Tucked in the Sawtooth Mountains, the intimate winter ski town of Sun Valley shines each summer with arts, entertainment, recreation, scenery and celebrity sightings
The community of Sun Valley is a tiny piece of paradise tucked into the majestic Sawtooth Mountains in the middle of Idaho. A gorgeous alpine resort oasis surrounded by towering peaks, Sun Valley combines small-town charm with big-city culture and activities while offering superb hiking and biking through thrilling scenery. My husband, Mark, and I have returned there many times with our 36-foot HitchHiker fifth-wheel trailer, and a recent visit reminded us once again that Sun Valley is a little bit of heaven on earth.
Until the Great Depression years of the 1930s, the mountain town of Ketchum (Sun Valley’s next door neighbor) was a busy hub, first for mining and processing lead and silver, and later for sheepherding. The hillsides were rich with galena (lead ore), and wagons pulled by mules wove their way from mine to mine on steep, treacherous roads to deliver supplies to the miners and pick up loads of galena to be processed back in town. When the mining boom faded, sheepherders arrived, and soon Ketchum was the top wool-producing town in the nation. By 1918, Idaho was home to some 2.65 million sheep, almost six times the state’s human population.
Fortunately for tourists more keen on fresh mountain air than wool, Averell Harriman, the Union Pacific Railroad baron, decided to build up the passenger side of his business in the mid-1930s by creating tourist attractions at the ends of his rail lines. He sent an Austrian count out on his trains to find a spot for a world-class ski resort, and when the count stepped off the train in Ketchum and saw the stunning alpine scenery, he knew he’d found the perfect place. In 1936, Sun Valley Resort opened to great fanfare among Hollywood celebrities looking for a chic getaway. Soon it was the “in” place to see and be seen.
Today, Sun Valley Resort throws its doors wide open in the summertime, encouraging visitors of all kinds to explore the exquisite grounds and get a taste of how the other half lives. The walls of the elegant Sun Valley Lodge are lined with photos of celebrities from every era, and we enjoyed taking in the black-and-white pictures of Lucille Ball skating with her kids and a young Arnold Schwarzenegger getting ready to hit the slopes on skis.
As we wandered the streets of Ketchum and rode our bikes to the nearby town of Hailey, we heard endless tales of celebrity sightings and kindness. We were told of Bill and Melinda Gates tending to a fallen hiker on a trail, Warren Buffett offering a ride to a stranded local and Bruce Willis slapping down an enormous tip for a shopkeeper who opened up just for him on Christmas Eve. Everyone we met had tales to tell of celebrities they’d brushed shoulders with.
Celebrities love the Sun Valley area because, even though it has an aristocratic resort at its heart and there are magnificent mansions all around, it is still an intimate small town where the rich and famous can disappear, if they wish, and become regular folk for a while. For the community of Sun Valley, the beauty of playing host to these ultra-rich guests and part-time residents is that they are generous with their money, and the town benefits in spades.
The grand Sun Valley Pavilion is home to the Sun Valley Symphony Orchestra. The open-air venue was built to the tune of many millions of dollars out of stone from the quarry that was used to construct the Roman Colosseum nearly 2,000 years ago. The Sun Valley Symphony is made up of top-notch musicians from many of the best orchestras in the country, and they give free concerts here almost every night in August. You can choose covered theater seating with a great view of the orchestra and fabulous acoustics inside the pavilion, or you can bring a blanket and enjoy a picnic on the lawn, listening to the music broadcast over enormous speakers while quaffing wine sold by caterers scattered throughout the grounds.
I am a softie for Brahms, and what a thrill it was to listen to an all-Brahms concert within arm’s reach of the violin section. But these concerts are by no means a highbrow affair. When it was all over, the outdoor audience was absolutely delighted to see a little girl spontaneously jump up from her family’s picnic blanket and put on an impromptu violin concert of her own, performing free-spirited, down-home country-fiddle music and singing along as she played.
Sun Valley is an active town that encourages visitors to join in the fun. Visiting cyclists are welcomed on the local club rides on the sweeping roads around town, and skaters can don blades to take a turn around the outdoor rink. We were quite thrilled when we opened our trailer door one morning to find our campsite surrounded by plein air artists working on their easels in the Sawtooth National Forest. It turned out that Ketchum’s Kneeland Gallery in town had invited their top 10 artists to come to Sun Valley for a weekend of painting in nature, and all around us artists were re-creating the breathtaking landscapes on their canvases.
These beautiful works were then put on display at Kneeland Gallery, and when we ventured into town to see these new paintings framed and hung on the walls, we discovered that on Friday evenings all the Sun Valley art galleries open their doors for an art walk. As we wandered between modern art galleries and photography galleries and a few filled with sculptures, we were surprised to be handed a free glass of wine every time we crossed a gallery threshold. I admit that by the fourth or fifth gallery, the subtle distinctions between the art styles and artists’ motifs became a little fuzzy.
For those who aren’t into the art scene but who get excited by fast cars, the annual Sun Valley Road Rally is an event not to be missed. When we saw the first edition in 2009, it was a small-time charity event to benefit the Drug Coalition, where locals could pay $1,500 per run to drive their cars as fast as they could on a 2-mile stretch of the Sawtooth Scenic Byway (Route 75) just outside of town. A family took the honors for the day with the mom, dad, son and daughter each taking a turn at the wheel of the family Porsche. The son hit a top speed of 188 mph.
When we saw the Sun Valley Road Rally again recently, not only were the locals caught up in the fun, but six Bugatti Veyron race cars, valued at as much as $2.7 million apiece, showed up from out of town to test their mettle. A handsome white one trimmed with black and gold walked away with the prize, hitting a top speed of 246 mph on the slightly downhill and dead-straight course. The grin on the face of the young owner/driver at the finish line was infectious.
One of the best parts of the Sun Valley Road Rally is that spectators can hang out with the drivers in the staging area or at the car show the day before. My favorite aspect of this event is that people bring all kinds of crazy cars to race. A 1950s open-wheel hot rod hit 98 mph. A 1957 Corvette convertible with the top down clocked 110 mph. Cutest of all, and winning everyone’s hearts for sheer guts and enthusiasm, an 81-year-old grandma rocketed by at 166 mph in her bright yellow Corvette, as the loudspeaker played “The Little Old Lady from Pasadena.” The back of her T-shirt was emblazoned “Go, Granny, Go!”
Over at the outdoor skating rink, competitions of another kind were in full swing during our stay. Over one weekend, an amateur figure-skating competition was followed by a pro competition and ice-show tryouts. First, we watched a slew of eager little girls in pink bows and sequined skirts spinning and jumping before a row of very stern judges. A contingent from Hong Kong had come to compete, and I was amused as I congratulated a seven-year-old on the many medals around her neck to discover that she didn’t speak English.
As soon as the ice was cleared from the amateur competition, a professional competition and audition took place. What a contrast it was to watch young adult skaters vying for roles in the major ice shows and competing with each other for best characterization, best comedy and best theatrics, rather than traditional figure-skating moves. We learned that when the skating rink isn’t hosting competitions, there is an outdoor ice show every summer weekend that features some of the best amateur skating talent in the country, including the top national and Olympic contenders.
We thoroughly enjoyed all of these activities in town, but Sun Valley is located in some of the best mountain scenery the West has to offer, and we wanted to hit the trails and get out in nature, too. The Harriman Trail is a wonderful and easy two-track trail that takes mountain bikers past truly awe-inspiring scenery, and I found myself torn between riding my bike and stopping to take photos. The Lower Oregon Gulch single-track trail is a fast and slightly more technical romp past ever-changing mountain views. Much easier to ride but just as scenic, the communities of Ketchum, Sun Valley and Hailey share 30 miles of paved bike paths that wander up and down all over the place through both town and countryside. If you’re not in a hurry, biking is the best way to get around the area.
Like much of the West, Sun Valley and the surrounding Wood River Valley have witnessed firsthand the horrors of wildfire, and a forest ranger told me that in 2013 the 178-square-mile Beaver Creek fire came frighteningly close to wiping out the entire town. Luckily, the fire was kept at bay, but the ravages and scars are still vividly evident in the forest. The Baker Lake hiking trail passes through some deeply scorched parts of the national forest and is a sobering reminder of just how devastating fire can be. Yet, we found an eerie beauty in the charred tree trunks, and we felt a deep sense of hope and faith in nature when we saw hints of green and small flowers already blooming between the blackened roots.
Sun Valley, Idaho, is a glorious place for an RV trip, with dramatic mountain scenery and one of the most vibrant and energetic small-town communities we have found anywhere. It is an ideal blend of spectacular natural beauty and artsy cultural fun, and I know it won’t be long before our trailer is headed there again.
Sun Valley Camping
The following RV parks and public campgrounds are within 30 miles of Sun Valley. All of the commercial parks are pet-friendly and have full RV hookups, Wi-Fi, showers and laundry facilities.
The Meadows RV Park, Ketchum
Located between Ketchum and Hailey, the Meadows is the closest RV park to Sun Valley Resort.
Picabo RV Park, Picabo
Thirty miles south of Sun Valley, this Good Sam Park is within walking distance of world-class trout fishing on Silver Creek.
208-788-3536 | www.picaborvpark.com
Riverside RV Park and Campground, Bellevue
A quiet mom-and-pop campground on the Big Wood River, less than 20 miles from Sun Valley.
Sawtooth National Recreation Area
The Sawtooths are loaded with exquisite places to dry camp for free for up to two weeks. The visitor center is 8 miles north of Ketchum on Route 75.
Wood River Campground, Sawtooth National Forest
Thirty dry campsites on paved loops next to the Big Wood River, 10 miles north of Ketchum.
877-444-6777 | www.recreation.gov
|Sun Valley Resort
The official website for Sun Valley has the latest event information, maps and more to help visitors have fun in this four-season resort city.
Sun Valley Jazz and Music Festival
The 26th annual festival brings together 40 bands for five days, October 14 through 18, 2015. The Good Sam Club makes it easy for RVers to attend with dry camping at Ketchum’s River Run Lodge and shuttles to the music venues.
|Sun Valley Road Rally
In North America’s only event of its kind, spectators watch racers push their cars to the limit each July on a straight stretch through the Sawtooth National Forest. The seventh annual rally weekend takes place July 24
and 25, 2015.
Sun Valley Summer Symphony
America’s largest free-admission orchestra festival runs August 4 through 19 in a covered open-air venue with theater and lawn seating. The four-concert In Focus series takes place July 26 through 31.
Trailer Life columnist and frequent contributor Emily Fagan has traveled full time by RV and sailboat with her husband, Mark, since 2007. The couple’s photos have appeared on more than 25 magazine covers and wall calendars, and Emily’s lifestyle, travel and how-to articles have been featured in more than a dozen RV and sailing publications. Follow their adventures on their blog, Roads Less Traveled.