The Skier’s Guide to Sun Valley

The Skier’s Guide to Sun Valley

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The Skier’s Guide to Sun Valley

WORDS • SAM TAGGART | PHOTOS • courtesy of Visit Sun Valley

Life in Ketchum, Idaho, in the early 1900s was slow and simple. Following the mining boom of the 1800s, residents of this quiet, rural area turned to ranching to make ends meet. Despite the advent of automobiles and highways, Ketchum and the surrounding Sawtooth Mountains, remained secluded, just an old mining town barely on the map.

However, things changed after the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, in 1932. As alpine skiing gained great popularity in the United States following the global event, and the growing Union Pacific Railroad company sought new ways to bring people west on its railroads, the Rocky Mountains emerged as an ideal location for these ideas to converge.

Union Pacific Chairman W.A. Harriman hired Austrian-born skier and sportsman, Count Felix Schaffgotsch, to survey the land around the Rocky Mountain West in Utah, Colorado, Washington, Wyoming and Idaho. Schaffgotsch’s task was simple: find a spot that would be worthy of the United States’ first ski resort. Exploring acreage around Mount Rainier, WA, Mount Hood, OR, Yosemite National Park, CA, Rocky Mountain National Park, CO, and other notable mountain destinations, Schaffgotsch eventually backtracked to a place called Ketchum, in Idaho, where one Union Pacific employee had mentioned both abundant snowfall and sunshine in a passing conversation.

Upon reaching the sleepy, mining-turned-farming town of Ketchum, Schaffgotsch knew that he’d found the place. The town’s moderate elevation, snowy but mild climate and stunning mountain landscapes proved the ideal spot to break ground for the project. In a telegraph to Harriman, Schaffgotsch described it as one of the most stunning locales he’d ever come across, that “this [location] combines more delightful features than any place I have seen in the United States, Switzerland or Austria, for a winter sports resort.”

Now, there was little conversation about where America’s first ski resort would be, rather how would the idea would come to fruition. Spending $1.5 million to construct a four-story lodge and craft a handful of ski runs in just seven months, Harriman and Union Pacific established the Sun Valley Resort just prior to the winter of 1936. A well-known publicist—who famously turned Miami Beach from a sand dune into a celebrity hot-spot—traveled to Idaho and coined the name “Sun Valley,” where high-brow clientele were encouraged to enjoy “winter sports under a summer sun.”

Fast forward to today and there continues to be that same, undeniable beauty that Schaffgotsch witnessed so many years ago. Tucked amongst a handful of 12,000-foot mountains at the edge of the Sawtooth National Forest, there’s a feeling of escape that becomes evident when one visits Sun Valley. And the soul of the town hasn’t changed a bit. The sunshine and snowfall continues to be plentiful with over 120 days of blue skies and an average of 220 inches of snow annually; the small mountain town atmosphere still reigns supreme; and Sun Valley Resort continues to service some of the most stunning skiable terrain in North America, while backcountry access in the Sawtooth Range is as good as anywhere on the continent.

Spend a night out on the town, chasing your friends around Bald Mountain and Dollar Mountain or a week exploring the vast, skiable backcountry terrain accessible from Sun Valley, including aesthetic lines in the surrounding Boulder, Pioneer and Smoky Mountains, and there’s also a good chance you’ll run into a few professional athletes that call the place home, too. To get the lowdown on this Idaho town from a skier’s perspective, FREESKIER caught up with three of these pros—Karl Fostvedt, Banks Gilberti and Lucy Sackbauer—who each call Sun Valley home for a different reason.

For Fostvedt, snowmobiling through the Sawtooth National Forest and accessing pillow lines, natural booters and bottomless powder snow are enough to make him stay put through the snow-laden winter months in Idaho. Gilberti, on the other hand, splits his time between backcountry trips and hot laps within Sun Valley’s resort boundaries, where he’s able to spin, flip and jib his way around both natural and manicured features with unsettling ease. Lastly, Sackbauer, who balances her full-time nursing job with an insatiable appetite for skiing, finds Sun Valley to be the ideal homebase. Taking turns before work and living just steps from the mountain, Sackbauer is able to find a meaningful equilibrium between work and play, just like so many other residents of the Ketchum-Sun Valley area.

Over the course of the next few months, we’ll be releasing interviews with these athletes about why they are so fond of the place they call home, and why, like so many others, they find themselves always coming back for more.


Hot Water Inn

Newly renovated hostel with ramen noodle bar and regular live music

Hotel Ketchum

Hip, affordable hotel in the heart of downtown Ketchum

Limelight Hotel

Dog-friendly, upscale accommodations with a laidback vibe

Galena Lodge

Various sized backcountry yurts available for rent

Tiki Bar Penthouse

Three-bedroom space above the Board Bin in downtown Ketchum


Sun Valley Trekking

Outfitter providing yurt access and guided backcountry tours

Sun Valley Heli-Ski

Access new terrain in the Sawtooths via guided heli-skiing trips

Sun Valley Suns

Catch a bus to Hailey and root on the local minor league hockey team

Whiskey Jacques’

Bar and music venue with something happening every night of the week

Sun Valley Resort Events

Check the calendar to see what’s happening during your stay


Maude’s Coffee

Locally roasted, damn good coffee and quick breakfast bites


Cheap eats, big beers and relaxed atmosphere

Sawtooth Brewery

Local brewery tap room with rotating drafts and live music


Sun Valley’s quintessential ski town dive bar

La Cabañita Mex

Authentic, affordable, delicious Mexican food