USA, ID: Sun Valley Lodge, KetchumFor Ketchum and Sun Valley locals, spring, summer and autumn are all about the outdoors and enjoying what nature has delivered in abundance. The region is renowned for a host of world class challenging golf courses, great trout fishing rivers and lakes, over-the-top mountain biking and hiking trails as well as the chance to horse ride over stunning passes into the wild high country.
AUTHOR & PHOTOGRAPHER: ©Shane Boocock 2013
Many people have heard about Sun Valley at one time or another, especially if you are a skier as it is a recognizable name that has a pedigree to match some of the world’s best ski resorts. However, not many people will know it has the distinction of being the first ski resort in America to offer a chairlift to the top of a mountain – the year was 1936! It was also just before Christmas that year that Sun Valley Lodge first opened its doors at a cost of US$1.5 million.
On a beautiful hot August day as I descended into Sun Valley, not far outside the quaint town of Ketchum. I could see the town’s famous ski resort, Bald Mountain directly in front of me, tantalizingly close but bereft of snow.
For Ketchum and Sun Valley locals, spring, summer and autumn are all about the outdoors and enjoying what nature has delivered in abundance. The region is renowned for a host of world class challenging golf courses, great trout fishing rivers and lakes, over-the-top mountain biking and hiking trails as well as the chance to horse ride over stunning passes into the wild high country . . . you see Sun Valley isn’t all about snow sports.
Born in the days of the Wild West, Ketchum in the 1880s was first and foremost a silver and lead mining town tucked away in a long broad valley where the flow of the Big Wood River meandered its way to the southern flatlands. As the mining boom died, sheep farming and ranching expanded as did the railroad branch-line of the Union Pacific which veined its way into town, a place where in the distance, the saw-toothed mountains rose majestically.
In 1936, the town had exactly seven bars, a few cafés, a harness shop, haberdashery and mercantile store and rustic, log-built cabin style accommodation. In the Casino Hotel Café, miniature slot machines were bolted to the bar top. It was a place to eat steaks or fried chicken and where the popular cocktail of the day was called a Pink Squirrel. But, with the arrival of a tourist resort, locals were skeptical about a new type of boom that might sweep over their barns, corrals, outhouses and otherwise ghost-like town.
It all started after the end of the 1932 Winter Olympics, held for the first time in the United States at Lake Placid, New York. Averell Harriman, the influential Chief Executive of the Union Pacific Railroad was an inspired man. Needing to expand his railroad he envisioned an American ski resort to rival the best European Alpine resorts. His scout, Felix Schaffgotsch, began a tiring six-week search of the Western Rockies. In January 1936, Schaffgotsch recommended an unknown valley in Idaho at the end of a 56-mile long branch line that frequently had to be cleared of snow.
Within two weeks, Harriman viewed the snow-covered mountains and realized his dream could be a reality. A deal was struck and he signed a Union Pacific Railroad check for US$39,000 for the sale of 4,300-acres of Brass Ranch just two miles outside of Ketchum, Idaho—in that instance Sun Valley was born.
His idea was to build a year-round resort, a blueprint for the future of American skiing. The construction of the four-storied Sun Valley Lodge took less than a year and just before Christmas 1936 it was ready for a grand opening. On nearby Proctor and Dollar Mountains ski runs had already been laid out. Towropes, like those found on eastern slopes were discarded in favour of a new, revolutionary type chairlifts; a system similar to the overhead cables that was used to hoist boxes of bananas onto ships in the Caribbean—these were the first ski resort chairlifts in the world.
To bring publicity to the new resort, Sun Valley Lodge hit on the idea of using some star-power. With the flair and panache that wouldn’t go amiss in modern day celebrity openings, Harriman, the owner of Sun Valley Lodge hired a scintillating public relations guru, Steve Hannagan to make the Lodge’s ‘Grand Opening’ an affair to remember. Hollywood was heading to the Rockies.
Once inside the special Union Pacific train, Greta Garbo took her seat alongside the assembly of glittering stars and powerful men, including swashbuckler Errol Flynn, America’s sweetheart Claudette Colbert, Hitchcock heroine Madeleine Carroll, Gone with the Wind producer David O. Selznick and celebrated director George Cukor. The “Sun Valley Special” pulled out of Los Angeles to begin its 20-plus hour ride to the tiny town of Shoshone, Idaho. Everyone was then chauffeured to the resort. Also on the list was tough-guy screen star Gary Cooper and screen siren Barbara Stanwyck and her husband Robert Montgomery. It was a winter vacation like none otherand the world headlines were worth every penny of it.
Sun Valley Resort amenities included a skating rink, billiards room, glass enclosed heated pool, a black-tie orchestra and a bowling alley. It was a luxurious lodge with fabulous décor and facilities: overstuffed leather armchairs, large roaring fireplaces, expansive high-ceiling lounges, the Durchin Bar, fine dining restaurants and exquisite, if somewhat plainly decorated rooms compared with today’s standards.
To pamper the Hollywood stars and other socialites Harriman introduced sleigh rides that took guests the one and a half miles to the rustic-log-style Trial Creek Cabin for a four-course dinner under low roof beams and in front of a beautiful stone fireplace stacked with blazing logs. Sleigh rides are still available to guests today.
The next year, the new chalet-style Sun Valley Inn was built to accommodate the rising influx of guests who flocked there. Each year the celebrity culture and exclusivity was extended and by 1939 Ernest Hemingway, the famed author, as much the celebrity as the Hollywood stars, was on the list of invitees.
Today, Ketchum is an affluent, slightly gentrified community embroidered with village cafes, chic boutiques and galleries, bookshops, bars and gift shops, a laid-back town that thrives on Sun Valley’s visitors.
In winter, gentle hills and tall mountains shimmer in thick snow, edging Ketchum and Sun Valley on three sides, perfect for Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, snowboarding or skiing. It’s what still attracts big celebrities. Movie stars such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood and many others often call this place home for part of the year.
In Sun Valley, an area of 1,500 square miles, summer rivals winter. Golf courses are full, hiking and bike trails crisscross valleys, streams and woods, fishing and horse riding are popular and new day lodges have been added to 9,150-foot (2,780m) Bald Mountain, known locally as Baldy. America’s fascination with outdoor pursuits and recreation has truly revived this once ghost-like town into a year-round playground for both locals and visitors alike . . . from the peaceful explorer to the hardcore adventurer.
Having skied a good number of USA ski resorts over the past 30 years, I have finally made a note in my travel diary that one of these years I’ll return again to Sun Valley but next time in winter . . . not spring, summer or autumn but when Bald Mountain is packed in deep snow and the sound of sleigh bells ring out loudly.
For additional information on Sun Valley Resort go to: www.sunvalley.com
Air New Zealand offer direct flights to San Francisco connecting with daily domestic United Airlines flight of only one hour flight to Biose. www.airnewzealand.co.nz
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