Sun Valley: The country’s first destination ski resort

The country’s first destination ski resort

Hemingway slept above me. Not in the same room, of course. In fact, not even in the same century. But room #206 – The Ernest Hemingway Suite – was the room directly above mine at the Sun Valley Lodge. It was a big deal for me. I had always admired him, and now here I was, staying at his favorite lodge, walking the lodge’s very same halls, breathing the same mountain air and basking in the very same scenery that he experienced. I could see why he liked it here and why he eventually made the Sun Valley/Ketchum area his home. Tucked away in the Idaho Rockies, Sun Valley’s 4,000 acres were not only a thing of breathtaking beauty, but they also offered a peaceful solitude – something that a man like Hemingway, who grew tired of the glare of the camera, would relish. The resort’s vast terrain also offered unlimited recreational possibilities for the true outdoorsperson. As I wandered around the resort, I saw Sun Valley’s world-famous day lodges, tasteful alpine-style walking village with shops and restaurants, and a friendly, courteous staff. It almost seemed too perfect. But then, that was the plan.

The country’s first destination ski resort

In 1935, Austrian Count Felix Schaffgtosch was hired by Averell Harriman of Union Pacific Railroad to find the perfect location for a grand American resort. After fruitless months of searching the mountains of the west, the Count finally heard about Ketchum, a dying mining town in central Idaho. He quickly made a beeline to this town in the Idaho Rockies, and was overwhelmed by what he saw. He wired Harriman immediately with these words: “This combines more delightful features than any place I have ever seen in Switzerland, Austria or the U.S. for a  winter resort.” Harriman rushed to join him, and purchased 4,300 acres of what was to become Sun Valley. Harriman was determined to build Sun Valley into a resort worthy of its majestic setting, which would include a timeless four-story mountain lodge, complete with a glass-enclosed pool, world-class cuisine, ice skating rink, impeccable service and nightly orchestra performances. After only seven months of construction, Sun Valley opened in the winter of 1936. Harriman shrewdly marketed the resort to the Hollywood elite, and soon local wildlife was sharing the mountain with Hollywood royalty that included Clark Gable and Gary Cooper – who would go hunting with Hemingway – as well as Errol Flynn, Claudette Colbert and Bing Crosby. The resort wasn’t just for relaxation either, as world champions used the mountain for Olympic training. Today, as the Sun Valley Lodge turns 80, it has been updated to include 108 new and larger guest rooms, a 20,000-square-foot destination spa, a world-class fitness center and yoga studio, a glass-enclosed outdoor pool and pool café, and reappointed restaurants, lounges, lobbies and event space.

Not just another day in paradise

It’s one thing to experience happiness, but to be aware of it that very moment is a rare thing. Last ski season, I had a day of sublime happiness. It went something like this: A breakfast of homemade crêpes with seasonal berries in front of the fireplace at Konditorei, a European-style bistro located in the walking village. The food was outstanding; so was the conversation with the attentive staff. It was tempting not to leave the warm fire, but the Sun Valley Nordic and Snowshoe Center, situated in the backyard of the lodge, was waiting. About 25 miles of manicured and marked trails begin at the Nordic Center, where gentle terrain progresses to challenging hills. I could see that gliding over glistening meadows of snow at an elevation of 6,000 feet would be a great experience for the cross-country skier, but this would be just too extreme for a lightweight such as me. I opted for the very pedestrian snowshoeing, which fortunately requires the very same skill level as walking. I was soon on my way. For the next two hours, I saw not a soul with the exception of a couple of cross-country skiers far off in the distance, who I had sensed were placed there solely for my own visual benefit. I crossed bridges over pristine mountain streams and watched wildlife scatter into the brush. Snowflakes filled the sky. Once again, I was so happy with the surroundings that I didn’t want to leave.

But I detected the scent of food cooking, and it was coming from the Seattle Ridge Day Lodge, just on the other side of the river. Another warm fire and friendly smile greeted me as I took off my gear, and soon grabbed a table for some homemade soup and a good local craft beer. While staring out the window, I could see that it was beginning to snow again. I could have stayed there forever, even more so due to having eaten more than my share of food. Maybe I shouldn’t have ordered the huckleberry pie? The snowshoeing back to the Nordic Center would be long and perhaps a little cold, plus I had an important event on my mid-afternoon calendar. I would have to move fast. I was then informed that a free shuttle comes to the lodge every 15 minutes. I decided to order a cappuccino.

After a quick shower back at my room, I headed over to River Run Lodge to attend a Super Bowl party. As I entered the lodge, the party was already hopping with a festive crowd, an array of big screen TVs, food and drink. The event was welcome to all ages, but I was struck by the attendance of so many 80-year-old-plus skiers, some even in their 90s. Yes, it was inspiring.

Later, I took a dip in the resort’s famous outdoor circular pool. It was so cold outside that I felt like I was in an Olympic-size Jacuzzi. You couldn’t even see across the surface due to all the fog. As I sat on the edge of the pool, nursing my aching muscles from the earlier snowshoeing, I thought how I someday want to be like one of those 80-year-old senior skiers at the Super Bowl party. After all, age is what you make it. And I decided that I would regularly return to Sun Valley Resort. Besides, I still needed to sleep below the Gary Cooper Suite – #306.

For more information about Sun Valley Resort, call 800-786-8259 or