A drinking town with a skiing problem.
While Sun Valley doesn’t quite have the international fame of Aspen, Vail, or Jackson Hole–it should. Those in the know consistently rank Sun Valley as one of the top ski resorts in the country. Sure, it can’t compete with the acreage of Park City or the luxury of Beaver Creek or the epic expert slopes of Jackson Hole, but Sun Valley is worth visiting for reasons that go way beyond skiing.
Built in 1936, Sun Valley Ski Resort is located in the town Ketchum, Idaho, a year-round resort town that’s batting way out of its league when it comes to arts, dining, nightlife, and style. A celebrity hotspot for almost a century, this tiny town of just 5,000 people is full of surprises, from world-class music and arts to incredible dining and shopping to year-round outdoor adventures that showcase some of the most jaw-dropping scenery in the lower 48. Sun Valley is more than just a ski town–it’s one of the coolest small towns on the planet.
INSIDER TIPFor the 2020 ski season, Sun Valley has joined Epic Pass, making it more accessible than ever.
For a main street with three stoplights, Ketchum has quite the happening creative scene, anchored by the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, a multimedia space with exhibitions, lectures, workshops, and more. There’s a gallery on nearly every block here, showcasing more than just the ubiquitous Western-adjacent oil paintings of horses that you might find in other mountain towns. There’s contemporary art from all over the world, like the Australian Aboriginal pieces at Harvey Art Projects or the uber-hip sculptures, paintings, and installations at Ochi Gallery–a modern space that wouldn’t be out of place in Los Angeles or London. Gail Severn Gallery is an almost museum-like experience with exhibitions of impressive large-scale paintings and works by artists like Gary Kormarin and Robert McCauley. Compact Gilman Contemporary is where you’ll find your next favorite artists, with an eclectic selection of paintings and sculptures, sometimes at attainable price points. Even if you’re not in the market to drop some serious cash, it’s still fun to look, especially during the monthly gallery walks where galleries stay open late (and serve wine to buyers, browsers, and casual winos alike).
Fancy and Freaky Festivals
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The vibrant arts scene in Sun Valley doesn’t end with fine art. Perhaps the biggest annual happening here is the Sun Valley Music Festival, a series that brings world-class classical music to the valley with concerts and lectures in state-of-the-art seasonal performance spaces (either in an outdoor tented pavilion in the summer or the brand-new Argyros Performing Arts Center in the winter). In the summer, picnicking on the grounds outside the tented music pavilion is encouraged (and free!) so bring your own champagne, pick up a picnic from The Haven, and lay out blanket for what is essentially Coachella, but for fancy old people.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, you can revel in Sun Valley’s wild west roots with two other festivals that draw in thousands of visitors: The Wagon Days Parade, held every Labor Day with Westworld-style costumes and reenactments, a parade of antique horse-drawn covered wagons, a cowboy poetry slam, and a barn dance; and the Trailing of the Sheep Festival, which is when thousands of sheep are herded down Main Street–it’s an insane spectacle.
Sun Valley was basically founded by celebrities and the town is still somewhat of a safe haven for celebrities who want to cosplay as regular citizens without being tailed by paparazzi. While naturally a star-studded event, the Sun Valley Film Festival is a low-key answer to Sundance. It’s still in its early years, so make the trip now before the festival is overrun with wannabes and influencers.
Old-School Vibes, Cheap Eats, and Hip Restaurants
Sun Valley has a surprisingly varied dining scene, from authentic street tacos to the steakhouse of your wild west dreams to hip restaurants that wouldn’t be out of place in San Francisco or New York. For first-time visitors, The Pioneer Saloon is an absolute must. The cozy, old-timey restaurant and bar serves local specialties like lamb, trout, and of course, those famous Idaho potatoes. The setting feels like something out of an old western movie, with taxidermy on every wall. If you like your steak and potatoes to be a little bit fancy and a little bit French, Michel’s Christiana has been serving classic French cuisine since 1959. In a glorified shack on the edge of town, you’ll find some of the best tacos in Idaho at La Cabanita, a local favorite. Hipsters and scenesters will love The Covey, a chic, beautifully-appointed restaurant with simple food and incredible flavors all cooked in an open kitchen–go with a group and order one of everything on the menu. There’s plenty of pizza in town, from family-friendly eateries to happening slice joints, but the best Neapolitan-style pies in town can only be found at Enoteca, a stylish wine bar serving small plates and wood-fired pizza. Travel is always a special occasion, and Sun Valley has restaurants that are worthy of any celebration.
Ski Bum Hangouts
While high-falutin artsy-fartsy stuff has certainly put Sun Valley on the map, what truly makes it one of the coolest towns in the world is the ski bum culture that has all but been erased from other towns in the west. In Sun Valley, you can belly up to the bar, order a burger, and swap stories with people who have been skiing here for half a century.
There are three distinct bars where you can experience this for yourself, each with a different personality and clientele. Most locals will spend time at all of them, but everyone has a favorite. Apple’s, at the base of the ski mountain, has been a key spot for beer-fueled lunches and après-ski shenanigans for over 30 years. The menu here is elevated beyond burgers and fries with ahi steaks and quinoa salads, but the vibe is quintessential ski bum–it’s actually sort of weird if you’re drinking here and not wearing ski or snowboard boots. In town, Grumpy’s is a legendary place for functioning alcoholics who want to drink a fishbowl-sized glass of beer (called a schooner) and eat a greasy burger on an idle Tuesday at noon without being judged. (It’s this editor’s favorite of the three hangouts.) A perfect place for day drinking, the beer can-covered walls make this the least-family friendly venue of the bunch–please bring your dogs, though. To round out the trifecta is Lefty’s, the newest of all the burger joints (it opened in 1993) with a well-rounded draft beer selection and a deck that’s the best place in town to spend a sunny afternoon.
The Barmuda Triangle
Day drinking might be Sun Valley’s strong suit, but the nightlife is nothing to scoff at either. While the greasy burger joints are more of a daytime hangout, the Barmuda Triangle is where you go to party at night. Here’s how a night of bar hopping in Sun Valley should look: Start with a pre-dinner craft cocktail at The Hangout, a chic and low-key cocktail bar inside the Hotel Ketchum. This is one of the only places in town where you won’t get an eye-roll for ordering something more complicated than a Moscow Mule, so order something freaky with ingredients you’ve never heard of. After dinner, it’s off to the Pioneer Saloon for one of their famous margaritas and on to the trifecta of local bars known as the Barmuda Triangle—since it’s easy to lose a night bar-hopping here. First up is the Cellar Pub for a pint of Guinness and whatever the shot of the day is. Put on your dancing shoes and make your way to Whiskey’s for whatever live music or DJ situation is happening. And end your night playing pool against a celebrity at The Casino, the world’s greatest dive bar.
Sun Valley is a goldmine for thrifty fashionistas and vintage hunters. This town is seriously tiny and yet it has not one, not three, but SIX vintage and second-hand shops where you can buy anything from antique potato sacks to exquisite 1960s couture. The town has that perfect ingredient for creating a vintage paradise: a considerable population of older, wealthy, and philanthropic individuals. The donation-based Gold Mine is a literal goldmine for cheap cashmere sweaters, wacky 1980s ski suits, and cozy flannels. They also operate a nearby consignment shop that can be great for art, home furnishings, and jewelry. (All proceeds benefit the local library, which is also worth a visit–check the events calendar to see what’s happening there.) Maude’s Coffee and Clothes is quite possibly the hippest thing to ever happen in Sun Valley, with a distinct Brooklyn aesthetic that mixes curated vintage and upcycled pieces with locally-made designer goods and a vegan-friendly cafe. Lightly-used contemporary luxury goods can be found at Consign Design, where you’ll likely stumble upon a perfect pair of Gucci fur-lined booties, a pair of Pucci ski pants, or a silk Prada gown–it’s the Aspen aesthetic at Ketchum prices. But the real treasures in Sun Valley are found at only one place: Deja Vu. Here you’ll find museum-quality vintage couture from the turn of the century to the 1960s, like a gown that was once worn to the Oscars or a floor-length chinchilla coat. It’s worth a visit to this fashion paradise, even though there is absolutely nothing here within your price range.
A Wilderness Wonderland
Although Sun Valley’s most famous sport is skiing, there are tons of ways for non-skiers to explore this breathtaking scenery. Nordic and cross-country skiers can explore 25 miles of trails at the Sun Valley Nordic Center or venture north to nearby Galena Lodge to explore the backcountry. For the adventurous, there are even yurts available for rent. Those looking to explore the wilderness on the back of a snowmobile (incredibly thrilling and not nearly as dangerous as it may seem) can venture on a day trip to Smiley Creek Lodge. Mountain biking is an enormous draw in the summer, and addicts of the sport can try out fatbiking in the winter, which is a sport where you ride a bike outfitted with very fat tires on groomed, snowy paths.
Hot Tubs and Hot Springs
All that outdoor exertion means that you get to treat yourself at the end of the day with a long soak in hot water. Hot tub culture is an important part of the local vibe in Sun Valley, but if your hotel or rental doesn’t have its own hot tub, don’t worry. Visitors can get a day pass to Zenergy Spa to access the indoor/outdoor heated pools and hot tubs–there are also exercise classes for the ambitious and massages for the indulgent. Sun Valley Resort is also famous for its enormous hot pools, where you can sip on cocktails while you soak. Adventure seekers can venture far off the paved roads for a visit to Frenchman’s Bend Hot Springs, a rustic riverside rock pool with varying temperatures. It’s best to go with a local and leave no trace–park responsibly, pack out all your trash, and don’t bring any glass (but cans of beer are more than welcome–bring some extra and make a few friends).
Until recently, Sun Valley was only home to a handful of hotels. The town is going through somewhat of a hotel renaissance, with two hip new properties that have opened in the past two years and an Auberge Resort on the way in 2022. Hotel Ketchum is a stylish hangout for ski bums, with a great location right in town, a funky bar, and spacious rooms to accommodate all your gear. It’s the perfect home base for those who are here to have a good time (and yes, there’s a hot tub). The Limelight Hotel is an Aspen import, with cozy rooms and a family-friendly vibe (the hot tub here is huge!). The location means that a lucky few get a room with a view of the mountain and it’s right in town near all of the restaurants and bars. New hotels mean more visitors, so get here before everyone you know is suddenly visiting this little patch of ski bum heaven.
There are so many reasons to visit Sun Valley that it’s easy to forget the reason this place exists: Sun Valley Ski Resort. The resort is consistently ranked one of the best in the United States, with 3,400 vertical feet and over 2,000 acres of skiable terrain. The resort is best for those who love long, steep, and fast groomers (snow in Sun Valley is unpredictable and climate change has only exacerbated this, but the good news is that Sun Valley has one of the most sophisticated snowmaking operations on the planet). For those that want to challenge themselves or try something more technical, Sun Valley Heli Ski offers sidecountry and backcountry excursions to untouched powder in the surrounding mountain ranges. It’s the thrill of a lifetime, but only for experienced skiers.
Though Sun Valley is a dream destination for skiers and snowboarders, it’s so much more than that. This little town will surprise and delight you, even if you’ve never put on a pair of skis before.