The first destination ski resort in the United States, and still among the most famous, Sun Valley was developed by Union Pacific railroad tycoon Averell Harriman. In 1936 Harriman built a large mock-Tyrolean chalet, the Sun Valley Lodge (1 Sun Valley Rd., 208/622-4111 or 800/786-8259, $329 and up), and began to cultivate Sun Valley’s exclusive reputation—reinforced to this day by high prices for lift tickets (over $100 a day) and five-star facilities, including golf courses, tennis courts, and gourmet restaurants. Though Colorado’s Vail and other resorts now compete for the top-dollar trade, Sun Valley still attracts well-heeled clientele, if the private jets parked at the local airport are any indication.
While the resort itself isn’t huge, Sun Valley has come to stand for the larger area, including the towns of Ketchum and Hailey and much of the nearby wilderness, much of which is surprisingly barren and treeless—ideal for skiing, perhaps, though not jaw-dropping beautiful. Besides skiers in winter, Sun Valley also draws golfers and mountain bikers in summer and fall, not to mention anglers, who rate the Big Wood River as one of the nation’s best trout-fishing streams.
Though both places preexisted Sun Valley, the two old mining and sheep-ranching towns of Ketchum (pop. 2,827) and Hailey have more or less lost themselves in the upmarket resort aura of their famous neighbor. Ketchum, the more touristy of the two, has wall-to-wall art galleries and T-shirt shops lining its traffic-jammed streets. It also supports dozens of expensive resort hotels and restaurants that cater to Sun Valley’s country club set, plus a handful of more interesting and affordable bar-and-grills along Main Street: try the Pioneer Saloon (320 N. Main St., 208/726-3139) or Whiskey Jacques’ (251 N. Main St., 208/726-5297), which serves good pizzas steaks and strong drinks. The Casino, (220 N. Main St., 208/726-9901) is a Harley-friendly local institution, serving beers and burgers in one of Ketchum’s oldest buildings. A block west of Main Street, Java on Fourth (191 4th St., 208/726-2882), serves addictive, rich hot chocolate.
The most central and affordable of Ketchum’s accommodations line up along Hwy-75, including the clean and convenient Best Western Plus Kentwood Lodge (180 S. Main St., 208/726-4114, $189 and up).
Hailey, 12 miles south of Ketchum and linked by a popular rail-trail bike path, was founded originally in the 1880s as a supply center for local silver and lead mines and is now the home base of all those workers who make the resorts run smoothly and ski in between shifts. Hailey feels much more friendly and low-key than Ketchum or Sun Valley, and the eating options are much more down-to-earth. For breakfast or lunch, head to diner-style Shorty’s Diner (126 S. Main St., 208/578-1293), originally built (but no longer owned) by Die Hard actor Bruce Willis. (His ex-wife, movie star Demi Moore, is a local mom about town.)