SUN VALLEY, Idaho — Dennis Harper works his magic in the mountains of Idaho, blending water and compressed air to create gunpowder gold. Harper and his team of 14 work around the clock during winter months to run the world’s largest automated snowmaking system. From command central — a cement building mid-mountain off Sun Valley’s Roundhouse Slope trail — they oversee 578 snowmaking guns, 38 miles of underground steel pipe, cooling fans, pumps, weather stations, and a sophisticated computer system that monitors the entire operation.
“We’re just snowmaking nerds,” said Harper, the resort’s director of snowmaking.
“Or snow farmers,” added his colleague Shawn Aicher, as he pored over a computer map of the 2,100-acre resort that displayed his “flock”: the location of 106 snowmaking guns in operation across Bald Mountain, and another 47 guns on standby.
“It used to be that we were looked down on,” said Harper. “Now, we’re seen as heroes.”
Thanks to the efforts of this snowmaking team, the resort had 42 runs open when our family visited right before the holidays, while many West Coast ski areas struggled to remain open. That’s rarely an issue at Sun Valley, local friends and relatives assured us. We soon understood the appeal of this laid-back, unpretentious destination that has been drawing Olympic downhill and Nordic skiers, world-class ice skaters, celebrities, dignitaries, and regular ski families like us to the region for more than three-quarters of a century.
Sun Valley and neighboring Ketchum (two towns one mile apart) lie in south-central Idaho, tucked in the middle of the Northern Rockies where the closest city (Boise) is a 2.5-hour drive away and there’s so little light pollution that the area has been designated the country’s first Dark Sky Reserve. Here, Starbucks is the only chain around, philanthropic donations help fund many of the area’s top services (including the free library and the country’s largest free symphony), and it’s not uncommon to find yourself soaking in natural hot springs, down a dirt road outside of town, with a famous actor and his family, as we did.
“If Utah and Colorado are Hawaii, Sun Valley is Tahiti — it’s less mass market and flashy here,” one of our local friends told us.
The resort opened in 1936 after Averell Harriman, chairman of the Union-Pacific Railroad, scouted the country looking for the perfect spot to open a self-contained destination ski area. He envisioned a place not too close to a metropolitan area (so people wouldn’t leave town to shop), not too high above sea level (where it would take people too long to acclimate), and with plenty of snow (a majority of the snow-removal budget for the Union-Pacific line was spent clearing the rails between Ketchum and Shoshone).
James Curran, Union-Pacific’s lead engineer, came up with the idea of building a chairlift by watching workers load bananas onto trains in Central America using a lift-like conveyer system. When Sun Valley opened, it introduced the world’s first chairlifts (you can still see the remnants of one on Proctor Mountain).
Today, the resort consists of two mountains: Dollar Mountain, a very manageable and family-friendly ski area with 22 runs, a 628-foot vertical drop, multiple terrain parks, and a new terrain-based learning area. Bald Mountain, or Baldy as locals call it, has 100 runs, a 3,400-foot vertical drop, a gondola that whisks people up to midmountain, more than a dozen bowls, and stunning views of four distinct mountain ranges surrounding it. A word of warning, as we quickly discovered: Most green (beginner) runs at Sun Valley would generally be rated blue (intermediate) runs at other resorts, and blues would be rated double blues or blacks. We found this out the hard way.
We spent our first day on Dollar Mountain skiing as a family. The sun lit up the dry and barren hills around us, and grass patches poked through the snow along each run, but Harper’s snowmaking guns had created powdery conditions on the slopes. We started on the easiest runs off the Quarter Dollar chair and then our kids, beginner to intermediate skiers, sweet-talked us into taking them up the Dollar Chair. They had both tackled terrain much harder than what we found on Sepp’s run — a green run — yet our son Sam, 6, froze at the top and insisted it was too steep to ski. I talked him down the slope, turn by turn, and he eventually made it to the bottom.
Hoping to boost Sam’s skills and confidence, we put him in ski school the next day, which has introduced a new Terrain That Teaches program this year. The beginner’s area has embankments, a series of rolling hills and, in one section, a 300-foot-long, 2-foot-wide spine running down the slope — perfect training tools. Instructors use these features to teach people of all ages how to balance, weight their skis, and maneuver along uneven terrain.
“The spine teaches them that they have two skis and need to shift their balance,” explained Tony Parkhill, Sun Valley’s director of snowsports. “It helps develop muscle memory, and it shortcuts the learning process through experience. We put you in the enhanced terrain and have you do it, so it’s more of a ‘follow me’ approach instead of a didactic ‘do this’ learning experience.”
When we picked up Sam after his first day of lessons, he said, “I did professional jumps!” and then showed us how he had learned to ski along and jump off the spine running down the slope. Then he guided us down Sepp’s run again — this time at high speed, with no stops, on parallel skis with only an occasional “pizza stance” on turns.
While Sam took lessons, my husband, our daughter, and I hopped the shuttle over to Baldy and explored that mountain with Allan Patzer, who’s been at Sun Valley for 47 years and leads free guided mountain tours at 10:30 a.m. Sundays to Thursdays. We rode the lift over hillsides of exposed glacial schist and sagebrush while Patzer told us about the geology and history of the area and gave us an overview of the terrain. He also showed us where legendary filmmaker Warren Miller shot his first ski movies — among the old Douglas firs in a gladed area called Central Park — pointed out the cheapest place to grab lunch on the mountain (Lookout Lodge has create-your-own tacos starting at $5.25), and took us to the westernmost boundary overlooking a new area opening next year. Sun Valley plans to add 380 acres in Cold Springs Canyon, which will include open bowls, steep chutes, and gladed runs, and a new detachable high-speed quad.
“What IS this thing?” my daughter Grace, 8, asked as we rode the two-person Cold Springs chairlift — the mountain’s oldest — up to Roundhouse Restaurant one day. “It’s so tiny and slow!”
“It’s historic,” I tell her, of the vintage 1970s lift. “It will make you appreciate the high-speed quads.”
The historic Roundhouse Restaurant, located on a knoll at 7,727 feet, became the mountain’s first day lodge when it opened in 1939. The octagonal-shaped building has been built onto over the years but marks the perfect place to stop for a fondue lunch overlooking the original stone fireplace in the heart of the building and views of Ketchum and the valley below (take the gondola up to here, if you’re not on skis).
In fact, Sun Valley’s on-mountain lodges set it apart from many ski areas. Step into the Seattle Ridge Day Lodge, located at 8,800 feet, or the two base lodges — River Run Plaza and Warm Springs Day Lodge — and it feels like you’ve entered someone’s cozy upscale home. All have a rustic but classy feel with massive white pine beams, hand-dyed carpets, marble bathrooms, and oversize chandeliers. Seattle Ridge Day Lodge, at 8,800 feet, offers stunning top-of-the-world views of the surrounding mountains and the Wood River Valley.
We soon discovered plenty to do off the slopes. Our kids fell in love with Sun Valley Lodge’s 1950s-style six-lane bowling alley, which has shoes as small as toddler size 7, keeps score for you (a bonus with kids), and offers smaller pub-style meals and snacks. We watched “Coco” one night in the historic Sun Valley Opera House — the only people in the village’s entire 344-seat theater — and then returned the next night for a sold-out holiday performance that drew resort guests, locals, celebrities, and Santa, much to the kids’ delight.
We wandered around the lodge looking at old black-and-white photos of famous visitors, such as Marilyn Monroe, Gary Cooper, Lucille Ball, and Ernest Hemingway, who finished “For Whom the Bell Tolls” in suite 206. Some afternoons, we took a dip in the round outdoor saltwater pool, which was heated to 98 degrees and the perfect depth for a budding swimmer.
One of the village’s biggest gems lies right out the lodge’s back door. The Sun Valley Outdoor Ice Rink has drawn Olympic and world-class skaters since it opened in 1937 and remains open to the public year-round. During public skate times, you may see beginners like us inching our way around the rink, with more graceful gliders and local competitors practicing their moves. Olympians and other world-class skaters have performed here in the Sun Valley on Ice show every summer for decades.
Several afternoons, we took the free shuttle into Ketchum to poke around this easy-going mountain town, where outdoor retail shops, thrift stores, and one-of-a-kind restaurants abound (don’t miss Grumpy’s — a perfect spot for a burger and beer — which the kids loved because of the sign that said “Sorry, we’re open”). A friend let us in on a local secret: the Gold Mine, a thrift stop in town where another friend scored a Bogner cashmere sweater for $20 and my husband found a like-new Arc’teryx sweatshirt for $18 and ski boots for $24. Legend has it that someone once found a diamond in the pocket of a pair of donated shorts. The store gives its proceeds to Ketchum’s Community Library (insider tip: you don’t have to be a resident to have a library card, and you won’t get charged overdue fees).
The level of philanthropy in town runs deep. Private donors help fund the Sun Valley Summer Symphony, making all concerts free for the public, and a majority of the costs to build Ketchum’s new state-of-the-art performing arts center came from local philanthropists.
We spent our final day in search of real snow about 20 miles north of Sun Valley in Galena, where there’s a Nordic ski shop with rentals and plenty of trails. This whole region is known for its cross-country skiing, with hundreds of kilometers of groomed trails stretching from south of Hailey (home to the Sun Valley airport) north through Ketchum, Galena, Stanley, and beyond. Trails sprout from small parking areas along Route 75 in the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and branch out around the area’s forests, rivers, and lakes.
Historic Galena Lodge, built in the 1920s, has 50 kilometers of groomed Nordic trails — so good that Olympic competitors come to train here — a kid-approved sledding hill and free sleds to use, Nordic ski rentals for all ages, and free trail passes for anyone under 17 years old. Add to that a cozy restaurant with gourmet sandwiches and soul-warming hot cocoa, and friendly rescue dogs that often gaze down on diners from a second-floor window.
We didn’t get too far along the trails, since it was our kids’ first time on Nordic skis, but we had fun blazing our own trails beside a trickling stream, digging out a massive fallen log, and making snow angels. Sam even got a shot at skijoring, when a snowshoer handed him the leash to his dog and the dog briefly pulled him along until he face-planted.
“I want to stay for a thousand more days,” said Sam, as we packed up to leave that afternoon.
I knew we would be back, though, for summertime fun (we hear the hiking and mountain biking are epic), or more winter adventures. One thing was sure: Come winter, Harper and his crew would make sure we had plenty of gunpowder gold underfoot.