Sun Valley. PHOTO: Courtesy of Sun Valley
Sun Valley. PHOTO: Courtesy of Sun Valley

The Tour de Sun Valley

The insider's tour of one of the most historic ski areas in North America

PHOTO: Courtesy of Sun Valley

Fun fact: Sun Valley is a town, a region, and a ski area. The town of Sun Valley is home to the Sun Valley Resort, which includes the lodge, golf course, Nordic skiing tracks, and Dollar Mountain (a small ski hill for beginners, with a big terrain park for the hardpack huckers). A mile or so away is the town of Ketchum that is full of charm, history, nightlife, and local flavor. Towering above the town of Ketchum is Bald Mountain (aka Baldy), the crown jewel of Idaho ski resorts. Together, the resort, the town, and the ski area can all be referred to as Sun Valley.

Taking its rightful place amongst North America's most legendary ski areas, Sun Valley's Bald Mountain serves up a unique and world-class ski experience. Some skiers, however, are quick to dismiss Baldy due to its fancy day lodges, low annual snowfall (220 inches, on average) and absence of cliffs, chutes, and other natural features.

All of which is true, to some extent. Sun Valley’s tree-cut runs and wide, open bowls don't have the same alpine gnarl factor that other more jagged ski areas feature. But don’t be so quick to dismiss Sun Valley. The ski resort, which opened in 1936, has a cemented place in skiing lore, and skiers who have spent time here know this place is legit.

Easy access from town with 3,100 feet of sustained fall-line skiing and a cool ski patrol overseeing an open boundary policy combine to create a no-nonsense ski experience not easily found these days. This is a mountain where skiers come to ski—not to be seen or be a part of something cool. Skiing here is all about feeling the raw and continuous tug of gravity. For once a skier commits to Baldy's uninterrupted fall line and surrenders to her relentless pull, her true beauty is revealed. Here’s all you need to know to make the most of skiing at Sun Valley.

Another spot for your bucket list: Mount Baker.

Looming large above Ketchum, Baldy's proximity to town allows skiing to be woven into the daily fabric of life. Booting up in your home or office and driving or taking the bus for five minutes to the chairlift is a common ritual for most locals. Access is gained from one of two base areas, River Run (located just south of Ketchum) or Warm Springs (a way’s up the neighborhood of the same name). Each has its own flavor and advantages.

River Run is considered the main base area. It’s closest to town. A gondola grabs skiers from the base area and shuttles them quickly to mid-mountain. From there, take the Christmas Chair to the top of Baldy. If you have some newbie skiers or kids, River Run is also the beginner skiing zone. While most locals spend time higher up on the mountain, this area shines when storms come from the south, funnel through the Wood River Valley, and smack into Baldy. After a solid base forms, opportunistic locals tee up Sun Valley’s small dose of technical terrain and some small cliffs, accessed via River Run. Once the south-facing slopes are good to go, River Run ripens for spring skiing. The sun deck in the lodge at the base is prime for late-afternoon rays, too.

Meanwhile, the Warm Springs base area has a more local, neighborhood-hill type of feel. This old-school vibe is juxtaposed with the longest high speed quad in North America. Rising 3,142 feet in just 10 minutes, the Challenger lift is a straight shot to the goods. Strong legged skiers can rack up 25,000 feet of vert on a very long lunch break. During one of Sun Valley's infamous dry spells, the early morning groomers are always buffed out, allowing speed demons to pin it to glory for the 3,100-foot descent.

In the afternoon, when the snow has been pushed around and scraped to the sides of the piste, a nice layer of blower cushions the slope allowing for buttery turns and self-serve faceshots. With no blind rollers or flat spots, runs like Limelight and Warm Springs offer steep, sustained pitches that just keep going. These are big mountain groomers, unfit for straight-lining as there are no run-outs to corral your speed. Once you drop in, embrace the relentless pull of gravity and link high-speed turns for what seems like forever. Your brain may not be used to hauling ass for this long, and halfway down the mountain you may enter a trance-like state where everything slows down despite your continued blazing speed. Ninety seconds after leaving the top, pull into the empty chairlift maze at the base area with legs quivering, face frozen, and ears popping.

Sustained fields of pow, found at Sun Valley. PHOTO: Courtesy of Sun Valley

On a powder day, the upper bowls off the ridge are the first to get hit. High-speed powder surfing is the name of the game. Blast down the ridges, gullies, and lightly spaced trees. While the bowls are the sexy option, savvy locals stick to Warm Springs where they can pound out huge non-stop pow laps from top to bottom. Others search out the shorter vert and more dynamic terrain of the lower bowls, which serve up steep pitches littered with bony cliffs.

Storm Dispatch: A photo gallery of a Sun Valley pow day.

After inbounds gets tracked up and the snowpack is stable, the surrounding backcountry offers beautiful skiing in every direction off the summit. Drop a car at any number of spots to the north, south, east, or west of Baldy and bang out smaller laps by traversing back to the chairlift via a couple of different snow-covered mountain bike trails. Baldy's backcountry zones offer bowls, technical Crested Butte-style billy goating, and some of the most epic tree skiing on earth.