How to Spend a Winter Weekend in Idaho’s Sun Valley

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Since the 1930s, Sun Valley has served as a relaxing winter retreat for Golden Age movie stars like Clark Gable, influential American authors like Ernest Hemingway, and later modern-day A-listers like Clint Eastwood. Nestled in the Wood River Valley of central Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains, this scenic region—anchored by the city of Ketchum—helped give rise to ski vacations as we know them today by pioneering now-commonplace niceties, like luxury on-site lodging and restaurants.

With its walkable downtown and beautiful setting along the Big Wood River, Ketchum is an all-season destination for outdoor enthusiasts, art lovers, and history buffs alike. But in the snowy winter season, this region really sparkles—both figuratively and literally. Here’s how to make the most of a trip to Sun Valley.

Getting there

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Flying into Friedman Memorial Airport in nearby Hailey, Idaho, is the easiest way to get to Sun Valley, and there are non-stop winter flights here from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle, Salt Lake City, Chicago, and Denver. Rent a car at the airport, or catch the free bus into Ketchum; many hotels in Sun Valley also offer complimentary shuttles for transport to and from the airport and the ski resort. Or, for more of a road trip, fly into Boise and then rent a car for the two-and-a-half-hour drive to Ketchum.

How to Spend a Winter Weekend in Idaho’s Sun Valley
© Nils Ribi Alturas Lake Outlet at Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve
How to Spend a Winter Weekend in Idaho’s Sun Valley
© Ray J. Gadd/Sun Valley Resort Chairlift at Sun Valley Resort

What to do in Sun Valley

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In the winter, the region’s biggest draw is downhill skiing and snowboarding. Sun Valley Resort, which invented the world’s first ski chairlift, is home to two distinct mountains: Bald Mountain, also known as “Baldy,” is a 9,150-foot-tall peak with a mix of beginner, intermediate, and advanced terrain accessible from 13 lifts. Dollar Mountain, which tops out at 6,638 feet and has just a handful of mellow runs, is best for kids and beginners. Both are easily accessible from Ketchum and from the resort’s many lodging options.

For travelers who enjoy a slightly slower pace on the snow (and a good workout), the ski resort also offers 25 miles of groomed cross-country trails, as well as uphill access on designated routes when the chairlifts aren’t running. Sun Valley offers lessons and gear rentals for downhill skis and snowboards, Nordic skis, and snowshoes. There are also several rental options in Ketchum, including Sturtevants, PK’s Ski and Sports, and Black Tie. To ditch the lift lines completely, tap a guide like Sun Valley Heli Ski, Sun Valley Guides, and Sawtooth Mountain Guides to hit the region’s vast backcountry terrain.

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Sun Valley also sits within the 1,416-square-mile Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve, the country’s first “Gold Tier” Dark Sky Reserve (the highest designation awarded by the International Dark-Sky Association), so it’s worth it to stay up late and go stargazing. Since there’s such little light pollution in the region, it can be as simple as going outside and looking up, but there are also more structured programs and events throughout the year. Sawtooth Botanical Garden, for instance, is hosting farm-to-greenhouse “New Moon” dinners this winter, complete with telescopes and astronomers for making sense of the night sky.

Though it’s a small town, Ketchum is brimming with arts and culture, including live theater, visual arts, concerts, and annual festivals and events. It’s home to the Sun Valley Film Festival, Ballet Sun Valley, the Sun Valley Museum of Art, the Sun Valley Jazz & Music Festival, and more than a dozen galleries.

Wandering through the Blaine County Historical Museum in Hailey and the Regional History Museum in Ketchum (maintained by the library) is also a great way to get up to speed on Sun Valley’s transformation from a sleepy, sheep-ranching community to a world-renowned ski destination. Hemingway fans can visit the Hemingway Memorial or his gravesite at the Ketchum Cemetery, then take a free audio walking tour to learn about the author’s deep love of this region.

Downtown Ketchum is lined with boutiques, outdoor outfitters, and other locally owned shops, like Huck & Paddle for home decor and gifts and Chapter One Bookstore for finding your next read.

How to Spend a Winter Weekend in Idaho’s Sun Valley
© Dev Khalsa Southeast Asian-style plates at The Rickshaw

Where to eat

First thing in the morning, grab a table and soak up the mountain ambiance at The Kneadery, a cozy, log cabin-style restaurant that’s been a Ketchum staple since 1974. Or, to get a jumpstart on the day’s shopping, sip an espresso while perusing the vintage and contemporary garb at Maude’s Coffee and Clothes. Be sure to save room for the fresh, scratch-made soups, salads, sandwiches, and Tex-Mex street tacos at Rasberrys, a popular bistro and catering company run by twin sisters Callie and Maeme Rasberry.

The Rickshaw is a beloved neighborhood restaurant in downtown Ketchum that serves up Southeast Asian-inspired small plates like chili-oil udon noodles and “K.F.C.,” the eatery’s cheeky name for Korean fried chicken. During the warmer months, diners can play ping-pong on the restaurant’s shady, tree-covered patio while they wait for a table. Other spots to bookmark include The Covey for dry-aged steaks, Enoteca for wine and Italian fare, and Cookbook for daily specials and seven-layer cake.

Belly up to the bar at the Pioneer Saloon, a classic Sun Valley watering hole that’s brimming with Wild West artifacts and memorabilia. Also be sure to stop in for a drink at Warfield Distillery & Brewery, which makes a selection of craft brews and spirits like organic whiskey and barrel-aged gin.

How to Spend a Winter Weekend in Idaho’s Sun Valley
© Kevin Syms Limelight Hotel Ketchum
How to Spend a Winter Weekend in Idaho’s Sun Valley
© Kevin Syms Limelight Hotel Ketchum

Where to stay

When it opened in 1936, Sun Valley became the country’s first destination resort-style ski area thanks, in large part, to the Sun Valley Lodge. With its unique X-shaped layout, luxurious decor, and heated outdoor swimming pools—a novelty at the time—the lodge helped solidify Sun Valley’s reputation as a glamorous destination and skiing as an activity worth planning a vacation around.

Of course, it also helped that Sun Valley offered complimentary stays to celebrities like Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Lucille Ball, and Hemingway (who finished For Whom the Bell Tolls in the lodge’s suite 208 in 1939) to help promote the resort. Today, travelers can wander among black-and-white photographs of the star-studded slopes in a hallway just off the lodge’s lobby or book a stay into one of the lodge’s celebrity suites, which are tastefully decorated with archival photos of the rich and famous who vacationed here. The sophisticated, 108-room lodge got a complete refresh in 2015 and includes a 20,000-square-foot spa that’s perfect for easing aching muscles after a day on the slopes.

In late 2016, the region got its first new hotel in two decades with the opening of Limelight Hotel Ketchum, which has 99 modern, upscale rooms and suites, plus 14 multi-bedroom condos, located in the heart of downtown. With its stylish, mountain-inspired decor, massive windows for letting in natural light, views of Bald Mountain, and living room-style restaurant and bar, the Limelight is an ideal home base for exploring Sun Valley. You’ll find locals munching on wood-fired pizza and listening to live music at The Lounge on weekends in the winter and summer. The Limelight also has a modern art collection and a fleet of bikes for guests to ride around town.

Hotel Ketchum, on the other end of Main Street, is another welcome Sun Valley newcomer. The boutique hotel’s contemporary, curated aesthetic and on-site taco and tequila lounge, Barrio 75, make it a prime pick for a girls’ trip or a romantic weekend away.

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