Sun Valley’s Renaissance

Courtesy Visit Sun Valley

America’s oldest ski resort is undergoing a major makeover.

The January day I spent touring Bald Mountain, Sun Valley, Idaho’s main ski resort, was nothing short of picture-perfect: Sunny and relatively crowd-less across 2,154 acres of top-notch terrain—the kind of conditions that play a supporting role in an epic Warren Miller film. I zipped uninhibited across the best snow the mountain has seen in a decade. “It’s hero snow,” one ski patrol member told me. “Everyone looks good on it.”

As America’s oldest ski resort, boasting some of the best slopes in the continental U.S. (as judged by its consistent pitch), it’s a miracle Sun Valley has remained off the American ski resort radar for so long. Its location near the town of Ketchum—a shrunken, less Chanel-studded version of Aspen, more rugged than refined, sitting at the foot of Baldy—helps the area stay out of the limelight: a hidden-in-plain-sight secret kept by those in the know.

But a makeover currently unfolding may have Sun Valley back in the spotlight, just in time for the resort’s 80th anniversary year. In March, the resort will host the US Alpine Championships this March for the first time since 1951. New openings, including the first new hotel in over two decades and a microbrewery, as well as the first season of the newly refurbished Sun Valley Lodge (1 Sun Valley Rd.; 800-786-8259) are no small bid to regain the enthusiasm skiers once had for the famed southern Idaho slopes. In other words, Sun Valley wasn’t always such a secret.

In the 1930s, when Averell Harriman, chief of the Union Pacific Railroad, wanted to give passengers a reason to ride the rails, he sent an Austrian count to the mountains to find a resort location that hit his specific criteria: on the train line, far enough from a city to force overnights, snowy but sunny, and preferably not too cold. He found it in the high-desert mountains around Ketchum, a former mining town long passed its industrial prime. The lodge, the resort’s first hotel, was constructed in 1936, and celebrities (Ernest Hemingway and Marilyn Monroe frequented) were invited to enjoy the new the area—gratis.

And while Hollywood has maintained its quiet fondness for the place (“Nobody bothers them here,” said ski instructor M.P. Loewy, “they’re treated like everyone else,”) the lodge’s outdated style (small rooms, dark lobby, few technologies) has trumped its historic appeal as newer, more modern and easily accessible ski areas (Aspen, Vail, Park City, Jackson Hole) siphoned the enthusiasms of the skiers in search of more modern amenities—and glitzier après-ski opportunities.

Now, as a result of the renovations revealed in June, luxury is coming to Sun Valley and to Ketchum. The new 108 rooms, down from 148, feature spa-like bathrooms, dressing areas roomy enough for ski gear, and multi-room suites. It also expanded with a 20,000-square-foot spa dispensing healthy après-ski remedies, like milk-and-honey baths and hot stone massages.

Outside the resort, the new Warfield Distillery & Brewery (280 N. Main St.; 208-726-2739), maker of organic-malt beers and clear spirits while its whiskey and brandy come of age, opened last summer, and the existing Sawtooth Brewery (631 Warm Springs Rd., 208-726-6803) has just moved into a new, larger location, adding a pub-style restaurant. And more development is coming: Aspen Skiing Company is building the Limelight hotel set to open in November—the first new hotel built here in 23 years—and Auberge Resorts has staked a sign on a neighboring parcel.

Seekers of the anti-Aspen have little to fear (so far at least) of the changes in the area, where on a recent Saturday afternoon the sprawling town library was the busiest place in town. Even more luxurious upgrades aren’t likely to replace the laidback atmosphere Sun Valley is known for, nor do these changes presage overcrowding—at least not yet. 

Photo Credit: Ray J. Gaddd / Courtesy Warfield Distilery