In recent years, America’s top ski resorts have upped the ante with five-star hotels, slopeside luxury brand collaborations and outposts of pricey, big-city restaurants around town.
But sometimes, the Madison Avenue-in-the-mountains vibe becomes tiresome, and an old-fashioned ski trip is in order.
So last winter I went to Sun Valley.
The Idaho resort had been on my radar for years. Friends raved about its terrain, which ranges from wide-open bowls to tough mogul runs, and the groovy town, where dressing to the nines means sporting a flannel shirt with timeworn Wranglers. That its celebrity culture revolved around the legacy of Ernest Hemingway, who spent large chunks of time here from 1939 until his death by suicide in 1961, added to the allure.
But the challenge of getting to south-central Idaho in less than 10 hours held me back. Direct flights (limited and seasonal) from Chicago to the nearby town of Hailey were introduced in late 2017, so I finally made the trip to see how this mountain enclave has managed to safeguard its small-town charm.
Sun Valley was constructed by the Union Pacific Railroad chairman Averell Harriman in 1936 as a St. Moritz-style winter playground to ramp up train travel to the mountain West. The resort has changed hands only three times since its founding and remains independent under its current owners, the Holding Family, who purchased it in 1977. Robert Earl Holding made his fortune in hotels, and the family also owns the Snowbasin resort in Utah.
Sun Valley consists of two mountains. Bald Mountain sits in Ketchum, where the two-stoplight, 10-street center is lined with locally owned businesses (well, there is a Starbucks, and a tiny Lululemon shop) and, noticeably, no high fashion boutiques. Dollar Mountain, the beginner area, is next door in the City of Sun Valley, along with the quaint Sun Valley Village, home to the Sun Valley Lodge, and a network of shops and restaurants, plus indoor and outdoor ice skating rinks, the local opera house and an open-air theater where the Sun Valley Music Festival unfolds each summer.
Lack of a party scene is one of the resort’s calling cards. That’s ironic because Harriman used celebrities to generate publicity for his newbie resort by ferrying Hollywood royalty like Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe and Janet Leigh out to ski in exchange for paparazzi buzz in the 1930s and 40s.
These days, kowtowing to celebrities is not in Sun Valley’s DNA. Which explains why so many of them like to ski here. “I’ve been at restaurants striking up friendly conversation with my neighbor (both of us in sweats) and later realize that the person is a big-time celebrity,” said Julie Shoemaker, a part-time resident, citing names like Mark Zuckerberg, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Hanks, Demi Moore, Clint Eastwood, Bill Gates and Donna Karan. “Guess what we talked about? Skiing.”
There is no disputing that Sun Valley is a magnet for the rich and famous. The Hailey airport is stippled with private jets, the median home value is $1.2 million, and, since 1983, the town has served as a “summer camp for billionaires” for the investment bank Allen & Company’s July conferences, when industry elites like the N.F.L. commissioner, Roger Goodell, the moguls Jeff Bezos and Barry Diller and the investor Warren Buffett descend to make deals between golf games and hikes. Like many mountain resort towns it has a severe lack of affordable housing.
What’s interesting is that unlike Aspen, Vail or St. Moritz in Switzerland, this resort does not wear its wealth on its proverbial sleeve. The Sun Valley Lodge, the area’s most upscale lodging, has retained its original Tyrolean style with red-patterned carpeting, chunky, anti-minimalist furniture, and framed black-and-white photos of luminaries skiing through the ages lining the walls.
The resort offers no “white glove” services that make snowboards and skis magically appear at the foot of the gondola, or ski concierges to warm boots and help guests wriggle into them. Whether staying at a hotel or condo, everybody piles on the resort’s free shuttle to the mountain. There you’ll find wagons you can use to lug ski gear (and small children) to the gondola from the shuttle drop-off point and then back again in the afternoon. On-mountain lunches are a burger or nachos next to a roaring fire. The most happening après is at Grumpy’s, known for 32-ounce schooners of beer.
A network of ordinances limiting where and how you can build exist “to protect the natural, scenic character and the aesthetic value of the city from the impact of inappropriate development on hillsides, ridges, ridgelines, ridge tops, knolls, saddles and summits,” as the law sets out. Translation? On-mountain mansions, and ski-in and ski-out hotels are prohibited (they block views). And businesses that are too big (there’s a 30,000-square-foot limit) or have designs incompatible with the character and scale of the neighborhood (say a glitzy Chanel boutique) are not welcome.
Lining the streets of Ketchum are shops like Maude’s Coffee and Clothes, which stocks locally made jewelry and vintage clothing, and Independent Goods, which sells items fashioned by indie “makers” that feel untouched by Kardashian-era flash. That feeling is magnified at the Old West watering hole, the Pioneer Saloon. As I sat beneath the taxidermied heads of moose and other local wildlife, observing my fellow bar-goers tuck into Boise-based Western Collective beer and jumbo baked potatoes slathered in sour cream and bacon, it was obvious that this was not a crowd that felt pressured to sport the perfect après ski ensemble.
Alone on the slopes
“Baldy” is famous for its consistent pitch and vertical drop of 3,400 feet. To a nonexpert like me, the terrain was daunting. Once I got going, I realized that Sun Valley’s remoteness (Boise, the closest city, is a 2.5-hour drive away) was a selling point. No day skiers. No crowding at the lifts, even though the resort is available to Ikon Pass and Mountain Collective users. On many runs, I was alone among the snow-kissed Douglas firs.
In the Seattle Ridge area, I cruised down expansive groomers named for local Olympians, including Gretchen’s Gold (Gretchen Fraser, 1948), Christin’s Silver (Christin Cooper, 1984) and Muffy’s Medals (the Paralympian Muffy Davis, numerous medals in 1998, 2002, 2012). All were labeled green but would be considered advanced blues at other resorts.
After a fireside fondue lunch at the Roundhouse, Baldy’s mid-mountain eatery, I decided to test my skills on one of the “easier” black diamond runs. I made my way toward the mountain’s highest point, 9,150 feet, where the bowls are. I took a deep breath, taking in the glorious views of the Pioneer, Boulder, Sawtooth and White Mountain ranges, and whizzed down a ridge to Kaitlyn’s Bowl (named after Kaitlyn Farrington, a 2014 snowboarding gold medalist), for the thigh-quaking, 768-foot descent back into the valley.
The next day, jubilant and sore as hell, I decided to tackle Upper Limelight, one of the steepest pitched groomed runs in the country, according to the resort. After a few laps on Seattle Ridge, I dropped into this short but mighty run, my mind ablaze with mantras: Zipper down the mountain! Long leg, short leg! Pole tap! I arrived in one piece at a cat track that led me over to the Warm Springs side of the mountain. From there, I took a two-mile plunge down 3,140 vertical feet that deposited me at Apples Bar & Grill, a true ski bum restaurant with racing jerseys dangling from the ceiling and faded photos of local ski heroes blanketing the walls.
Again, I marveled at the lack of crowds, particularly in light of the overcrowding that many resorts that are part of the multi-resort pass networks face.
Peter Sonntag, the resort manager, said that as a family-owned destination, Sun Valley could do “things right, which is not always focused on the business outcome.”
That Sun Valley vibe
Sun Valley aficionados cite the vibrant, no-nonsense town and the locals who power it (90 percent of businesses are locally owned) as the resort’s secret. Take the Ram restaurant, still serving its heritage specialties like roast beef (introduced in 1937), Hungarian goulash (1966) and pork schnitzel (1982), along with modern-day dishes like a cider-brined Kurobuta pork chop with stone-milled Cheddar grits topped with apple, quince and star anise chutney introduced by the current chef, Jesse Seldin.
At Michel’s Christiana, a classic Hemingway haunt (he had his last meal there), the Olympic memorabilia lining the walls is as delightful as the famed soupe a l’oignon Lyonnaise. Any night of the week, you can find John Kerry, Clint Eastwood or Jamie Lee Curtis eating alongside locals and former Olympic and World Cup skiers, all hoping to talk about the day’s powder conquests with the owner, Michel Rudigoz, a former U.S. Olympic Alpine Women’s head coach.
When the chef Jeff Keys heard that 20-somethings Tyler Daoust and Morgan Beckley from Harper Woods, Mich., had tied the knot that day (in the snow!) and were splurging on a commemorative dinner at Vintage, his six-table fine dining restaurant inside a cabin, he comped the meal. Just because.
At the resale shop Gold Mine Consign, I rummaged through racks of Versace, Moncler, Bogner and obscure Scottish cashmere, with the owner, Lara Spencer, swapping thrifting stories as women drifted in to nab affordable denim or a vintage Fair Isle sweater. “Movie stars and wealthy women transitioning into mountain life donate their high-ticket items to us. It gives locals access to luxury fashion and makes this a place that people can come to play dress up,” said Ms. Spencer as The Cure thrummed in the background. Once I heard that proceeds benefited the Community Library, shopping felt like a public service. My haul included waterproof La Canadienne boots ($60) and a tags-still-on Obermeyer jacket ($120).
In addition to providing free culture-based programming to the Wood River Valley, the privately funded Community Library maintains the legacy of Ernest Hemingway. To encourage ongoing creative work, the library initiated a residency program in 2019 that offers writers the time (usually two to three weeks) and space to hone their craft at the Ernest and Mary Hemingway House and Preserve.
On top of having a tranquil perch to write, participants, who have included the novelist Rebecca Makkai, the poet Richard Blanco, the film producer Naomi McDougall Jones and the memoirist Cheryl Strayed, also do community outreach in the form of lectures or writing workshops. I was fortunate enough to tour the house and see the many artifacts and ephemera, including a handwritten poem by Archibald MacLeish from 1926, and ceramic tiles depicting bullfighting scenes brought to Idaho from Spain, preserved from Hemingway’s time out west.
I came. I skied. I dined. I shopped. Sun Valley’s sense of tradition, I discovered, had an extra perk: It warded off influencers, throngs of selfie-snapping non-skiers who flock to glamorous alpine destinations in the name of content creation. Here, there was no party and no fancy-pants scene to entice them. I hope it stays that way.