Sun Valley is a resort city in Blaine County in the central part of the U.S. state of Idaho, adjacent to the city of Ketchum, situated within the greater Wood River valley. The population was 1,406 at the 2010 census, down from 1,427 in 2000. The elevation of Sun Valley (at the Lodge) is above sea level. The area is served by Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey, approximately south. Visitors to Sun Valley are relatively close to the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, accessed over Galena Summit on Highway 75, the Sawtooth Scenic Byway.
Tourists from around the world enjoy its skiing, hiking, ice skating, trail riding, tennis, and cycling. Few of its residents stay year-round, and most come from major west coast cities like Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and more distantly Chicago and New York.
Among skiers, the term "Sun Valley" refers to the alpine ski area, which consists of Bald Mountain, the main ski mountain adjacent to Ketchum, and Dollar Mountain, adjacent to Sun Valley, for novice and lower intermediate skiers. Bald Mountain, or "Baldy," has a summit of and a vertical drop of . With its abundance of constant-pitch terrain, at varying degrees of difficulty, coupled with its substantial vertical drop and absence of wind, Baldy has often been referred to as one of the better ski mountains in the world. The treeless "Dollar" at has a moderate vertical drop of .
The term "Sun Valley" is used more generally to speak of the region surrounding the city, including the neighboring city of Ketchum and the valley area winding south to Hailey. The region has been a seasonal home to the rich, famous, and powerful, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Mark Zuckerberg, Mats Wilander, Warren Buffett, Walter Annenberg, Adam West, Ernest Hemingway, Tom Hanks, Oprah Winfrey, Steve Miller, Demi Moore, Peter Cetera, Clint Eastwood, Bruce Willis, Ashton Kutcher, Richard Dreyfuss, Jamie Lee Curtis, Steve Wynn, Justin Timberlake, Mohamed al-Fayed, Barbara Kent, Bill Gates, and Tony Robbins.
Union Pacific Railroad (1936–64)
The first destination winter resort in the U.S. was developed by W. Averell Harriman, the chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad, primarily to increase ridership on U.P. passenger trains in the West. The success of the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, spurred an increase in participation in winter sports (and alpine skiing in particular). A lifelong skier, Harriman determined that America would embrace a destination mountain resort, similar to those he enjoyed in the Swiss Alps, such as St. Moritz and Davos. During the winter of 1935–36, Harriman enlisted the services of an Austrian count, Felix Schaffgotsch, to travel across the western U.S. to locate an ideal site for a winter resort. The Count toured Mount Rainier, Mount Hood, Yosemite, the San Bernardino Mountains, Zion, Rocky Mountain National Park, the Wasatch Mountains, Pocatello, Jackson Hole, and Grand Targhee areas. Late in his trip and on the verge of abandoning his search for an ideal location for a mountain resort development, he backtracked toward the Ketchum area in central Idaho. A U.P. employee in Boise had casually mentioned that the rail spur to Ketchum cost the company more money for snow removal than any other branch line and the Count went to explore.
Schaffgotsch was impressed by the combination of Bald Mountain and its surrounding mountains, adequate snowfall, abundant sunshine, moderate elevation, and absence of wind, and selected it as the site. Harriman visited several weeks later and agreed. The Brass Ranch was purchased for about $4 per acre and construction commenced that spring; it was built in seven months for $1.5 million.
Pioneering publicist Steve Hannigan, who had successfully promoted Miami Beach, Florida, was hired and named the resort "Sun Valley." (Count Schaffgotsch returned to Austria and was killed on the Eastern Front during World War II.) The centerpiece of the new resort was the Sun Valley Lodge, which opened in December 1936. The 220-room, X-shaped lodge's exterior was constructed of concrete, poured inside rough-sawn forms. The wood grain was impressed on the concrete finish, which was acid-stained brown to imitate wood.
The Swiss-style Sun Valley Inn (formerly the "Challenger Inn") and village were also part of the initial resort, opening in 1937. Hannigan wanted swimming pools at the resort, "so people won't think skiing is too cold." Both the Lodge and the Inn have heated outdoor swimming pools, circular in shape. Hannigan had the pools designed this way, unique at the time, in the hope they would be widely photographed, providing free publicity, and it worked.
The world's first chairlifts were installed on the resort's Proctor and Dollar Mountains in the fall of 1936. (Proctor Mountain is northeast of Dollar Mountain). The U.P. chairlift design was adapted by an engineer recalling banana loading conveyor equipment used for tropical fruit ships' cargo. Single-seat chairlifts were developed at the U.P. headquarters in Omaha in the summer of 1936. The chairlift went on to replace primitive rope tow and other adaptations seen at ski areas at the time. The original Proctor Mountain Ski Lift is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
While Bald Mountain was one of the reasons for the selection of the site, it was not initially part of the resort. The plan was to eventually develop it as a ski mountain, but sometime in the future. Alpine skiing was still in its infancy in America, and it was believed by management that there were not enough accomplished skiers to justify its development in 1936. But it was quickly realized by the resort's restless Austrian ski instructors that this fantastic mountain needed to be opened to the skiing public (and promoted) as soon as possible. The instructors had hiked up and skied down Baldy on their off days during the resort's first few seasons. These men were among the best skiers in the world, and had fled Austria just before it had come under control of the Nazis in 1938 (Anschluss).
The loading point of the lowest chairlift (River) was on the Ketchum side of the Big Wood River, at an elevation of . The single chairs loaded near the parking lot, then horizontally crossed the river (about eight feet (2.5 m) above the water) before ascending the mountain, gaining 600 vertical feet (183 m). The middle lift (Canyon) gained over 1300 vertical feet and unloaded at the Roundhouse (a day lodge at , built in 1939). The upper lift (Ridge) also climbed over 1,300 vertical feet (396 m), unloading at just above AMSL. Its lift capacity was a mere 426 skiers per hour (7 per minute). The three chairlifts that are in approximately the same lines today (2006) are: River Run (quad), Exhibition (triple), and Christmas (quad). The original lower single chairlift was replaced in the 1960s and the loading base was moved across the river; a footbridge provides walking access from the parking lot to the River Run base area.
Author Ernest Hemingway completed For Whom the Bell Tolls while staying in suite 206 of the Lodge in the fall of 1939. Averell Harriman had invited Hemingway and other celebrities, primarily from Hollywood, to the resort to help promote it. Gary Cooper was a frequent visitor and hunting/fishing partner, as were Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe, and several members of the Kennedy family. Hemingway was a part-time resident over the next twenty years, eventually relocating to Ketchum ("Papa" and his fourth wife are buried in the Ketchum Cemetery). The Hemingway Memorial, dedicated in 1966, is just off Trail Creek Road, about a mile northeast of the Sun Valley Lodge.
Sun Valley was featured (and promoted) in the 1941 movie Sun Valley Serenade, starring Sonja Henie, John Payne, Milton Berle, and bandleader Glenn Miller. Scenes were shot at the resort in March 1941. Sun Valley transfer local and future gold medalist Gretchen Fraser was the skiing stand-in for Henie. The film is shown continuously on television in the resort's guest rooms and nightly at the Opera House during the winter season.
World War II
During World War II, the resort was closed in 1942 and converted to a convalescent hospital for the U.S. Navy (Pacific Theater), which was operational in July 1943. It re-opened to the public in December 1946.
After the war, the resort's clinic operated on the third floor of the northern wing of the Sun Valley Lodge (wing closest to the Trail Creek Rd.) until the Sun Valley Community Hospital was built in 1961. That facility was named after Dr. John Moritz when he retired in 1973; the Nebraska-born surgeon had served as the resort's year-round physician for 33 years. The Moritz Hospital was closed shortly after the new St. Luke's branch hospital opened (south of Ketchum) in November 2000 and the Moritz building now serves as employee housing.
Noted ski film producer Warren Miller, while in his early twenties wintered in Sun Valley from 1946–49, first living in a car and small teardrop trailer in the River Run parking lot. Miller would later rent an unheated garage for five dollars per month and sublet floor space to friends to pitch their sleeping bags (at fifty cents per night). One of these friends was Edward Scott, the future inventor of the lightweight aluminum ski pole. This extra cash helped Miller purchase his first rolls of 16 mm movie film, jump-starting his motion picture career. During this time he evolved from ski bum, to ski instructor, to ski filmmaker.
Miller has since traveled and filmed all over the world, but until recent years he continued to return to Sun Valley virtually every year. He has featured Sun Valley in dozens of his annual films, which has helped publicize the Sun Valley region worldwide. His movies still play around the country today.
Bill Janss (1964–77)
After World War II, Harriman focused on his career in government service and the Union Pacific gradually lost interest in the resort. Rail service was discontinued to Ketchum in 1964 and that November the resort was sold to the Janss Investment Company, a major Southern California real estate developer headed by a former Olympic ski team member, Bill Janss (1918–96), founder of Snowmass. (Janss was an alternate on the 1940 team, but the games were cancelled due to the war). The railroad's management had called in the Janss Corporation as consultants and it was determined that it would take a lot of work and no less than $6 million for a face-lifting. The Union Pacific decided to sell and brothers Ed and Bill Janss bid just under $3 million. During this Janss era of ownership, the north-facing Warm Springs area was developed, as well as Seattle Ridge, and condominium and home construction increased significantly. Seven chairlifts were added, and the number of trails increased from 33 to 62. Bill Janss bought out his brother's share of the resort and gained full control of Sun Valley in 1968. The original Seattle Ridge double chairlift was installed in 1976, but due to a very poor snow year in 1976–77 it was not operated until December 20, 1977, christened by local legend Gretchen Fraser. Janss also has a ski run named after him, called "Janss Pass", to the skier's left of the Frenchman's chairlift. Janss' wife Ann, age 54, died in 1973 while helicopter skiing near Sun Valley. Later that year, Janss married Mrs. Glenn Cooper, a widow, family friend, and mother of five, including World Cup racer Christin Cooper, silver medalist in the women's giant slalom at the 1984 Winter Olympics.
Earl Holding (1977–present)
In 1977 Janss was running low on funds and had entered into negotiations to sell the resort to the Walt Disney Company. While the negotiations were strung out by Disney, Earl Holding, a Utah businessman, learned of the situation through a small article in The Wall Street Journal and contacted Janss and arranged for a meeting. For about $12 million, Holding purchased Sun Valley through his company, Sinclair Oil, which operates the Little America Hotels & Resorts. Holding was initially distrusted by many locals: "Earl is a Four Letter Word" was a popular bumper sticker in the late 1970s in Blaine County. But time proved that Holding did not buy the resort for property speculation; like his other assets he meant to operate and improve for the long-term. One of his first changes was the removal the archaic single-seat chairlift on Exhibition, replacing it with a triple. A daily lift ticket for Baldy during Holding's first season (1977–78) was priced at $13.
Under Holding's ownership there have been substantial improvements on the mountain: extensive snowmaking and grooming, high-capacity chairlifts, and the construction of four impressive day lodges, a gondola, and the renovation of the classic Roundhouse restaurant.
In 1977, the Warm Springs side boasted of snowmaking up to an elevation of , thought to be the highest anywhere at the time. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, snowmaking was significantly expanded on Bald Mountain. Three high-speed quad chairlifts were installed during the summer of 1988 (Christmas, Challenger & Greyhawk). An impressive day lodge, constructed of logs, river rock, and glass, opened at the base of Warm Springs in the fall of 1992, replacing the 1960s "Northface Hut" cafeteria. Similar day lodges were later opened at the Seattle Ridge summit (1993), and the River Run base (1995).
An older cafeteria, the modest one-floor "Lookout Restaurant," is below the summit at , at the top of three chairlifts. Built in 1973, it is the ground floor of a multi-story building that was never completed, resulting in its "basement-like" atmosphere. Nevertheless, the mountain views from this near-summit lodge are quite impressive. However, the resort's recently approved master plan has the facility slated for eventual replacement.
The Dollar Mountain Lodge opened in November 2004. This day lodge replaces the Dollar Cabin, and also serves as the headquarters for the Sun Valley Ski School. It is similar in construction to the newer day lodges at the big mountain.
The interior of the original Sun Valley Lodge has been remodeled twice during Holding's ownership, in 1985 for the golden anniversary and again in 2004. The Sun Valley Inn was also remodeled recently.
The Sun Valley golf course saw significant improvement in the summer of 2008, with the opening of the new "White Cloud Nine" course on the site of the old Gun Club (relocated further down along Trail Creek road), as well as the opening of the "Sun Valley Club", a full service golf course club house built in the style of the resort's mountain day lodges, replacing a much smaller and older facility.
2008 also saw the opening of the "Sun Valley Pavilion", built in partnership with the Sun Valley Summer Symphony as a permanent home for the orchestra's annual three-and-a-half week series of free concerts. The Pavilion is a one-of-a-kind state-of-the-art performing arts facility that has already hosted several well-known musical artists and more slated to perform in the near future.
In 2009, the resort installed the "Roundhouse Express Gondola" on Bald mountain, which runs from the mountain's River Run Base to the Roundhouse Restaurant (located midway up the mountain, at 7700 feet (2350 m)). The Exhibition triple chairlift, originally as a single chair in 1939, was removed with the addition of the new 8-passenger lift. The new gondola carries both skiers and non-skiers to the restaurant for lunch and eventually dinner year-round. The Roundhouse Restaurant was built in 1939 and was finished being remodeled to accommodate its new year round role in 2010.
In 2006, Forbes magazine estimated that Sun Valley was worth in the range of $300 million.
In the years before the World Cup circuit, the Harriman Cup at Sun Valley was one of the major ski races held in North America, along with the "Snow Cup" at Alta, the "Roch Cup" at Aspen Mountain, and the "Silver Belt" races at Sugar Bowl, north of Lake Tahoe. Originally known as the "Sun Valley International Open," the Harriman Cup races were the first major international ski competitions held in North America, beginning in 1937. The first three competitions of 1937–39 were held in the Boulder Mountains north of Sun Valley. Beginning in 1940, the Harriman Cup was held on the Warm Springs side of Bald Mountain, decades before chairlifts were installed on that north face of the mountain. American Dick Durrance won three of the first four Harriman Cups, stunning the overconfident Europeans.
The 1975 slalom was won by Gustavo Thoeni, the dominant World Cup skier of the early 1970s (which turned out to be his last win in the slalom discipline). A young Ingemar Stenmark of Sweden, perhaps the greatest technical ski racer ever, took the giant slalom title both years. Phil Mahre of White Pass, Washington, age 19, won the 1977 slalom race over Stenmark, with twin brother Steve placing third. It was Phil's second win (he had won a GS in France in December), but his first victory in the slalom and first in the U.S., and being from the Northwest, very close to home.
The present ownership has declined to host any World Cup races since, as it involves closing off runs for a significant time. But during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake (about to the southeast), Sun Valley was used as a training site for many nations' alpine and Nordic ski teams. The alpine speed events for the Olympics were held at a sister resort, Snowbasin, outside of Ogden, Utah.
Olympic medalists from Sun Valley include Gretchen Fraser, Christin Cooper, Picabo Street, and disabled skier Muffy Davis. Muffy Davis is also a founding and honorary board member of Sun Valley Adaptive Sports. All four have runs named after them on Bald Mountain: three are on Seattle Ridge (Gretchen's Gold, Christin's Silver (ex-Silver Fox), and Muffy's Medals (ex-Southern Comfort)), and Picabo's Street (ex-Plaza) on Warm Springs. US TV's legendary sports commentator Tim Ryan (CBS/NBC) also lives in Sun Valley as well as Ski Racing Magazine's proud owner, Gary Black Jr.