I’ve traveled across the U.S. and abroad for snowboarding as part of my job and have holed up in just about every type of mountain town you could imagine. A few have come close to taking the top spot over the years; Telluride, Bend, Park City, to name a few. But one town has remained at the top of my list since I first visited back in 2014: Sun Valley, Idaho.
It is by no means an easy place to get to. In good weather, it’s about a two-hour, forty-five-minute drive from the Boise airport; from the Twin Falls airport, it’s about a two-hour drive. Because of its layout — flights can only take off and land in one direction — flights into the Sun Valley airport are routinely canceled or diverted. But its remote nature is what has helped the Sun Valley and Ketchum, Idaho area hold its unmolested charm for the past 138 years.
By most accounts, Sun Valley is a standard mountain town. There’s a solid outdoor gear shop, a locals’-favorite cafe, a handful of tourist-driven restaurants and an off-the-beaten-path cheap beer and wing spot. There are also a handful of high-end resort hotels that cater more towards the one percent. So far, any number of mountain towns would fit that description. But what sets Sun Valley apart is something less easily quantified; the vibe. Yes, it’s a little bit cliche and yes, it’s slightly overwrought to say that the vibe is what sets Sun Valley apart from other mountain towns, but it’s true. Sun Valley is neither cliche nor overwrought. If you took the heavy tourist traffic out of Jackson, Wyoming, or the pretentious air out of Aspen, Colorado, or even the general Coloradoness out of Telluride, you’d get pretty close to the vibe of Sun Valley. In a sense, it’s a locals town where even the tourists feel like locals.
But beyond just the vibe, Sun Valley has also acted as a center for creatives and outdoor industry hopefuls. In fact, Smith Optics, founded in 1964 by Bob Smith, the original inventor of the ski goggle, called Sun Valley home until just a few years ago. The area is also home to a budding creative class that includes Wes Walsworth, a third-generation woodworker who creates bespoke custom furniture. In addition to Sun Valley’s creative community, there have also been a number of world-class athletes to come out of the town, including Rebecca Rusch, Kaitlyn Farrington and Banks Gilberti, to name a few.
It’s also home to the man behind many Winter Olympic gold medals — someone you’ve never heard of. His name is Curtis Bacca, and he was the wax technician for Tommy Mo, Seth Wescott and Lindsay Jacobellis, among others. Bacca runs and operates one of the nation’s top ski and snowboard tuning shops, based in Sun Valley, called The Waxroom. (We caught up with Bacca at The Waxroom recently.)
Sun Valley was also the birthplace of heli skiing. Today, the area is home to a handful of heli skiing operations, but none more worthwhile than SV Heliski. Located on the Warm Springs side of the resort, the SV Heli crew has access to a vast amount of terrain. One of the largest parcels in the country. In fact, some of the areas are so far away that they require an overnight trip.
Sun Valley is also home to America’s first ski resort — built in 1936. The old lift towers can still be seen just outside of town. While much of the infrastructure of the town has changed, my best bet is that the vibe has not. The terrain has remained unchanged, and the lure of the sleepy, under-the-radar mountain town still draws those seeking adventure off the beaten path.