World’s Best Ski Resorts: Sun Valley, Idaho

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There are a lot of great ski resorts in the United States, but none can match Sun Valley’s rich winter sports history – this was literally the nation’s first destination ski resort, with the world’s first chairlifts, where the very idea of the American ski vacation was born. Sun Valley changed the paradigm, and immediately became a hot spot for the biggest celebrities, the most important VIPs, and the world’s best skiers (and later snowboarders), and they have all been coming back ever since.

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The story is so colorful it is worth repeating.

Growing up skiing in the Swiss Alps, W. Averell Harriman thought North America needed its own luxurious alpine resort in the style of Gstaad, St. Moritz or Interlaken. Harriman was Chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad, and had seen the model successfully used by the Canadian Pacific railroad of building beautiful resorts like the Banff Springs Hotel, Chateau Lake Louise and Chateau Frontenac, then using these destinations to drive passenger traffic on its trains, a sort of “build it and they will buy tickets” approach to railroad marketing. Union Pacific would benefit by creating a ski destination, so he hired an experienced Austrian skier, Count Felix Schaffgotsch, to scour America’s mountains for a suitable site. The Count rode trains all across the West, passing on since developed ski locales in California, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado, before arriving in Ketchum, Idaho, in 1936, where he was wowed. Construction began almost immediately at a fever pitch, and by the end of the year, America’s first destination ski resort was ready, its highlight being Harriman’s secret weapon – the chairlift.

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Before Sun Valley, every ski mountain on earth, whether tiny community ski hills in New England or the poshest resorts of the Swiss Alps used the same technology, some sort of cable dragging standing skiers uphill, rope tows, J-bars or T-bars. Harriman asked railroad engineers to create a better way to get skiers up, and inspired by machines for loading train cargo, they invented the chairlift. Before the winter of 1936 if you skied, you either walked or were towed up the mountain, so the ability to ride sitting down was immediately embraced as a quantum leap in luxury. Sun Valley opened with the world’s first two chairs, which were such an overnight success that a third was added the following season. This helped create the resort’s swank luxury image, and A List celebrities of the period flocked here, regulars including Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Marilyn Monroe, and Ernest Hemingway, who wrote his classic For Whom the Bell Tolls while staying for several months in the resort’s flagship hotel, the Sun Valley Lodge. The Hollywood trend never slowed, and Sun Valley skiers include Oprah Winfrey, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Hanks, Justin Timberlake, longtime fan Clint Eastwood, who filmed Pale Rider here, and longtime homeowner Bruce Willis.

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Sun Valley was an anomaly in 1936 and still is 80 years later, retaining a distinctive character that sets it apart from just about every other major ski resort in the country. It has been fervently family owned by decades by the Holding family of Sinclair Oil fame, who also have the Snowbasin ski resort in Utah, Salt Lake City’s premier hotel, the Grand America, and were instrumental in organizing the Utah Winter Olympic Games. But Sun Valley was always their baby, and over the years, numerous improvements were undertaken, but always with a close eye on keeping the underlying character unchanged.

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While the resort attracts a lot of celebrities and very wealthy regulars, it is no Aspen or Deer Valley, and in winter people come here primarily to ski. More understated than glitzy, it has a rural flair, with a fiercely self-sufficient mountain spirit among the locals. Sun Valley has a long, rich tradition of sending homegrown talent like Picabo Street to the winter Olympic Games, and was among the first resorts to embrace snowboarding – a resident has represented the sport in every Olympic Games since it was introduced. It is an extremely active place, and when locals are not skiing the downhill runs, they are on the Nordic trails, riding fat tire bikes, or skiing in the backcountry, and in summer it is one of the hottest spots in the country for mountain biking. It’s the kind of place where no one bats an eye at riding the bus, and there are no ski-in/out hotels. One of the reasons the original golf course here is so much better than most ski resort versions is because it enjoys the best real estate at the base of the slopes, prime land usually given over to condos.

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While there is plenty of pricey ski gear from folks like Bogner and Kjus for sale in local boutiques, no one seems to buy it – during my last trip there, in several days of skiing, I saw almost no flashy clothing on the slopes, but rather monochromatic, utilitarian, “real skier” gear from the likes of Mammut, Stio, Mountain Hardwear and Outdoor Research. And when I popped into Apples, the quintessential bottom of the lift après dive bar, the regular crowd included a litany of former Olympians, U.S. Ski team racers, and “ski porn” film athletes.

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