager, Tim Silva, the rainmaker credited with turning California’s Northstar-at-Tahoe into a hot spot for young families.
Silva is an obvious choice for a resort seeking to bring new blood to its famed slopes, and his efforts with the revamped ski school and cutting-edge terrain park have caught the attention of the college crowd. Yet he freely admits, “There’s something magical about Sun Valley, and that comes down to tradition.” And while Sun Valley certainly needs to keep up with the times, what sets it apart from Whistler, Vail, and other megaresorts are its anachronisms: horse-drawn sleigh rides and accordion players, hot buttered rums and doo-wop groups in the lounge, cheery staffers who smile, hold doors open, and offer to fit your ski boots by hand. Three-quarters of a century after it was dreamed up as the country’s first winter playland, Sun Valley still gets the fantasy just right.
Photography courtesy of Sun Valley Chamber of Commerce (2) and Sun Valley Resort (3)
This article was first published in January 2011. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.