Idaho’s storied playground is marking its 75th birthday.
A wonder-world of green meadows, deep forests, and endless mountain vistas, Sun Valley is awash in fresh air and dry sunshine. As cute as it can be, the sparkling alpine paradise is tucked into a corner of the Wood River Valley that includes the tiny towns of Ketchum and Hailey, a dozen miles apart.
Sun Valley was the brainchild of patrician Union Pacific Railroad Chairman Averell Harriman who was looking for ways to build passenger traffic to the West. Harriman commissioned young Austrian royal Felix Schaffgotsch to scour the Rockies for a grand American resort location. After the likes of Aspen, Yosemite and Mt. Rainier were passed over the count “discovered” Ketchum, a dying mining town in south central Idaho.
Within days Harriman purchased 4,300 acres ($10 an acre) of what was to become Sun Valley. Seven months later at a cost of $1.5 million, a timeless four-story lodge was constructed on the former Brass Ranch lands, and ski runs (featuring the world’s first chairlift) were carved out of Dollar and Proctor Mountains in the winter of 1936. The first destination ski resort, Harriman dubbed the lodge and its facilities Sun Valley and it soon became known as the “American Shangri-La.” Today, the walls of the Sun Valley Lodge are lined with smiling black-and-white photos of Hollywood royalty who flocked to the winter resort, including Gary Cooper, Errol Flynn, Clarke Gable and Ingrid Bergman. In 1939, Ernest Hemingway was holed up in Room 206 where the clickety-clack of his Royal typewriter keys finished off “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” his classic novel of the Spanish Civil War.
Still home to a stable of Hollywood stars, Sun Valley and Ketchum have become a splendid summer and autumn destination with endless recreation possibilities. In late June the Roundhouse gondola whisked my wife Jane and I to the top of Baldy Mountain (or Baldy, as the locals simply call it)-- a 9,150 foot summit that literally takes one’s breath away. We ate lunch on the patio at the Roundhouse restaurant known for its panoramic view, a four-sided fireplace and spoke-wheel timber beams. One of the first ski-mountains to introduce large-scale computerized snowmaking, it uses 575 snow guns that constantly groom Baldy’s superb skiing conditions.
You can tote your mountain bike on a gondola up to the top of Baldy for 28 miles of biking and hiking trails with everything from challenging uphill climbs to extreme downhill switchbacks covering over 3,000 vertical feet. Just across the road from the lodge take a hike on a five-mile trail system around the new nine-hole White Clouds golf course with beautiful views of the valley. The most heralded Sun Valley hike is the one to Pioneer Cabin from Corral Creek. It’s about 7.5 miles round trip through the dry, quiet hills that involves a 2,400-foot elevation gain.
The Sun Valley Lodge welcomes visitors with polished elegance and old world charm. Inside the handsome lobby you can enter the Duchin Lounge that features live music or dine at the outdoor Gretchen’s Restaurant named for Gretchen Fraser, the area’s first gold medalist in skiing.
The lodge offers 148 French-country guestrooms where you can watch the classic movie Sun Valley Serenade-- it is on continuous loop. There are a wealth of amenities from ice skating on the gorgeous outdoor rink to bowling, to spa treatments and relaxing in the enormous outdoor 102-degree pool, as well as viewing the ice sculptures at Gretchen’s and the real live swans in the pond out front. Behind the lodge is a stunning year-round skating rink where we met two-time Olympic bronze medalist Kim Navarro who was gliding over the ice. A $40 million entertainment pavilion showcases top-flight concert performers.
The Sun Valley village is steps away from the lodge, dotted with alpine restaurants, duck ponds, boutiques and adventure sports shops. A bell rings from a tower over the Opera House. Eateries range from the casual Bald Mountain Pizza to The Ram, the oldest authentic restaurant. Konditorei coffee shop serves up breakfast (try the amazing homemade oatmeal), pastries, espressos, iced-coffee and ice cream.
Ketchum was once dependent on sheep and mines for its survival. These days the arts are now an essential reason people choose to live in and visit the Wood River Valley. At Frederic Boloix Gallery count on seeing masters like Picasso and Matisse, as well as the stunning works of Spaniard Salustiano who uses a special pigment, up to 60 layers, in his exquisite red portraits. Kneeland Gallery serves up colorful landscapes by artists that live out west in styles from realism to impressionism. Western art dating to famed photographer Edward Curtis who fashioned magnificent, luminous portraits of American Indian life can be found at the Broschofsky Gallery.
The Sun Valley Center for the Arts is the heart of the local art scene. Their mission is to “provoke and stimulate the imagination while opening hearts and minds.” They do this by offering exhibitions, lectures, classes and performing arts events that touch on issues relevant to our times and by bringing some of the world's most interesting artists, writers and thinkers to their small community far from urban art centers. The Center’s wine auction, now 30 years old, is one of the nation’s top ten charity wine sales.
The wood-frame cottage, circa 1885, that is home to the Ketchum Grill dates back to the town’s first boom industry—silver mining. Owner and chef Scott Mason serves up entrées like grilled Black Canyon Idaho elk, braised Idaho lamb shank, and duck with mountain huckleberries. Over at the Sawtooth Club they utilize natural wood cooking that generates the intense heat which sears in the flavorful juices and imparts a variety of subtle tastes and aromas to its seafood, game and enormous steaks. With its long, welcoming bar and cozy fireside couches it is one of the more popular watering holes in town.
With a chic modern-alpine design and a beautiful stone fireplace Ciro is an ideal spot to “uncork and unwind.” It’s owned by Washington D. C. transplant Mark Caraluzzi. Ciro’s features 25+ wines by the glass, Neapolitan-style pizza (try the smoked trout), roasted-grilled meats and fish, entree salads, pasta dishes and house-made desserts. Around the corner pay a visit to a funky bookstore called Iconoclast where you can buy first editions of Hemingway books.
A romantic hideaway since 1937, back in the day Hemingway staged star-studded parties at Trail Creek Cabin. After enjoying a summer cocktail at the outdoor bar that overlooks the rushing creek, we enjoyed a dinner of smoked Idaho mountain trout with goat cheese, and Hemingway meatloaf (best meatloaf dish ever). During the ski season horses with jingle bells trot through moonlit snow, pulling a sleigh over small wooden bridges, past starlit brooks to Trail Creek Cabin.
A stone’s throw from the restaurant is a memorial with a bronze bust of Hemingway for admirers to enjoy. Sun Valley was the piece of American landscape that “Papa” loved best of all. Hemingway vacationed here much of the last 20 years of his life. It was not a happy ending. The Nobel Prize winning writer’s hard-driving, turbulent over-the-top life ceased at age 61 when he killed himself with a shotgun blast on July 2, 1961 at his Ketchum home.
Hemingway rarely wrote about Idaho. It was his autumn refuge. At his Ketchum home from 1959-1961 he completed “A Moveable Feast” and worked on the bullfighting classic, “The Dangerous Summer.” Hemingway wrote in the morning and hunted most afternoons. One of his sweetest spots was Silver Creek. A clear, spring-fed stream, trout here grow to eight pounds or more, pheasants and ducks soar overhead with bull elks bugling in the hills. In 1975 Hemingway’s son Jack spearheaded the Nature Conservancy’s acquisition of the Silver Creek Preserve. Today, Silver Creek is considered a model for community-based conservation.
For more information call 208-726-3423, or www.visitsunvalley.com