Photograph by Ray J. Gadd
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A mountain biker rides through the Greenhorn Gulch in Sun Valley, Idaho.
Photograph by Ray J. Gadd

A Summer in Sun Valley, Idaho

While travelers flock to the ski town during winter months, this mountain locale has just as much to offer when the weather's warm.

Sun Valley, Idaho—where the first destination ski resort in North America was established in 1936—may have its roots in winter. But visit during the warmer months and you’ll understand the cliché that resides at the heart of every mountain town: People may come for the snow, but they stay for the summers. Here are a few ways to enjoy the region, which receives some 200 sunny days each year.

Ascend Bald Mountain

Bald Mountain wasn’t the first mountain to be skied when the resort opened in 1936; that privilege went to Dollar Mountain on the other side of the valley. But there’s no denying Baldy’s presence when you’re in Sun Valley. At 9,150 feet, it dominates almost every horizon and is a microcosm of all the things offered in the region. Ride the gondola to the Roundhouse for panoramic patio views out toward the Pioneer and Boulder Mountains. There’s also access to hike- and mountain bike-friendly single-track stretched across six designated trails. The ski resort offers bike rentals, guides, and lessons. The sure-footed, meanwhile, can tackle the Bald Mountain trail, which covers 3,300 feet in five miles. You can hike down, but the real challenge lies in the ascent. And the adrenaline-fueled can sign up with Fly Sun Valley, the only paragliding operation permitted on the mountain, for a tandem ride through the thermals that funnel through the valley.

Visit Sun Valley Lodge

Founded in 1936, the Sun Valley Lodge stood as the centerpiece of the resort and it’s a must-visit to appreciate the storied history of this mountain town. Black-and-white photographs of generations of celebrities and winter-sport athletes—Ernest Hemingway, the Kennedys, Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Warren Miller, Picabo Street, Arnold Schwarzenegger—adorn every wall of the 108-room accommodation, which recently underwent a full face-lift, including the introduction of a 20,000-square-foot day spa. The property also boasts an on-site bowling alley, the iconic Duchin Lounge (complete with live piano music during après-ski), and a year-round ice-skating rink that hosts weekly shows from July through August. The lodge also sits close to the resort’s wide pedestrian walkway, offering access to shopping, fireside coffee, and sweets at the Austrian-infused Konditorei, and the Ram, a modern steak house with some serious pedigree.

Explore the Region’s Living History

Sun Valley came into existence when an Austrian count selected it to be the place to establish the first European-style ski resort in North America. He was commissioned by the then head of the Union Pacific Railroad, which predicted the resort would attract celebrities and then armies of train-riding tourists—which is exactly what happened. In the years since its first ski season, Sun Valley has been a mecca for movie stars, writers, politicians, and other celebrities. But Hemingway in particular felt very much in sync with the place. He plied its waters for fish, roamed the mountain trails, drank more than his fill at the local bars, and finished writing For Whom the Bell Tolls from suite 206 at the Sun Valley Lodge. You can now tour the Nature Conservancy-owned Hemingway Preserve, as well as his grave and memorial in Sun Valley. Or, to tap into the more iconic mountain persona of the region, visit the Pioneer Saloon. It first opened in the early 1940s as a casino, then evolved through several incarnations before settling on its current status as a bar adorned with all matters of Western ephemera (including stuffed animal heads on the wall) and a full-fledged steak house with generous portions of prime rib.

Day Hike Pioneer Cabin Loop

A profusion of dining, shopping, galleries, and outdoor activities make it easy to spend your entire time within the city limits of Sun Valley and neighboring Ketchum, but you’d be doing the region a disservice if you didn’t explore all that easy-access backcountry. The day hike up to Pioneer Cabin is a local favorite, with good reason. You gain 2,400 feet in four short miles, with staggering views of the surrounding Pioneer Mountains. The hike culminates at Pioneer Cabin, which dates back to the 1930s; you can bed down on a first-come, first-served basis, or pitch your tent in the surrounding meadow. Tackle the hike as an out-and-back, or make it an 8.5-mile loop by starting at the more popular Corral Creek trail near the Sun Valley Lodge, or by following the Johnstone Creek trail out of East Fork. Bonus: If you hit peak spring and summer wildflower season, expect the trails to be carpeted with more than 40 types of blooms.

Fly-Fish at Silver Creek Preserve

Those yearning to cast their way into tall tales about Idaho’s famed big brown and rainbow trout should plan on a 30-mile pilgrimage from Ketchum to visit the clear, spring-fed waters of Silver Creek Preserve. Now part of the Nature Conservancy, the same waters that Hemingway once plied offer notoriously difficult fly-fishing. But Silver Creek has more than just angling. The high-desert creek sits at the base of the Picabo Hills and attracts wildlife including eagles, hawks, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, deer, elk, and more than 150 species of birds. Ketchum-based Silver Creek Outfitters runs guided trips to Silver Creek, along with other area waterways.

Spend the Night in a Yurt

The expansive backcountry surrounding Sun Valley bowls you over with its unfettered beauty, but its easy access and profusion of options can also overwhelm. To get a taste without taking on too much, hook up with Sun Valley Trekking for one of their guided multiday treks to the Pioneer Yurt. Start off by hiking up to the luxe backcountry yurt, which sits at 8,700 feet at the edge of a sunflower-choked meadow. Then spend the next day—or several days—on guided hikes in the surrounding region, hemmed in by staggering 12,000-foot peaks and countless on- and off-trail options, before returning to a catered dinner each night, dining in the alpenglow. Prices start at $600 per person per day (with discounts for more than one person), with a two-night minimum. Or if that feels a bit ambitious, you can rent one of the more accessible yurts from Galena Lodge starting at $100 a night—and you can arrange for a full dinner to be delivered right to your yurt. 

Mountain Bike Into Town

Destinations like Whistler, Moab, and Tahoe attract the bulk of vacationing mountain bikers—and that suits the riders of Sun Valley and nearby Ketchum just fine. But you shouldn’t miss out. Witness the Greenhorn to Imperial Gulch route, which laces together two epic trails into one thrilling 14.9-mile charger of an outing. You cross through a swath of willows and cattails, with forests of wildflowers growing up to the edge of the single-track, along with sections of epic downhill and never-ending views of the Pioneer Mountains. Or hit a few local-favorite trails like Fox Peak or Osberg Ridge. Ketchum-based Sturtevants offers tips, trail maps, bike rentals, guides, and shuttles to a variety of trailheads. And be sure to do like the locals by ending any rides back into town with a few beers on the outdoor deck of Lefty’s Bar.

Raft the Salmon River

The more than a hundred inches of snow that falls annually makes Sun Valley one of the top ski destinations on the continent. As all that snow melts, it transforms the area’s rivers into conduits of pretty serious white water. Hook up with White Otter, based north of Sun Valley in Sunbeam, for a half-day rafting adventure on the nearby Salmon River. The Class II and Class III rapids deliver some high-octane thrills without being too over-the-top, and they also offer lunchtime tours, private outings, and guided float-fishing trips. Prices start at $75 per person ($55 for children). White Otter can also accommodate thrill seekers looking to brave the classic Class IV white water of the Upper Salmon River, which typically peaks between mid-May and late June.

Embrace Sun Valley’s Culture

It’s impossible to overstate the accessibility of Sun Valley’s active pursuits, but that doesn’t mean that the area is only about adventure. It boasts more than 20 art galleries, mostly within a small cluster of buildings in Ketchum. Most carry works that subvert expectations; sure, you’ll see a fair share of mountain- and Western-themed work, but you’ll also see a hearty collection of pieces from some of the world’s most revered contemporary artists. The Sun Valley Gallery Association hosts seven walks annually, but if you visit in early August you can also catch one of the free shows held during the Sun Valley Summer Symphony Orchestra Festival, August 1-18. Then all that’s left is to figure out how to make time for a meal at Cristina’s, a local favorite that specializes in the best of Tuscan cuisine.

Swim in an Alpine Lake

Diving into the placid, cold waters of a high-alpine lake ranks as a quintessential mountain experience, and Sun Valley provides ample opportunities to make this happen. A 30-mile drive north of town delivers you to the Titus Lake trailhead, which offers a three-mile round-trip jaunt, which climbs 1,050 feet before reaching the water. But if you want to earn that cold plunge, head to Baker Lake, which has a trailhead 15 miles north of town. Expect a hearty two-mile uphill climb through the White Cloud Mountains before reaching the lake, where you can swim or fish, and then decide to head back, or continue hiking on Trail #138 for a few more miles, deeper into the forest’s high alpine basin.