A snowboarder rides through a Sun Valley powder stash.
Photo courtesy of Sun Valley Resort
Finding the black diamonds,
on and off the slopes
Tony Evans, Sun Valley Guide
One of the primary selling points for Sun Valley is the lack of lift lines on the wide-open terrain of Bald Mountain. Another is the region's abundant back-country ski and snowboarding opportunities. Some people come here to mix at parties, see the arts and eat specialty cuisine. And others come mainly to ski and ride. We call them the Experts.
Where to stay
If you are one of the purists who come to Sun Valley to make as many tracks as possible each day—if you are here to take advantage of the 3,000-foot vertical drop on Bald Mountain, one of the longest continual vertical drops in the U.S.—then you will want to get up early and get to the top of the hill without a lot of fuss. With that in mind, there are several vacation-rental agencies in the area that put Experts in a warm, comfortable condominium with easy access to Baldy.
• Options for rental agencies include Coldwell Banker Distinctive Properties, High Country Resort Properties, Sun Valley Resort, Thunder Spring, and Wyndham Vacation Rentals and Sun Valley Ultimate Services.
• Visit Sun Valley, a branch of the Sun Valley visitors bureau, can also help visitors find a condominium (or house) in close proximity to the part of town best suited to your tastes.
• The Kentwood Lodge is in the heart of Ketchum.
Up on the hill
The River Run side of Baldy, including Seattle Ridge and the bowls, is generally sunny in the mornings, whereas the Warm Springs side is shaded in the morning and sunny in the afternoons. The high-speed quadruple lifts on both sides of the mountain, known affectionately as "the quads," will get you within striking distance of the bowls, which are where everyone in town goes on a powder day.
The expert ski runs on the River Run side of Baldy include Fire Trail, Exhibition, Inhibition, Olympic and the upper bowls. On the Warm Springs side, Limelight and International are steep groomers, while Upper Hemingway and Upper Cozy will likely offer some bumps. There are also quite a few steep, narrow shots under some of the ski lifts if you don't mind having an audience.
Veteran Baldy skier, former ski racer and author Dick Dorworth says it is best to hit the slopes at 9 a.m., when few people are on the mountain, "except on a powder day."
If you are lucky enough to get to the top of the bowls when the rope drops after a night of snow, Experts can be part of the free-for-all that takes place for the next few hours as powder hounds go to work.
However, Sun Valley is known more for its exceptional grooming than its powder. To carve some classic Sun Valley corduroy, be sure to get on the mountain early.
"The groomers on Baldy are as good as it gets," Dorworth said.
There is also great out-of-bounds skiing off of Baldy, but you have to know where to go, and where to turn to get back to the lifts, or where to leave a car if you are straying out of bounds. However, out-of-bounds skiers do so at their own risk—there is no ski patrol there and avalanches can occur.
Turkey Bowl and Lime Kiln off of Seattle Ridge to the south are favorites, as well as Cold Springs to the east, but these routes can require a long hike out. Another popular area is The Burn west of Warm Springs, an area cleared several years ago by the Castle Rock Fire.
Backcountry skiing and boarding has taken off in the Sun Valley area in recent years. Get some local knowledge, including avalanche conditions, before grabbing your skins and avalanche beacons and heading out into the mountain ranges north of Ketchum.
Sawtooth Mountain Guides rents a winter ski hut and offers professionally guided backcountry ski trips a 30-minute drive from Ketchum. Sun Valley Trekking also provides backcountry trips, and has several yurts for rent during winter, all within reach of great skiing.
If you are looking for a true adrenaline rush, call Sun Valley Heli Ski, a company said to be "steeped in tradition." Sun Valley Heli Ski, based in Ketchum, pioneered American helicopter skiing more than 50 years ago, whisking powder aficionados from a heliport north of Ketchum to the big, wide-open territory covering three mountain ranges.
Of course, it's hard to say which days of your stay will be the best for skiing on Baldy and which days should be spent doing something else. So, Experts can take advantage of Sun Valley Resort's multi-day lift-ticket packages. In case of unfavorable weather conditions, you can opt out of Baldy for a day and trade that day's lift pass for a massage, ice-skating session, three-course meal at The Ram or a shopping discount.
For alpine skiers, Pete Lane's Mountain Sports, PK's Ski and Sports, Sturtevants, Sturtos Hailey and Formula Sports offer wide selections of gear and apparel. All of the ski shops offer tuning services, as do specialty shops The Waxroom and Ski Tek. For those venturing into the backcountry, head for Backwoods Mountain Sports and The Elephant's Perch in Ketchum.
Apres-ski experiences can begin at the River Run base of Bald Mountain, where live entertainment is offered during high season, but take your boots off and head to Main Street if you are looking for variety. The Cornerstone Bar and Grill is located in the only building on the historical registry in town (1884). Excellent happy-hour cocktails are served at an ultra-modern bar that changes color, causing newcomers to wonder if they have had enough.
If you need a respite from town and have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, you can take the beautiful seven-mile drive west of Ketchum for a soak in Frenchman's Bend hot springs. The springs are located in Warm Springs Creek on the left after crossing an iron bridge, nearby to several upscale homes. There are no services there, but locals tend the rocks, adjust the water flow and keep the place clean year round.
Where to re-energize
Assuming you want to cut fresh tracks or carve corduroy as soon as possible, you can head straight to the bottom of River Run or Warm Springs lifts and have breakfast at one of the lodges, beginning at 8 a.m. There will be plenty of time to get on the lift by the 9 a.m. first chair. Luckily, Sun Valley Resort also serves fine lunch buffets at Seattle Ridge on the far side of the bowls, and at the Lookout, on the summit of Baldy.
If your main interest is in loading up on carbs for the next day on the slopes, why not gorge in the plush and romantic décor of Il Naso Italian restaurant, or sit down at the new Enoteca on Main Street, which serves wood-fired pizzas, artisanal cheeses and has a lively bar. East of Main Street, Cava Cava offers great cocktails, a good wine list and a variety of Mediterranean-inspired dishes.
Must-dos for experts