Sun Valley's Warm Springs trail resembles a 4,000-foot downhill bowling alley as I try to stick hard to the heels of Ruben Macaya, director of the Sun Valley Ski Educational Foundation—and my former racing coach. As we hit what feels like mach speed carving down the long, broad boulevard, one refrain overwhelms my thoughts: Sun Valley is exactly as I thought it would be.
Well, mostly. I expected to fly like the wind down steep mountainsides. I anticipated carving turn after turn down perfectly consistent fall-line groomers. I even pictured myself wandering hotel hallways lined with black-and-white photos of Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Bing Crosby and Lucille Ball striking poses on Dollar Mountain, the resort's original hill. What I didn't expect was to bound through powder in funnel-shaped bowls or to slither through steeply pitched glades. And I certainly didn't expect the diverse cultural life, nor the stunning wilderness heliskiing in the nearby silent sprawl of Idaho's Sawtooth Mountains.
Located in south-central Idaho, Ketchum was settled in the 1880s. The once rough-around-the-edges mining and ranching town now shelters mountain related industry (Scott and Icebreaker are headquartered here) and a profusion of urban-quality restaurants and galleries alongside its cowboy bars. Sun Valley debuted in 1936 as America's original destination ski resort. The site of the world's first chairlift, it was both a Hollywood hangout and a ski bum's haven. The Wood River Valley's surrounding landscape is spacious and open, a largely wild expanse of sagebrush, lava prairies and forested mountains that seduced Ernest Hemingway, who lived and died here. It's a distinctive and quirky destination that's high on quality and character, low on crowds, and rich with ways to play—particularly in midwinter, when the snow is at its best and the skiing at its most diverse.
"February is a great month,"says Carl ixon Sr., who began working on Sun Valley's ski patrol in 1967. The normally intense sun the resort is known for "doesn't eat up the snow," he says. This means that Bald Mountain's little-known steeps and treeskiing (located mainly in the lower bowls but also off ridgelines like Steilhang) are open for business. And, after a snowfall, the skies typically clear, and the temperature plummets—"It's common to see it drop 20 degrees," Rixon says—which dries out the snow, creating better fluff several days after a storm.
When there's no fluff or corn, much of Bald's action happens on its famed fall-line boulevards. "It takes you 10 minutes to get up, five minutes to get down, and you've skied 3,400 vertical," says Kipp Nelson, a former Goldman Sachs partner turned early-retirement ski bum. "Every lift takes you right to the top, and it's all right there," he says. "You can head south into the bowls, north down Warm Springs or east down College. The vert you can ski is staggering." Even more, says Nelson, 3,400-foot Bald is a mountain that gives back what you put into it. Easy-cruising skiers—like Nelson's mother—can glide down signature fall-line groomers such as River Run, Warm Springs and International and never break a sweat. Experts like Nelson, a former collegiate racer, can rock those same runs and feel the burn before lunch.
But when it's time for a breather, hit one of Sun Valley's six day lodges. Big timber affairs that range from 17,000 to 30,000 square feet, they boast marble, granite and plush carpeting—even in the kid's bathrooms. The lodges tie together the resort, which sprawls over two mountains and three base areas.
But Ketchum is the true heart of the experience, and one of ski country's best towns. Wander its galleries, bookstores and mountain shops; shoot pool and rock out with Bruce Willis's "garage band" in Hailey, 15 minutes away, where the actor owns a home; or sink into the self-contained world of Sun Valley Resort itself, its circular outdoor swimming pools as glamorous todday as they were in the '30s. That's where—on a snowy evening when the mist from the pools rises up and blends with the fat Idaho flakes drifting down—you can almost see Clark, Errol and Lucille soaking their weary bones after a long, satisfying day on the hill.