Why Sun Valley Keeps Winning Best Western Resort From ‘Ski Magazine’
In the ski industry, there is no more important ranking than the annual one Ski Magazine puts out, and in that ranking, there is no higher honor than Best Resort North America. Idaho’s Sun Valley has won that lofty title the last three years running (2021-2023, the 2024 awards should be announced soon).
I’ve been to nearly every place in the country that can justifiably call itself a “destination ski resort,” many of them several times. By this I mean a place worth getting on a plane and taking a weeklong vacation to. I had visited Sun Valley a few times over the years, summer and winter, but not since they began racking up this lofty title annually, so this year I returned to see what the fuss about – especially curious for a place that famously does not change much. After all, Sun Valley was literally the nation’s first destination ski resort, inspired by early European spots such as Gstaad and St. Moritz. Its many loyal fans revel in the fact that it has remained timeless, old school and independent (the passionate family owners also have Snowbasin, UT, another quirky, big, wonderful, award-winning and under the radar mountain). But it turns out the resort has quietly kept making itself better and better.
Sun Valley was created to woo a Hollywood and society audience, and to this end the entire resort was purpose-built for comfort, user friendliness and laid-back luxury. To set it apart from every competitor on earth in terms of creature comforts, the founder literally invented the chairlift, and when Sun Valley opened, it had the first two in the world. Before that, if you wanted to ski down, whether in Colorado, Vermont or Zermatt, you walked up, or were dragged by some sort of rope or cable.
The resort also opened with its flagship hotel, the Sun Valley Lodge, which has been dramatically improved in recent years to remain one of the best in skiing. Its rooms have been graced with a Who’s Who of royalty, politics, CEOs, celebrities and athletes, from Clint Eastwood to Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jackie Onassis to Marilyn Monroe, Bill Gates to Oprah Winfrey, but none more notably than Ernest Hemingway, who stayed for months and wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls here.
The “Best” ski resort is a much different thing from the best ski mountain, as the former needs a perfect mix of weather, terrain, lodging, dining, activities and après ski fun, in manner that can please all sorts of visitors, young, old, beginners, experts, skiers, snowboarders and so on. As Ski Magazine’s summary in its write up on the Number One spot so aptly puts it, “Sometimes a ski vacation is much more than skiing. It’s attentive service, memorable dining that’s worth the money, luxury lodging that makes you feel pampered, and yes, a fantastic mountain with great snowmaking, grooming, and trail layout. Sun Valley is known for its long, fast groomers, an efficient lift network that whisks skiers up and out of the different base areas and spreads them out across the mountain, delicious dining experiences, and the charming town of Ketchum, about as authentic and welcoming as it gets.”
To this point, Sun Valley rakes in accolades across the board in the Ski Magazine awards subcategories, including: #1 Top 10 Resorts in the West Guaranteed to Satisfy; #1 Best Lifts in The West; #1 Best Dining in the West; #2 Best Grooming in the West; #2 Loding in the West; #2 Family Friendly Resorts in the West; #2 Après Ski in the West; #2 Best Guest Service in the West; and #5 Best Nightlife in the West.
In my experience, having visited several times over the past 20 years, the thing that makes Sun Valley such a fan favorite is not trendiness or flash or big new additions, it’s the consistency of the experience, and that is why the resort has so many guests who return year after year. The customer service is excellent, and the very nature of the resort means you have more staff interaction, because the lodging, village, two mountains, adjacent town of Ketchum and even the airport are all connected by an extensive fleet of shuttles (and for guests of the high-end Lodge, house cars). The drivers are extremely friendly, and at the base of each ski mountain there is heavy staffing to help visitors with gear, directions, and all elements of their ski experience. The resort itself operates many of the restaurants and shops, and again, the quality of service is very high. Many of the employees have been here for decades.
While not much seems to change at Sun Valley, the last couple of years have been full of large improvements, including the 2021 Sunrise terrain expansion, which added over 380-acres of new expert terrain, featuring chutes, glades and bowls. A new high-speed quad chair replaced Bald Mountain’s oldest operating lift, and for this coming winter season, there are two brand new lifts, high-speed 4 and 6-passenger chairs, which will greatly increase capacity, speed and flow on Bald Mountain. It’s notable that these two new lifts – a big improvement for any mountain in a single season – are additions to a resort already ranked Number One for lifts. Both are on schedule for a mid-December opening. Sun Valley now has over 3,400 vertical feet (which is a lot!) and almost 2,500 acres of skiable terrain.
For a resort that was built to attract an A-List crowd, it also offers surprising value and a laid-back vibe. While many real celebrities still patronize Sun Valley, it draws the ones who do not want “see and be seen” rather than those posing for paparazzi. The luxury Sun Valley Lodge is definability not a budget pick, but it is compared with flagship hotels at other top Western resorts, such as the Litte Nell in Aspen, Ritz-Carlton Bachelor Gulch at Beaver Creek or Four Seasons Jackson Hole (all of which are wonderful properties). More affordable options include the larger Sun Valley Inn, and especially useful for families, a variety of condos, cottages and townhomes.
If you have never been, it’s helpful to understand that Sun Valley, opened in 1936, is a true planned resort. It has two mountains, Dollar, expressly for learning, and Bald Mountain, “Baldy,” the main event. The resort sits just outside the charming town of Ketchum, but is its own village, with hotels, shops, restaurants, outdoor facilities and a pedestrian mall. Besides alpine skiing, Sun Valley has a large and excellent Nordic center with cross-country skiing, fat tire biking trails, lessons and rentals, indoor and outdoor skating rinks, and in summer, an equestrian center, full-service shooting facility, and three quality golf courses. It is one of the few ski resorts almost as busy in summer as winter.
For several years, Sun Valley partnered with the Epic Pass, but it has switched gears, and is now part of the Ikon Pass. Ikon passholders get up to seven days of free skiing here.
Other notable highlights of the Sun Valley experience include:
-Short lift lines and uncrowded slopes. While Sun Valley has enjoyed these advantages for more than 65 years, since the pandemic this has become one of the most sought-after amenities in skiing. The two new lifts will make this even more pronounced this winter and going forward.
-Excellent place to learn to ski or snowboard. The resort has two separate mountains and smaller Dollar is a wonderful beginner and teaching spot. In addition to this unparalleled facility, they have one of the best ski schools in North America, making Sun Valley one of the top choices for families and first timers.
-Excellent place to improve your skiing or snowboarding. The big mountain here is “Baldy,” Bald Mountain, and it is famous in skiing for its constant pitch. This consistent and never-ending incline with few plateaus is the resort’s signature. This can make the very long (and sometimes steep) runs here exhausting, with well over 3000 feet of vertical. But it also makes Sun Valley an awesome place for intermediate and advanced skiers or riders to take lessons, especially for those stuck in the very common plateau between intermediate and expert. The terrain here allows you to endlessly practice consistent turns of any shape without having to vary them for changes in steepness. Short turns, long turns or carving, this is the place to perfect your turns. If you like bumps (I do), they also have some of the country’s best mogul skiing.
-Great food, on and off the mountains. More than most ski resorts, Sun Valley is vertically integrated and runs its own restaurants, not just on the mountains but also throughout the village and hotels. The choice and budget range is impressive and the quality high. But it is also just minutes from the town of Ketchum, full of all kinds of great restaurants representing different styles, prices and ethnicities, including many owner or chef operated venues.
My personal favorites include Cookbook, a chef-owned upscale eatery with a Ukrainian bent, and the Warfield, which is an excellent restaurant, excellent brewery and excellent distillery, a triple-threat combination hard to find anywhere in the world.
-Great ski town. Some Western ski towns like Vail, Beaver Creek, Keystone and Copper are manufactured, while others, such as Aspen, Breckenridge and Park City, have Old West flair. Between Sun Valley’s village and Ketchum you get both, very similar to the unique combination of Jackson and Teton Village at Wyoming’s Jackson Hole – except that these are much closer to each other.
-Heli-skiing. I’m a big fan of day heli-ski operations at resorts, which are better for first timers interested in trying heli-skiing, more affordable, and a great hedge against bad weather. Go to a weeklong remote heli-lodge and you might be grounded for days. At a ski resort, if the weather prohibits flying, you just hit the lifts and don’t lose any money. But there are only a handful of major resorts in the U.S. with onsite day heli-skiing, including Telluride, Jackson Hole, Alyeska and Sun Valley. Like the ski resort itself, Sun Valley Heli Ski is the oldest, and after half a century, claims to be the inventor of the sport in the U.S.
-Film Festival. This may be the best kept secret at Sun Valley. Because of the fame of the Sundance Film Festival, these events and skiing have become somewhat synonymous. But while Sundance is one of the world’s biggest and most important film festivals, it is a very difficult and very expensive proposition to couple with a ski vacation due to the huge crowds and greatly elevated prices for lodging. It’s also hard to get reservations for meals or to even take a cab through town, which sees street closures (Park City, UT). Skiing’s two other internationally renowned and prestigious film festivals, Banff and Telluride, are both in wonderful mountain towns that I love, but both are held outside of ski season.
The Sun Valley Film Festival is the best opportunity for a wider demographic swath of the ski and snowboard audience to couple world-class skiing with a major festival. I attended this year and highly recommend it. There are events during the days and nights so you can customize your personal combination of cinema and skiing to whatever ratio works for you. We skied all day and took in impressive new releases at night. There’s a pop-up clubhouse for ticket holders on Ketchum’s Main street that makes a great place to drop in for a drink, and a town-wide buzz surrounding the event, but at the same time, it does not take over. Like Sun Valley itself, it takes a low-key, fun loving, non-pretentious approach to the film festival concept. You can still get reservations at the best restaurants, get into bars, and it doesn’t inflate the price of the lodging – all the complete opposite of Sundance. You might also have some celebrity encounters – when I checked out of the Lodge, Josh Brolin was ahead of me at the reception desk.
Every year the festival coincides with the end of the ski season in March, which often means tons of snow and few people on the mountain. The Festival itself has very reasonable ticket prices and if you love skiing and movies, this is a weekend worth planning a trip to Sun Valley around.
Pray for snow!