Skiing in Sun Valley
The ski resort is split between two mountains: Bald Mountain (known as “Baldy” to the locals) and Dollar Moutain. Most of the 65 trails on Baldy are generously wide and slanted towards intermediate skiers. It’s consistently rated as one of the best ski mountains in the U.S. because of its steep and near-perfect gradient from peak to base — a vertical drop of 3,400 feet (1,036 m) to the edges of the Sawtooth National Forest.
Photo credit: Sun Valley Resort
Sun Valley Ski Area Overview
Bald Mountain Skiing
Bald Mountain, located just over a mile from Sun Valley village, offers 2,054 acres (831 ha) of skiable terrain serviced by 19 modern lifts. Unlike many resorts whose vertical drop numbers seem fudged or are not skiable in a single run, Sun Valley’s vertical drop is both legitimate and continuous. 11 of Baldy’s 14 lifts rise over 1,000′ and one, the Challenger Express Quad, has the highest vertical rise of any chairlift in North America.
In addition to being blessed with tremendous vertical, Baldy is renowed for the consistency of its pitch. It is perhaps the most perfectly-suited mountain for skiing in North America. There are almost no flats spots on any of the mountain’s several faces, each of which is served by the resort’s highly efficient lift network. The main drainages River Run Base, Warm Springs Base, Seattle Ridge, The Bowls, and Frenchman’s. River Run and Warm Springs base areas, both along the river but separated by a high ridgeline, are the resort’s two base areas.
River Run Base
On the bottom left of the trail map, River Run is Sun Valley’s “main” base area. Located on the outskirts of Ketchum, River Run base is home to Sun Valley’s Roundhouse Gondola, which whisks skiers up almost 2,000′ in less than 8 minutes. From the Roundhouse, skiers can choose to either head up another 1,353′ via the Christmas Express Quad to the summit or ski down one of the main advanced or intermedate pitches which run out into the green River Run beginner trail.
Warm Springs Base
Warm Springs, on the bottom right of the trail map, is home to one of North America’s most impressive lifts. The Challenger Express Quad rises a staggering 3,142′ in only 10 minutes. Warm Springs Face and Limelight are almost always groomed and provide fast and carveable runs that allow skiers to rack up staggering vertical drop figures. It’s not an exaggeration in the slightest to say that skiers can ski 50,000 vertical feet before lunch.
Off to the lookler’s left side of Baldy is a pod of terrain known as Seattle Ridge. A day lodge provides a convenient place for an on mountain lunch. Seattle Ridge’s main skiing draw is its four beginner trails spread over 1,300′. Be forewarned, these four runs are steep enough to be black diamonds at many resorts. Mercifully for beginner skiers, however, snow conditions are almost always perfect and the snow is carveable despite the pitch.
Sun Valley’s famous bowls are found on the bald spot of Bald Mountain. Sparsely treed and generally high intermediate in character, the bowls soak in Sun Valley’s legendary sunshine and provide a totally different experience to the more densely treed lower slopes. When it snows, the bowls are a powderhound’s dream because of their consistent fall-line. When it has not snowed recently, Sun Valley lets the bowls bump up and they provide a far sterner – and more exhausting – test for expert skiers. They comparable favorably in both pitch and length to the back bowls at Vail, but with a much more spectacular view.
Sun Valley’s newest pod of terrain, Frenchman’s sits in the area between Warm Springs and River Run. Serviced by its own express quad, the trails in the Frenchman’s area offer 1,500′ of uninterrupted vertical.
Dollar Mountain Skiing
Much nearer, and just a short walk from Sun Valley Lodge, is Dollar Mountain, a treeless, sunny and beginner-friendly mountain. It is only 6,638 feet (2,023 m) high with 10 trails and 628 feet (191 m) of gentle vertical slopes. Its day lodge-Dollar Cabin-houses a cafeteria-style restaurant and a ski school. On the other side of this mountain, Elkhorn Face offers slightly more challenging novice trails spreading out from a steeper-pitched bowl.
One downside to Sun Valley is the distance between the two mountains. The fact that they are not interlinked means that if you’re in a mixed-ability ski group it will be tough trying to meet up and ski together. But if you’re happy to stick to your slopes then you will find calm, sunny skiing protected from north winds by the Sawtooth Range, so you get plenty of sunshine without the biting chills. Snow records in the region are okay-the average is 220 inches (500 cm) per season. That is not as much as most other Rocky Mountain resorts, but any shortfall in snow is augmented by a computer-controlled snowmaking system covering 78% of the resort’s groomable acreage.
Beginner Skiing at Sun Valley
Sun Valley’s beginner skiing is concentrated on Dollar Mountain, but there are also great green trails on Bald Mountain, particularly Seattle Ridge. Sun Valley’s expertly groomed beginner slopes and abundant sunshine make it a great place to learn to ski. Many novices start on less-intimidating Dollar Mountain before moving over to the big slopes of Bald Mountain.
Dollar Mountain Beginner Skiing
Dollar Mountain is totally treeless and great for novices and beginners, with plenty of practice slopes (as well as Sun Valley Ski School), and the New Bowl providing a good straight trail. Dollar Mountain’s 637′ of vertical drop makes it a perfect size for learning and improving skiers. It is far less imposing than Badly, whose steep pitches can be seen from Dollar Mountain.
Many beginners tend to cluster around the Dollar Express Quad near Carol’s Day Lodge at the base of the hill. However, a second base area which services the Elkhorn real estate development provides an opportunity for beginners to explore a second pod of terrain.
Bald Mountain Beginner Skiing
The base of River Run on Baldy is groomed for those beginners wishing to move on. But be warned, what Sun Valley designate as easiest trails (36 percent of them) are actually pretty challenging and would be classified as blue or black slopes at other resorts.
Unfortunately, one noticeable drawback to Sun Valley is that if beginners head to Dollar and intermediates and abvoe head to Baldy, the two groups can’t ski together.
The main pod of beginner terrain can be found at Seattle Ridge. The four beginner runs on Seattle Ridge maintain a sustained pitch from top to bottom that some beginners can find tiring.
Beginners who have become comfortable at Dollar Mountain should begin their progression with Upper College. This long green run affords stunning views across the valley to the Sawtooth Mountains beyond and is one of the easier beginner trails on Baldy.
Putting aside the fantastic vistas on Upper and Lower College, the most interesting beginner trail on the mountain from purely a terrain standpoint is Olympic Lane. To access Olympic Lane, take the Roundhouse Gondola up and ski the Roundhouse Slope down to the entrance to the trail. Beginners will enjoy winding through the woods on a trail that has enjoyable turns, dips and rolls.
Intermediate Skiing at Sun Valley
The majority of Sun Valley’s intermediate ski slopes are expertly groomed each night, but confident intermediates also enjoy the resort’s famous bowls. 42 percent of the trails at Sun Valley are marked blue (“more difficult”). Sun Valley’s world-class grooming makes this large network of intermediate runs one of the best in North America.
From Lookout Restaurant at Sun Valley’s intermediate skiers can choose Cutoff or Blue Grouse to Mid River Run to get back to the River Run Lift. From there it is a nine-minute lift ride back to the top. Easier trails are Olympic Ridge and Olympic Lane, and from Seattle Ridge Lodge you can try all the well-groomed trails designated as slow skiing (the exception being the difficult Fire Trail). Catch the Seattle Ridge chairlift, a five-minute ride from the bottom of the ridge back to the top. Here you’ll also find Gretchen’s Gold-named after local girl Gretchen Fraser who captured America’s first Olympic alpine ski medals (a gold for slalom and a silver for the combined in the 1948 St. Moritz Winter Olympic Games).
Perhaps the most ideal spot for intermediates is Warm Springs, named for the warm bubbling water at the base of the lift. This area is well-suited for intermediates who are happy being intermediates. The slopes enjoy get great afternoon sunshine. The top of the area is home to Warm Springs Face, and most difficult trails International and Limelight. Halfway down, you can decide which of the more difficult trails you want, but Hemingway is a good route.
The Bowls along the top of Bald Mountain tend to be difficult, but intermediate skiers can begin at the left of the mountain and move to the right as they feel more comfortable-try Broadway Face to start with. The Bowls are easily served by the Mayday chairlift, a seven-minute ride back to the top.
A handful of intermediate trails are available on Dollar Mountain as well, but intermediates will quickly tire of the limited offering. Besides, with Bald Mountain – one of America’s best intermediate playgrounds – just across the valley, anything more than a few hours on Dollar Mountain will seem like a chore.
Advanced & Expert Skiing at Sun Valley
Sun Valley’s expert skiing appeals mainly to skiers who enjoy Bald Mountain’s moguls and high speed groomers. There are no double black diamonds but Sun Valley offers more than enough black diamond trails to please expert skiers. Moreover, with Sun Valley’s 3,400’+ vertical drop, even its groomed advanced slopes are true leg burners.
Sun Valley’s advanced and expert terrain may not appeal to everyone. The resort grooms much of its black diamond terrain nightly. Experts who will be the happiest at Sun Valley are those that enjoy high speed laps on very steep groomed runs or those that enjoy skiing the resort’s many mogul fields.
Current and former racers love Sun Valley for just the former reason. There is no where in the United States that can match the variety of Sun Valley’s long, steep groomers. In particular, the Limelight off the speedy Challenger Express Quad is a favorite for those looking to rack up huge vertical.
No trip to Sun Valley would be complete without a visit to its legendary bowls. Although Sun Valley’s open snowfield will not induce panic attacks amongst veteran advanced skiers, they are both long and interesting. Advanced intermediates and improving advanced skiers will likely not struggle to ski any of the bowls when conditions are favorable. However, when there has not been a recent snowfall, the bowl become bumped up and much more challenging. Mogul skiers will very much enjoy all of these runs as they offer great long vistas across the valley. All of the bowls empty into a handful of drainages where the runs become more constricted by trees before finally relenting some 1,600′ later at the Mayday triple.
Closer to the base, the moguls on Exhibition on the River Run side are tough as is Olympic. Also on River Run advanced skiers can tackle the Rock Garden or Upper Holiday trails for even more bumped up fun.
One trail we particularly enjoyed with the often-overlooked Fire Trail on Seattle Ridge. Because Seattle Ridge is almost exclusively beginner terrain, many experts miss this narrow little trail. Only two to three turns wide its entire length, it is worth skiing early on a powder day.
Boarding & Freestyle at Sun Valley
There are no special areas for snowboarders and freestyle skiers, but Baldy’s long trails are perfectly pitched for turning perfect arcs. A notable absence of flat spots and run-outs makes Sun Valley well-suited to snowboarders. Dollar Mountain is home to all of Sun Valley’s terrain parks and a freestyle course
The resort’s superbly-groomed advanced make carving a dream. Head out for the mile-long ridge trails that lead to several advanced and intermediate bowls. If it’s a powder day then the bowls will be great. Challenger followed by The Lookout Chair will get you there quick. If you’re an intermediate planning to sample the Warm Springs terrain, watch out for the cat track that makes up the intermediate entrance. Beginner boarders should stick to Dollar Mountain.
Dollar Mountain offers several terrain parks under the Dollar Express Quad and a skier/boardercross course which is particularly popular with youngsters.
Perhaps because of it’s place as America’s most historic ski resort, Sun Valley has a reputation for being a conservative and old school ski resort. The main mountain (Bald Mountain) offers no terrain parks nor a halfpipe. While snowboarders certainly will enjoy Sun Valley’s terrain, the vibe at the resort is decidedly a ski one. No one will be unfriendly, but no one will be especially welcoming of snowboarders either.
Heliskiing at Sun Valley
Out of bounds is not patrolled, but for adrenaline seekers heliskiing is available in the surrounding mountains, usually north of Ketchum. A great way to enjoy the pockets of good powder snow in the backcountry is by signing up for a day of heliskiing with Sun Valley Heli-Ski. Sun Valley Heli-ski is permitted to drop expert and advanced skiers and boarders in over 750 square miles (1,200 sq km) of terrain.
Mountain Restaurants at Sun Valley
The day lodges at Seattle Ridge, River Run, and Warm Springs have excellent restaurants in ritzy surroundings with a plethora of fireplaces, cozy seating, fine dining, and welcoming staff.
Photo credit: Sun Valley Resort
The Roundhouse, Sun Valley’s first on-mountain restaurant, is among the best alpine restaurants in North America. Sun Valley’s founder, Averell Harriman was smart to enough to enlist the help of his friend Austrian Count Felix Schaffgotsch in selecting the location for the resort that would be come Sun Valley. Schaffgotsch had grown up skiing in Europe and was intimately familiar with the wonderful on-mountain huts that dotted the Alps. Built by hand just 3 year after the first chairlifts, the Roundhouse emulates the best of the European high alpine huts that Schaffgotsch grew up enjoying.
The entire restaurant oozes with old world charm. Although intentionally dark and small on the inside, the Roundhouse’s octagonal shape allowed for large windows to be built that afford long views from 2,000′ above the valley floor. The food is typical American alpine cuisine with a European flair and is served by a lederhosen -clad waitstaff.
Non-skiers can buy a one-trip gondola ticket which allows them to experience lunch at this most historic of American ski restaurants.
River Run Day Lodge
Located at the Base of Bald Mountain,the River Run Base Lodge offers upscale ski food in a beatiful log-constructed structure on the river.
Warm Springs Day Lodge
At the timber, stone, and glass Warm Springs you can sip your Sun Valley ale and take in uninterrupted views of the Wood River Valley and Pioneer Mountains. One tradition not to be missed are the cookies. When the bell rings, a new batch are ready and kids will sprint over for a fresh batch.
For cheap and cheerful, Irving’s Red Hots serving hot dogs and french fries (also at the base of Warm Springs) is something of an institution.
Lookout Lodge is located at the top of the resort near the Bowls. Food is typical ski cafeteria offerings.
Seattle Ridge Day Lodge
Seattle Ridge, serves cafeteria food with its spectacular views and a sun-drenched outdoor deck. It is located at the top of the Seattle Ridge Express Quad.
Carol’s Dollar Mountain Lodge
Carol’s serves “kid friendly” food at the base of Dollar Mountain.
Trail Creek Cabin
A special lunch (or dinner) experience is to take a horse-drawn sleigh, cross-country ski, snowshoe or drive out to Trail Creek Cabin, about 1.5 miles (2.4 km) east of Sun Valley Lodge. The Trail Creek Cabin is not located at either Dollar Mountain or Bald Mountain.