Sun Valley can be considered to be the first modern ski resort in America as this is where the first chairlift in America was installed. The resort might not compare to Vail and Aspen in terms of fame, nor could it be like Jackson Hole in terms of notoriety but it is a very nice skiing destination in the United States and since I had a free day ticket that I could redeem in the resort, I jumped at the chance to stopover here while driving back from Wyoming.
The name Sun Valley is actually coined by a marketer and it refers to the ski resort area which comprises of 2 separate mountains. One of them is Dollar Mountain which is more like a hill when compared to the mega ski resorts, and the other being Bald Mountain. There are 2 major towns close to the ski area, one being Hailey and the other being Ketchum. Bald Mountain is actually located in the town of Ketchum.
Located deep in the valley from the main highway, the nearest airport is located in the town of Hailey and from there it is probably another 20-30 minutes drive into the resort. Thus for accessibility it is not the easiest ski resort to get into. In fact its remote location in the state of Idaho is probably why this resort has remained low key, and caters to some really wealthy celebrity skiers who flies here via private jets and stay in their multi-million dollar estates.
Driving there from Idaho Falls took about 3 hours and it is not actually recommended to stay in Idaho Falls and head here to ski for the day since the highway drive is quite remote and far. Furthermore there are some lower cost accommodation in Ketchum or Hailey for those seeking to ski here on a budget.
CHAIRLIFTS & GONDOLAS
For a relatively old ski resort, the resort did make upgrades over the year including a gondola service from the River Run Plaza to the Roundhouse Restaurant located at the mid-mountain level. Skiers still need to take the Christmas chairlift from here to get to the summit of Bald Mountain. The River Run Plaza area area is a larger area that would probably appeal more to skiers staying in Hailey and Ketchum as it is easier to get to. Another way to get to the peak is by taking the River Run chairlift and transferring to the Lookout Express chairlift.
Aside from the Roundhouse Gondola, the Warm Springs base area has 2 quad chairlifts with the Challenger quad chairlift being the longest one as it whisks skiers up to the summit immediately. If the weather is good, it is probably a shorter ride to the summit from Warm Springs as there are 2 chairlifts here with the Greyhawk chairlift reaching halfway up making it perfect for a warm up run.
The resort has more terrain in the Seattle Ridge area which is served by another quad chairlift while a triple and double chairlift will bring skiers back to the summit from Seattle Ridge. Taking the dual chairlift at Cold Springs, I was able to see for myself how bad the snow conditions are in Sun Valley!
Over by Dollar Mountain at the Sun Valley Resort, there are 4 more chairlifts that serves the terrain park and beginner runs.
COST & VALUE
A day lift ticket costs $109 at the resort though they do retail 2 of 3 day, 3 of 5 day lift tickets that makes it easier for skiers who are keen to ski multiple days but not consecutively. However, I had gotten my one day skiing pass free from a Helly Hansen ski jacket promotion that gives buyers one free day at selected ski resorts, and the route back from Wyoming to Vancouver gave me the chance to try this resort. For what it is worth, Sun Valley is now part of the Mountain Collective pass which gives 2 days each at various associated ski resorts and 50% discount on day tickets thereafter.
For the size of the resort, they were slightly on the high side but the ski resort is very nicely equipped and their ski lodges are fantastic with lots of luxurious touches. The fact that you do not really have to share much of the resort with a lot of skiers and snowboarders make it a tad better.
Sun Valley is conceived as a luxury ski resort and it sure caters very well to beginners with nearly a whole mountain dedicated to them. Dollar Mountain closest to the luxury accommodations at Sun Valley Resort has the most green runs and a terrain park. But since I spent the only day skiing in Bald Mountain, I can’t speak much about the runs over on Dollar Mountain.
At Bald Mountain, there are several green run from the summit that traverses over to the River Run Plaza, though I would say this is a more advanced green run but certainly a nice enough run for skiers to experience the whole mountain.
Then over at the Seattle Ridge section, there are lots of green run but to access them is via a blue run. So it might be a bit tough for beginners but I think the Seattle Ridge ski area has some very good runs to practice and bring your skiing or snowboarding up a notch. I did however find the runs here to be a bit too short.
While Dollar Mountain has a couple of blue intermediate runs, Bald Mountain has lots of blue runs and the longest one of them is a combination of blue and green runs over at the Warm Springs Face. In fact, the Warm Springs face of the mountain also has a couple of easy Black runs like Limelight and International that intermediate skiers could probably take to head down to Warm Springs. This area is also one of my favourite place to ski in the mountain as it is geared for fast skiing with multiple avenues downhill so if you’re skiing with a buddy you could even race them down to the lodge.
Another point that made them enjoyable is for the long runs along Warm Springs so it doesn’t feel like you are always queueing for the chairlift, allowing one to gain traction and momentum in ‘getting the hang of it’. I should put it this way, Sun Valley might not be one of the best ski resorts, but the Warm Springs face has some of the best ski runs that I enjoy!
I am by no means an expert snowboarder, but having seen Jackson Hole, the black-rated runs here seems mild in comparison. I was most interested in the bowl overlooking Seattle Ridge.
However the hard packed snow conditions and the lack of snow coverage meant some of these trails were closed. What was interesting was the resort actually installed a horizontal chairlift for skiers to bypass the bowl to make it easier for them to access Seattle Ridge ski area.
There are also some moguls on the Warm Springs face, right under the Challenger chairlift, as well as an easy black run called Limelight. Other black runs are found around the gondola and the Holiday run leading to the Lookout Express, though these are run-offs from green or blue runs originating from chairlifts. For thrill-seekers, Sun Valley would obviously not be the number one spot at all to ski or snowboard, and the last season with low snowfall meant it was really bad since more than half of the black-diamond terrain was closed.
With regards to terrain parks, it is only to be found in the smaller Dollar Mountain which is not connected to Bald Mountain at all so I did not visit it. They did have a smaller jump and tricks area around Seattle Ridge, but that is probably more similar to the resorts in the East.
Probably by this time, most of the enthusiastic skiers and snowboarders would have stopped reading this review since the terrain was just average, and there was a lack of good snow in the season I visited, and etc. But there was something awesome about this resort and it was the on-mountain lodges. For a smaller resort compared to Jackson Hole, it has an amazing array of on-mountain lodges. There is the Roundhouse restaurant at the top of the gondola for starters.
And the Lookout restaurant at the summit peak, which looks a tad small from the outside but quite decent inside.
Though my pick of on-mountain lodges has got to be the one on Seattle Ridge. This day lodge is built in the same style as the River Run and Warm Springs lodge at the base of Bald Mountain. And that means it was luxurious! The washrooms is absolutely spot-free and odor-free, resembling more of the washrooms in a 5-star hotel. These lodges have TV lounges, fireplace, complete with oversized plush sofas and armchairs for lounging and even the main dining room looks like it was transplanted from a chateau with chandeliers and wooden beams.
And they do take guest services very seriously here with a retinue of staff holding iPads gathering opinions from skiers and snowboarders. I participated in one while taking a break after my meal and even got a free pin badge and a coupon for a complimentary hot cider or chocolate. Not bad for 5 minutes of my time that I was spending resting.
FOOD & BEVERAGES
Lookout restaurant was open, as was Seattle Ridge and all the lodges at the base. Since the license plate on Idaho-registered vehicles says ‘Famous Potatoes’, I ordered a loaded baked potato for lunch and while not cheap, it was good. Getting a seat was easy as I had my selection since the ski lodge was probably 30% full. Yes it was that empty with a lot of vacant seats, and no queues at all ski lifts, which obviously translates to no queues at the food checkout counter as well.
There are of course the usual pizzas, burgers, soups and salads in the premises. Though the fare is more restricted somewhat compared to other ski resorts. But the quality and portions seems to be slightly better, while prices are similar to most top-end ski resorts.
Another thing to like about Sun Valley is that there are plenty of choices for lodging. The ultimate luxury accommodation would probably the Sun Valley Lodge which was being renovated when I visited and due to open this coming winter season (2015/2016). There is also the slightly lower rung Sun Valley Inn, but both of these hotels were located in the Sun Valley Resort area which has a traditional village with shops and restaurants but they are about a 15 minute drive from the main town of Ketchum and 20 minutes to get to either the River Run Plaza or the Warm Springs base where the chairlifts and gondolas for Bald Mountain are.
Thus most skiers and snowboarders are better off staying closer to Bald Mountain in the town of Ketchum proper. I picked to stay at Best Western Tyrolean Lodge which is within walking distance to River Run Plaza and probably the closest one. The reason I picked this hotel was for the mileage earning opportunity from hotel chains and the price was reasonable. Free public buses run from town to the base area on both Warm Springs and River Run so being nearer to the mountain allows me to wake up later, and I even got a nice view of Bald Mountain from my room!
There is another Best Western hotel nearer to the town centre in Ketchum and more condo and apartment rentals around Warm Springs base. Thus accommodation choices are quite diverse and would be very suitable for all kinds of groups from families to couples. The only drawback is the lack of some really good properties, like Beaver Creek has a Park Hyatt, Aspen has a St Regis, while Jackson Hole and Whistler are both homes to a Four Seasons property. I think such iconic hotel chains can add to the allure to skiing in Sun Valley, especially considering the luxury focus of the Sun Valley ski lodges.
After ski activities in Sun Valley is perhaps limited to either the resorts in Sun Valley proper or the ski lodges at the base of both Warm Springs and River Run which have a neat outdoor patio. There are also huge TV screens in the dining and bar are at both lodges to watch ice hockey matches after a day on the slopes. However there was no rowdy crowds or any sort of vibe to be had due to how quiet the resort is. The downside is a lack of sporting ambience but the upside is lots of seats to choose from and no need to rub shoulders with anyone else.
Back in town, one of the best spots to have drinks and dinner is perhaps the Pioneer Saloon, and this place is crowded most days so be prepared to wait but they do serve good prime ribs as well if you’re hungry after the wait!
As you may have tell from the lack of snow, Sun Valley does not exactly have the tallest vertical rise of the mountains in the western North America so it is not very high up. That is a good thing since it did not get too cold. Even though it was not the highest summit, the views are pretty good as it is located deep in the middle of a valley so there are lots of mountain peaks around it.
Bald Mountain is the highest point attainable by chairlift at 9150 feet (~2788 metres) and the summit view here is 360 degrees as there is a large area to walk around while at the peak to view all the surroundings.
And over at the Seattle Ridge day lodge, the outdoor patio has good views looking south towards the town of Hailey and other parts that could not be seen from the summit at Bald Mountain.
Given the limited snow coverage and the lack of crowds, my visit felt slightly lacklustre but I still enjoyed myself thoroughly due to the ski runs at Warm Springs section of the mountain and I think in a good snow year, Sun Valley would be like the perfect size for a ski and snowboard vacation with the family. Their positioning in the ski market is somewhat interesting as it separates the beginners and ski school onto another mountain, making the main Bald Mountain a much more relaxing experience for skiers and snowboarders who craves more speed.
Topping all this off, Sun Valley has the most wonderful ski lodges I have seen albeit all these comes at a certain price. If you compare it to some of the top tier ski resorts by statistics, it is bound to lose, but if you want a touch of luxury with your skiing and take it easy at the same time, I think Sun Valley is a great ski resort to visit!