Sun Valley is a model of consistency as one of the top ski destinations in North America. Nestled in a quiet, scenic valley in Central Idaho, surrounded by four towering mountain ranges, Sun Valley has consistent snow because of its extensive, cutting-edge snow-making system.
With a 3,400-foot vertical drop and multiple places where you can do top-to-bottom runs (a rare thing), there’s never any question about getting your money’s worth in terms of skiable terrain and tons of vertical feet logged. That’s all between you and the mountain. In 30 years of skiing Sun Valley, I can tell you that the mountain always delivers!
Sun Valley offers 2,054 acres of skiable terrain, accessed by 19 lifts and 121 trails. The mountain stretches from a base elevation of 5,750 feet to a summit elevation of 9,150 feet.
Our friends at ZRankings list Sun Valley's True Annual Snowfall at 196 inches. 36% of the mountain is considered easy terrain, 42% intermediate terrain, and 22% difficult terrain. 8% of the mountain features a south-facing aspect, 37% east-facing, and 55% north-facing.
The lift operating hours run from 9:00 am - 4:00 pm (weather and lift depending).
Sun Valley provides a unique blend of history, charm, a touch of Hollywood, zero lift lines, big-city culture, a multitude of off-slope activities to enjoy, and outstanding lodging and dining options in an unpretentious setting.
Ski Magazine ranked Sun Valley No. 2 among the top resorts in North America in 2020, and this year for the first time, Sun Valley is accessible to more destination skiers by partnering with the Epic Pass. Ski Editors point out that America’s oldest ski resort is remarkably consistent in delivering top quality year-in and year-out.
"Our readers gave Sun Valley top marks in Lifts, Service, Lodging, Down Day Activities, Family, Charm, and Overall Satisfaction. That’s the most No.1’s of any resort—West or East," the Editors said.
GETTING TO SUN VALLEY
Six nonstop flights from Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle provide daily service to Hailey, Idaho, an easy 17-mile drive to Ketchum/Sun Valley. The resort town also can be accessed from the Boise airport, a 2.5-hour trip by van, coach bus or rental car.
Approaching Sun Valley on Idaho State Highway 75, you get excited to hit the slopes, watching the Smoky, Sawtooth and Pioneer Mountains rise to more than 12,000 feet right before your eyes. This is the gateway to the largest expanse of national forest wilderness in the lower 48 states.
Driving Directions: Sun Valley
SUN VALLEY WEATHER
With mountains surrounding the Big Wood River Valley in a north-south direction, Sun Valley tends to get its own unique weather, compared to the rest of Southern Idaho. Ketchum/Sun Valley is located at 5,853 feet above sea level.
The average high temperature in January/February is in the low 30s, and the average low is in the single digits. Staying true to its name, Sun Valley receives an average of 120 days of sunshine out of 150 skier days for the winter season.
Storm systems moving into Central Idaho from the south – Northern California, Nevada, and Salt Lake City – can bring substantial quantities of snow directly into the Wood River Valley. These are usually the most productive storm systems for Ketchum/Sun Valley.
SKIING SUN VALLEY
I woke up to 2 inches of light fluffy snow coating my SUV at Hotel Ketchum in Sun Valley on a Thursday in mid-January. The snow was so light, it fell off the windows of my car like feathers. I looked over at the mighty 9,150-foot Bald Mountain, always a beautiful and intimidating sight. High clouds hugged the summit. I’m always pumped to get a chance to ski Sun Valley – it’s so much fun to cruise the groomers or venture onto black diamonds like Limelight, Holiday and Exhibition.
I started the day with a hearty breakfast at The Kneadery, my all-time favorite place in Ketchum to power-up for a big ski day. I could barely finish the big plate of scrumptious French toast and fresh scrambled eggs. Big healthy portions!
I drove over to the River Run side of the mountain and parked close to the lodge as the lifts were beginning to whirl at 9 AM (parking is free). I got my lift ticket at an outside window of the manor-like River Run Lodge (no line on a Thursday) and walked on the newly swept patio brick surface to the gondola. I thought I’d head for the top of Bald Mountain and rip out a few runs on Ridge or College to warm up.
Then I spied about a foot of new snow sitting there on top of Exhibition, a black-diamond bump run. What the heck! I thought I’d give it a go. I dropped in on my Rossignol Sky 7’s, and the snow felt pretty soft and light. Sweet! I hugged the trees of the bump run and followed a mostly un-skied line, like popping into multiple pillows of fluff, with a few cut-up lines in between. Quite fun, but it’s steep! Three-quarters of the way down, I missed a turn and did a backward 180-degree auger into the powdery slope. Good morning!
I took the Lookout Express quad back up and ripped out some groomers on College, Ridge, Blue Grouse, and Canyon. It felt nice to just let the skis run on the big boulevards, pushing around several inches of new snow. I toured Seattle Ridge, where the true hero skiing happens on green runs that would be labeled blue anywhere else. Skiing on a mid-week day, there was an abundance of fresh powder between the groomers just waiting to be farmed.
I had a lunch date with Sun Valley's PR Director Kelli Lusk at Warm Springs Lodge, so I worked my way over to the top of Bald Mountain via the old fixed-grip Mayday Chair. Nice to rest the legs before the super LONG drop into Warm Springs. Holy smokes, it’s three miles from the top to the bottom!
I started out on Limelight, a black diamond that’s pretty steep. It’s amazing to look down the barrel of the slope, and you can’t even see the bottom … only the next 2,000 feet. Skiing on several inches of new snow, it was super pleasant skiing down Warm Springs to the elegant lodge. Completely refinished after a fire several years ago, there’s a beautiful bar with giant picture windows looking out at the slopes above in the lodge.
I had a bowl of buffalo chili and a slice of pizza for lunch (less than $20), and Kelli had a healthy ramen noodle bowl plum full of veggies.
Sun Valley has been super busy this year, and Lusk thinks it might have something to do with Sun Valley joining the Epic Pass, which provides seven days of skiing or snowboarding at Sun Valley with no blackout dates. Sun Valley season pass holders also receive 50 percent off the one-day window lift ticket price at all Vail Resorts owned and operated destinations.
What’s the unique draw of Sun Valley? "A consistent, quality experience," Lusk says. "We have very few lift lines, state-of-the-art chairlifts, two separate mountains (including Dollar Mountain, a teaching mountain with terrain park features), challenging terrain, and all of our off-piste activities.”
I rode up with the Challenger quad with Chris, who hails from Hoboken, New Jersey, who was skiing Sun Valley for the 10th year in a row with a large group of 50. "I love coming to Sun Valley. The scenery is probably my favorite part, and the culture here is a close second," he said. "I love all the great places to eat and drink in downtown Ketchum … the quality is outstanding, but it’s pretty casual."
Chris' group discovered Grumpy's in Ketchum, a burger and beer place with frosty schooners. My hockey team from Boise used to go there all the time after games. Lefty's is another blue-collar favorite for affordable beers and food, plus the all-important pool table and multiple TV screens tuned to sports channels.
OFF-PISTE SUN VALLEY ACTIVITIES & EVENTS
Skiing Sun Valley is the magnet that brings people here, perhaps staying at Sun Valley Lodge or visiting favorite hangouts in downtown Ketchum like the Pioneer Saloon or Whiskey Jacques. But when you come, make time for a plethora of super fun activities at your fingertips! All of these amenities and activities add value, spice, diversity and even a dash of romance to your trip.
If you like to skate ski, cross-country ski or snowshoe, for example, there are more than 200 kilometers of world-class groomed Nordic skiing trails nearby. The Lake Creek trailhead is super convenient to Ketchum, just a couple of miles north of town, and the Sun Valley Nordic trails tour the golf course toward Trail Creek Canyon, just up the canyon from Sun Valley Lodge.
The Wood River Trail, operated by Blaine County Recreation District (BCRC), and Galena Lodge XC trails, are super extensive! Galena Lodge has excellent soups and sandwiches to cap off the experience. See the BCRC Winter Trails online link for more information.
Not getting enough fresh pow? Sun Valley Heli-Ski offers half-day and full-day skiing adventures for $1,200 and $1,500 per person respectively in the enormous backcountry that lies to the north of Ketchum/Sun Valley. Their operating area encompasses the Pioneer, Smoky, Boulder, and the Sawtooth Mountains.
If you’re a pond hockey player, bring your skates, gloves, stick, and puck with you to Sun Valley. The 2-acre Christina Potters Ice Rink in Ketchum is open free of charge daily for general outdoor ice skating and pond hockey. They also have free loaner skates and hockey sticks available. Outside the Sun Valley Lodge, you can go ice skating during the day or at night. The semi-pro Sun Valley Suns are fun to watch as well.
Even if you don’t stay at Sun Valley Lodge, it’s worth visiting the stately, historic lodge to tour the hallways and soak in a little history.
Large portraits of early Hollywood celebrities (Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe), author Ernest Hemingway, and Austrian ski instructors from the 1940s and 1950s are posted on the walls, along with more recent pics of frequent visitors like Clint Eastwood, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Hanks, Arnold Schwarzenegger and more.
Another super cool add-on is to take a horse-drawn sleigh ride from Sun Valley to Trail Creek Cabin for a romantic outing and yummy dinner. The trip costs $129 most of the winter season, and $159 during peak holiday weekends.
Sun Valley hosts numerous events throughout the winter months, including the Sun Valley Nordic Festival (30K Boulder Mountain Tour, Jan. 29-Feb. 2), Sun Valley Music Festival (Feb. 27-29), and Sun Valley Film Festival (March 18-22). Each week, there could be nationally known authors, musicians, and speakers visiting the community.
Beyond all of these amenities and activities, there are many art galleries to visit in Ketchum and Sun Valley, all kinds of shopping venues for outdoor mountain ski gear, clothing, jewelry and more. The Sun Valley Opera House plays current movies daily, and if you’re really adventurous, you could visit the gravesite of the late author Ernest Hemingway at the Ketchum Cemetery.
SUN VALLEY LODGING
Sun Valley offers a wide array of lodging properties in downtown Ketchum or close to River Run and Warm Springs, hotels and condominiums, RV camping and more. The Hotel Ketchum is a great option in downtown Ketchum and for the 2019-2020 season, Epic Pass holders can save up to 25% on their stay.
Check Visit Sun Valley's lodging page for specials on lodging in Sun Valley proper, either at the Sun Valley Lodge, Sun Valley Inn or condominiums.
SUN VALLEY DINING
I’ve mentioned several dining options above, but for a full listing of options, please see Visit Sun Valley's dining and nightlife page. Prime rib at the Pioneer Saloon is one of my personal favorites, lamb shank at CK’s farm-to-table cuisine in Hailey is fantastic, and my, we have had fun dancing at Whiskey Jacques when they’ve got live music.
Check out VisitSunValley.com for all lodging, event, and other ski-related information.
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This guide was sponsored in partnership with our friends at Visit Sun Valley.
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