Sun Valley, Idaho

A review by John LaPlante, editor of GraysOnTrays.com
Date written: April 2010
Date of visit: March 2010

Sun Valley might lay claim to being the first “ski resort” in North America. But what’s it like for a snowboarder today?

Recently, I spent a few days at Sun Valley, Idaho, participating in the annual convention of the North American Snowsports Journalists Association.

Members of NASJA gather to learn more about developments in the ski / snowboard industry, honor people for their work in the industry (whether through writing, competing, inventing, managing, and so forth), learn about doing what we do better, and of course ski and ride. In the group, I’m an odd duck. By my guess, only 5 percent of the membership, tops, goes snowboarding on a regular basis, in contrast with roughly 25 percent of all people who purchase lift tickets.

Getting there

Some great ski areas are readily accessible. If you live in Salt Lake City, you can get to some great riding and skiing by taking a local bus. Residents of Denver and other cities on the Colorado Front Range can get to Summit County in something between an hour and a day, depending on weather and traffic.

Other areas, however, require some determined effort. Sun Valley, Idaho, is one of those. True, there is an airport in Hailey, 14 miles away. But I saved a several hundred dollars by flying into Boise, the state capital.

I had a few hours to kill before my shuttle on Sun Valley Stages left the Boise airport, so I took a cab downtown to look around. You can see mountains from downtown Boise. It would have been nice to visit Bogus Basin, which is a short distance from the city.

Unfortunately, my schedule didn’t allow for that.

Boise Mountains

Instead, I paid a quick visit to the capitol building.

Idaho Capitol

It’s done in the style conventional to state capitols, with some impressive white stone.

Idaho rotunda

After wandering through the capitol I ate lunch at Cazba (the gyro was serviceable, but dry) and returned to the airport for the three-hour ride to Sun valley.

 View Larger Map

During trip, I didn’t see much of interest until we got closer, when mountains emerged out of the flat terrain.

On a long and lonesome highway

The Mountain Experience: Dollar Mountain

What is the mountain experience in Sun Valley like? There are actually two mountains used for lift-served terrain, Baldy and Dollar. Dollar is the smaller of the two, with about 600 feet of vertical drop compared with Baldy’s 3,000. Dollar lacks significant tree cover, which was definitely a liability on the day I visited. The skies were overcast, so I could have used the help of some trees to increase the visibility. As it was, I suffered from flat light, so at one point I lost my direction and took a hard slam. The slopes I traveled was labeled “easier way down,” but the descent ended up being very “hard,” in a literal since.

Dollar has a new lodge, called Carol’s Dollar Mountain Lodge. Carol’s is smaller than the lodges on Baldy, but it echoes their class. It you’re feeling beat up from riding and don’t want to walk up another set of stairs after leaving the restroom, take heart: There is an elevator. Several walls feature black-and-white photographs of Sun Valley’s pioneers.

Dollar is also the home to the ski and ride school. I can’t vouch for the quality of the school, but if you’re an experienced skier or rider who wants to stay on site while your child or someone else takes a lesson, your lift ticket for Baldy is good for Dollar. Depending on how you buy your lift tickets (walk-up, part of a package, etc.), you may do well to buy a day ticket for Dollar, since it’s cheaper than a day ticket at Baldy.

It’s good that Sun Valley offers a smaller mountain for people who want a more mellow experience, but it’s not an ideal situation for families or groups with beginners. If you’re a parent with small children, you’ll have to guide them to Dollar (drive or take the bus) and then, if you want some bigger mountain experiences, schlep yourself over to Baldy. It’s also not easy to meet up for lunch if your group splits itself between Baldy and Dollar. There is a decent bus system that will take you from one to the other, but you’ll waste some time in the transition. If you’ve got someone who is learning to ski or ride for the first time, I’d recommend you find another resort.

Here’s something very positive about Dollar Mountain: When I arrived, the ambassador (or whatever they call greeters) was very helpful in giving me a verbal overview of Dollar. He spent way too much time talking about the terrain park. (I do carry a snowboard, but that doesn’t mean I ride the terrain park.) But at the end of my time when I misplaced my gloves, he helped me in my (successful) search for them at the base area. I don’t think I’ve ever gotten that level of service anywhere. He also helpfully suggested I take the Elkhorn bus for a short detour, so I could see the Elkhorn side of Dollar, which was closed due to lack of snow. When Elkhorn is open, it could provide some pleasant, shorter laps.

The Mountain Experience: Baldy

Baldy is the big mountain in Sun Valley, with over 2,000 acres, 3,000 vertical drop and some runs going on for three miles. It’s divided into four major areas: Seattle Ridge, the bowls, River Run gulch and its associated ridges, and Warm Springs.

If you’d like an easy warm-up for the day, skip the gondola and start out at the River Run base and take Lift 1 (River Run). It takes you into the lower portion of River Run gulch, and up 619 feet. The descent from there is mellowest terrain you’ll find on Baldy. If you end up bored, use the snowmaking guns (in the middle of the slope) as slalom gates. You can get a longer warm-up by taking one of two different lift combinations to get to the summit of 9,150 feet (on the map, look for the ski patrol and Lookout restaurant) and then taking college all the way down. Your last segment will be the same one that you get by taking the River Run lift.

Seattle Ridge and the Bowls

Seattle Ridge has six named green slopes, one blue, and one black. Getting there–and getting back out–is a bit of a nuisance for snowboarders, especially low-intermediate riders.

To get there, you’ll encounter one of the most significant challenge that Sun Valley poses for beginning snowboarders: There’s no way to get to Seattle Ridge without taking either a long and winding catwalk (Gun Tower Lane) or a 30-foot wide ridge along the top of the bowls.

Guntower Cat to Seattle Ridge

The GUNTOWER CAT

Guntower Lane winds around, making at least two sharp angle turns before dropping you at the base of Lift 12 (Seattle Ridge).

The other way to Seattle Ridge is to take Lift 11 (Lookout), which sits behind the Lookout restaurant. It’s an unusual lift in that its purpose isn’t to take you uphill, but across a ridge. The lift, which manages to travel 170 feet uphill, is an old, slow, fixed-grip chair. You may get jarred as your chair passes some of the towers, which isn’t a great feeling to have when there’s not so much as a safety bar between you and a drop onto the ground below.

Also, you might get some hearty winds in your face. After all, you’re exposed at the top of a ridge.

The lift takes you past several entrances into a giant bowl area that is divided (on the map) into Little Easter, Easter, and Lookout (in descending order of difficulty). Once you dismount lift 11, you will (if you don’t make a quick turn through one of the gates onto the black-diamond terrain) have a long trip down a ridgeline that is sometimes wider than it may feel. Experienced and even intermediate riders will have no trouble with this route, labeled as Broadway Face (a blue square), but even strong beginners may be unnerved at the thought of sliding down a ribbon with sharp drop-offs on either side.

You can take Broadway all the way down to the Seattle Ridge lift, but if you’re a rider who isn’t used to handling fairly narrow slopes, you might find it easier to bail out into Sigi’s Bowl, which comes before Broadway makes a hairpin turn. If you do choose to follow Broadway rather than drop into Sigi’s or any other bowl, make sure that at least once you don’t follow “easy way down,” Lower Broadway, but instead aim higher and head through the trees. It’s a pleasant road that lets you enter Christin’s Silver about a fifth of the way down. You’ll have trees on both sides of you, and one of the more forested areas of this part of Sun Valley, if not the whole resort. Be sure to keep up speed, though, or you will have a long walk or skate.

Once you hitch your ride to the top of Seattle Ridge, you’ll find a fantastic lodge of the same name, plus a collection of mostly green slopes–though note, the green slopes here are more difficult (steeper) than those elsewhere on the mountain.

Seattle Ridge from Lookout

BROADWAY AND SIGI’S BOWL

Even though Gretchen’s Gold, Muffy’s Medals and Christin’s Silver are all marked as green, they’re a significant step up in the steepness department from the lower portion of River Run. In fact, several ski writers whose judgment I trust compare them to blue slopes elsewhere. They’re wide open and generally flat from edge to edge.

The traffic can get crowded as you get to the bottom, as all of those runs gather together. I felt more crowded there than I did anywhere else on the mountain. On the other hand, there was never a mob at the lift.

Crowds at Seattle Ridge lift

A “CROWD” AT SEATTLE RIDGE LIFT

Here’s another word of caution that applies not only at Seattle Ridge, but throughout Sun Valley: Watch for obscured drop-offs. As I came to the bottom of “Gretchen’s Gold” I noticed a spot where the ground at one edge of the slope appeared to drop off. It wasn’t a 20 foot cliff, but make sure you want to catch air before you do. You’ll find similar but smaller opportunities near the snow guns that line some of the slopes.

If you’re thinking of making laps on the green runs off the Seattle Ridge lodge, be sure, when you get to the bottom of the run, that you don’t stop at the first lift you see. That will be Lift 14, Mayday. There’s nothing wrong with that lift, especially if you’re able to drop into the bowls and ride with confidence. (Given the snow conditions at the time–hardpacked and moguls-filled–I declined). But if you’re not going to drop into the bowls, you’ll have a long trip down the ridge again. Note too that the exit ramp off Lift 14 is fairly steep.

Getting out of the Seattle Ridge and bowl area requires some extra work for snowboarders. There are only two routes out. The long way is the ridge (next to Lift 11, Lookout), a nearly flat approach back towards the Lookout restaurant. The other is to go past Lift 12 (Seattle Ridge) and continue down to lift 4 (Cold Springs), a slow, two-seater that takes you back near the top of the Gondola. As you enter the Cold Springs lift, you’ll need skate uphill in the lift corral.

River run gulch and ridges

The River Run area is home to some of the most mellow slopes, such as Lower River Run. The green slopes down (Ridge and Olympic on one side, College the other) require navigating some cats. You’ll also find steeper but wider approaches into the gully, such as Canyon and Blue Grouse. Then there’s the “Oh sh*t” slopes, notably Exhibition. Not only is Exhibition bumped-up, it’s also steep.

Warm springs

For long cruising runs, start from the Lookout area and head down Warm Springs, which is divided into three different names on the map. The lower half has its own lift 7 (Greyhawk) that takes you up about 1,500 feet from the Warm Springs base. Otherwise, lap the entire 3,142 feet on Lift 10, exhibition.

Tree skiing

Did you know that Sun Valley discourages tree skiing? It says so on the map: “Treed areas are not maintained and skiing these areas is not recommended.” I don’t think anyone expects tree areas to be maintained. After all, many people go into them in pursuit of untracked snow. I was disappointed that no glades are called out on the map. You can, of course, find some trees if you’re looking for them.

The snow

I confess that the snow wasn’t too my liking: Hardpack. Since I live in the Midwest, that should be familiar, but our ski areas generally do a decent job of grooming, which has benefits even after the tracks are gone. Sun Valley does groom some slopes, but those were usually skied off by the time I arrived. Snowmass, perhaps my favorite mountain, has a “noon groom,” whereby they groom a few selected slopes at mid-day. I would have enjoyed one of those in Sun Valley. Now, groomers aren’t the only kind of snow. “Corn” and “mashed potatoes” are good, too, but I saw little of either. In short, the snow reminded me of the hard surfaces that eastern resorts are known for. To be fair, meeting-goers who came from the East said “This is hardpack? What hardpack?”

Sun Valley doesn’t get much snow–150 to 200 inches per year–and this wasn’t a good year. They do have a fantastic snowmaking system, though, which cost millions of dollars to install.

Snowmaking sensor

AIR TEMPERATURE-HUMIDITY SENSOR

The snowmaking system is computerized, with sensors that control ten snowguns, allowing the staff to target specific areas of each slope. Be sure to check out Tony Crocker’s report at First Tracks online of a tour of the snowmaking plant. I was invited to attend the same tour but lost track of time on the mountain, so I’m glad he took some notes.

The people

One thing that impressed me with Sun Valley was the people. It’s cliched perhaps, but everyone I interacted with there was professional and helpful. Several times, employees who saw me staring at the trail map came up to me to give me advice. The lifties were friendly but not overly chatty. In fact, only once in my whole time on the trip did I encounter any employee with an attitude.

On-mountain day lodges and restaurants

For your on-mountain experience, Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain offers two restaurants and three lodges. The lodges contain restaurants, while the restaurants are stand-alone buildings. And in one case, the stand-alone restaurant experience offers cheaper food and an escape from the dreaded stair climb.

The day lodges at Seattle Ridge, River Run, and Warm Springs are all new or recently remodeled. They share a similar design, which might be called “upscale mountain,” with exposed (but light in color) beams, stone fireplaces, and comfortable furniture.

Lodges

The River Run lodge is at the base of the River Run lift as well as the gondola. It’s the place you’ll be dropped off at if you take the Silver bus route.

River Run lodge entrance

RIVER RUN EXTERIOR

Sun Valley exudes history, and that’s true even at the modern River Run lodge. The fireplace has an enlarged copy of a LIFE magazine cover feature Sun Valley from 1937.

River Run fireplace

RIVER RUN FIREPLACE

The dining area is airy and open, offering seating both on the main floor and on a balcony. If you’ve ever pondered “Why are restrooms always in the basement of ski lodges,” ask yourself this: Why are the restrooms in the River Run lodge on the second floor? Here’s a tip, though, if you’d like to avoid the climb: Walk across the plaza to the clothing store (where even “on-sale” items are outrageously priced) and use one of the two restrooms there. They are one-toilet rooms only, so you might have to wait in line.

River Run lodge interior

RIVER RUN DINING AREA

Does the river run near the River Run Lodge? Yes, and it’s the Big Wood River. One day I even saw someone fishing in it, while I was walking out to the free bus that takes visitors around town.

A river runs at River Run

A RIVER RUNS BY RIVER RUN PLAZA

Unfortunately, the day I had my camera with me was not the day I saw the fisherman.

The Seattle Ridge and Warm Spring day lodges have a similar construction and plush furnishings, including comfy leather couches. The Seattle Ridge Lodge, if memory serves, cost about $9 million to construct. The restrooms are on the lower level, though you can ski down to them and use an alternate entrance to a large waiting room that features a large-screen TV. Throughout this lodge I saw several doors marked “private,” and wondered what was behind them. Are they living quarters available for purchase or rent? They would not be the place to stay if the night life were important to you, but otherwise, what a way to complete a trip to the mountains.

The main dining area of the Seattle Ridge lodges features heavy marble tables and leather chairs, and of course a comfy fireplace if you need to warm up.

Seattle Ridge interior

DINING TABLE AT SEATTLE RIDGE LODGE

On a bluebird day, however, you might want to spend some time on the patio, which offers spectacular views, if somewhat less comfortable (though still padded) furniture.

Seattle Ridge lodge patio

SEATTLE RIDGE PATIO

I barely spent any time in the Warm Springs lodge, but I believe it is similar to the other two lodges in its construction, design, and furnishings. The restaurants in all three have cafeteria-style selection areas, if not cafeteria-style prices.

Restaurants

There are also two restaurants, Roundhouse and Lookout. Roundhouse is the destination of the new (2009-2010) Roundhouse Gondola, which rises from the River Run plaza and stops, mid-mountain, at 7,678 feet.

SV Gondola

ROUNDHOUSE GONDOLA

Be warned, once you’ve arrived at the top of the gondola, you’ve got to climb another 51 feet to the lower level of the restaurant, and another 6 or 8 once you’ve gotten there up until the main part of the restaurant.

51 Steps to Roundhouse Restaurant

51 STEPS TO THE ROUNDHOUSE RESTAURANT

Trust me, it’s more work than you’d imagine by looking at the photo. I actually saw skier climb down the stairs walking backwards.

There are, I’ve been told, two levels to the Roundhouse, which has a lot of history, having been opened in 1939. It has table service, and is on the spendy side. You don’t have to be a skier to eat there, but you do have to shell out $20 for a ride on the gondola. You get $10 back in a meal voucher, but only if you spend at least $20.

(Nearly) true to its name, the Roundhouse is nearly round, with a wide panorama of the outside. Unfortunately, the inside isn’t that great to look at, as it has fairly dark furnishings.

Roundhouseo fireplace

ROUNDHOUSE RESTAURANT

I didn’t buy anything here, but I did stop a few times to get a drink of water from the pitcher of water that was sitting on one of the tables. There was never much traffic inside the restaurant when I was there, so I don’t know if I broke any rules of protocol in doing that.

The other restaurant is Lookout, which is near the highest point of the mountain. Unlike the three lodges and even the Roundhouse restaurant, there’s nothing visually impressive or interesting about Lookout (except if you look out onto the adjacent bowl!). It’s a simple, utilitarian one-story building. But riders and skiers should rejoice in that it has only one story, since that means no awkward descent to the restroom.

Lookout Restaurant

LOOKOUT RESTAURANT INTERIOR

The Lookout Restaurant feels like a cross between a cafeteria and an Applebee’s with too-dark upholstery. Unlike the other restaurant and lodges, it has no sofas or even chairs with seat backs. A cheese and beans quesadilla (with a generous portion of fixings, such as onions) will set you back $4.50. Want some meat? Add $1.25 for the chicken and cheese version. It has standard greasy-spoon fare as well, including hot dogs and hamburgers, but avoid the fries, as they’re dry and tasteless. Naturally, if you want to spend more, you can always head to a lodge. I bought a bowl of chili at the Seattle Ridge lodge for $10. It was tasty, but obviously carried a price premium for the building.

What do you get for those extra dollars? Not only do you get pleasant chairs and a fireplace, but you get fancy toilets. At Lookout and Roundhouse restaurants you get restrooms that would fit right in at a Midwestern mom-and-pop ski hill, or maybe a dive bar in your city.

Urinals at Lookout

URINALS AT LOOKOUT RESTAURANT

Step into a lodge restroom, though, and you’ll find a space that is worthy of any high-class hotel, with polished granite (or similar) vanities. The mens’ rooms even extend the granite treatment to the dividers between urinals.

Urinals at Seattle Ridge

URINALS AT THE SEATTLE RIDGE LODGE

And if the call of nature requires a little more time to answer, Sun Valley has you covered, or rather, enclosed in a room of your own, with wooden doors and walls all around. Note that the walls in the main portion of the restroom are marble, or at least meant to look like marble.

Mens room stalls

STALLS AT RIVER RUN LODGE

When it’s time to wash up, you won’t have to settle for the ultra-gross cloth towel that you might get at my home “mountain.”

Cloth Towel Roller

NONE OF THESE AT SUN VALLEY LODGES

Instead, you’ll have granite countertops with mirrors framed by wood, plus plenty of disposable towels.

Mens room sinks

WASHING UP AT RIVER RUN LODGE

Sun Valley has both low-class and high-class on-mountain facilities, then. Use as your day and budget dictates. Know, though, that no where you stop, you won’t have trouble finding water. The soda pop dispensers in the serving areas have their water-dispensing nozzles disabled. Not to worry, though; as you enter the dining area you should find one or more insulated coolers filled with cold water. If you’re super cheap, you can even take a packet of lemon juice and another of sugar for an impromptu cup of lemonade. Remember, when in the mountains, stay hydrated!

Sun Valley Resort

Just because you are going to “Sun Valley” doesn’t mean you’ll end up staying there. Between the town of Sun Valley and Sun Valley resort is Ketchum, with plenty of options for dining, entertainment and lodging.

On the other hand, you can stay at the Sun Valley Resort (as I did), which contains the Sun Valley Inn, Sun Valley Lodge, and other businesses in a setting that feels like its own small village or campus. At the resort you’ll find a spa, swimming pool, ice skating rink, opera (movie) house, restaurants, shops and cross-country center, among other features.

You know that the lodge and inn are first-class outfits from the moment you pull up to their entrances, which are a few blocks apart.

Sun Valley Inn entrance

SUN VALLEY INN ENTRANCE

Even the entrance has a chandelier.

The custodial staff mops the entrance on a regular basis.

Mopped entrnce

Driveway lights at SV Inn

The inn has several meeting rooms, which we used.

SV Inn hallways--meeting rooms

The lodge has the imposing oil painting of Averell Harriman, founder of Sun Valley, its lobby, as well as several dining options. The lodging is noteworthy for the hallway that boasts photos of celebrities who have visited, though most of them are from the distant past, such as Lucile Ball and Louis Armstrong.

Photos of famous people

You can buy some expensive and interesting items in the lodge gift shop, including a persimmon wood golf club head that has been transformed into a whimsical paperweight. Reduce, reuse and of course recycle, right?

SV Inn gift shop

RECYCLED GOLF DRIVERS

For my favorite part of the lodge, you have to head to the basement, where you’ll find a retro-style bowling alley, complete with old floor tile, a pool table and a jukebox. The jukebox isn’t exactly original equipment, as it spins CDs rather than 45s, but it lends a nice touch.

At the time I was there, a game of bowling will set you back $8, with rental shoes included. A resort employee I talked with swore that the lanes had a permanent hook built in, but I never tested his theory. For one thing, I’ve forgotten how to score a game, as you’d have to do here.

Retro bowling alley

Pool table

Summary

Sun Valley, the first ski area in North America to boast a chair lift, is steeped in history. If you’re a history buff, that fact alone makes Sun Valley noteworthy. But the resort’s management has shown a willingness to change with the times, as signaled by its investment in snowmaking technology and most recently, a new terrain park on Dollar Mountain.

If you’re prone to altitude sickness, you can sleep at 6,000 feet and still get 3,000 feet of vertical on a single trip from peak to base. Cruisers and alpine snowboarders will appreciate the long, consistently smooth slopes, but if you’re looking for a large amount of extreme terrain, glades, or even tree-lined slopes, you may be disappointed. Despite the presence of Dollar Mountain, Sun Valley isn’t the best choice for beginners (think of Aspen’s Buttermilk to start with) or parties with people of widely diverging skiing and riding abilities. Still, if Sun Valley fits your profile, it’s worth a visit.

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