72 Hours in Sun Valley
The ultimate weekend guide to Idaho’s most adventure-packed mountain town
Cruise around the Sun Valley and Ketchum, Idaho area in the summer and you’ll see pickup trucks, SUVs, and Sprinter vans loaded down with bikes, boats, and fly rods. Look a little closer and you’ll notice that many of the license plates are from places like Montana, Colorado, and Oregon. It says something that the residents of these outdoorsy states choose Sun Valley as their vacation spot. They come for the mountains, trails, and creeks. But they also come for the mountain-town culture and climate. The average daytime high in July is 78 degrees, and Sun Valley is both dry and crisp, which is just about perfect for biking, hiking, horseback riding, paddling, fly-fishing, and everything else this locale has to offer. The best part? Every bit of that world-class recreation is within striking distance of a laid-back downtown packed with funky shops, sunny patios, and local eateries. Sun Valley offers enough adventure for a lifetime, but if you only have one weekend, here’s how to do it right.
You just got here. Maybe you flew into the Sun Valley airport—a puddle jump from Salt Lake, Portland, or Seattle—or maybe you drove the family rig. You have energy to burn, but there’s no need to head for the hills just yet. First you need to acclimate to Idaho time. Idle along the Wood River, walk the town, pop into The Elephant’s Perch on East Avenue to line up weekend bike rentals, or book a fly-fishing guide at Silver Creek Outfitters. Later, stop into Warfield Distillery and Brewery. The rooftop bar is the best spot in town to catch sunsets, especially while enjoying a Toothy Grin British Bitter or a Lucky 7 Idaho Pale Ale. And the food runs from fresh pub grub to Alaska lingcod with roasted rainbow carrots, squash-ginger puree, and sea-urchin butter. Bed down at the new Limelight Hotel, which Aspen Ski Company brought to town in 2016. Like the original Aspen property, it’s immaculate, economical, and kid- and pet-friendly.
Option #1: Gravel Ride
“In Idaho,” says local cyclist Adrian Montgomery, “all the best road roads are unpaved. Here it’s the asphalt that’s limited, not the dirt—we really just have one paved road.” If you don’t have a gravel bike, rent one at the Elephant’s Perch and then head out to explore some or all of the 56-mile Small Fry route, one of many rides created by local mountain-biking celebrity Rebecca Rusch. Every Labor Day on these same trails, Rusch hosts her signature event, Rebecca’s Private Idaho, a gravel-bike jamboree with upwards of a thousand participants.
Option #2: Hike Pioneer Cabin
You might see mountain bikers and equestrians on the three-and-a-half-mile Pioneer Cabin Trail, but you’re more likely to spot local hikers who head to this trailhead in high summer for a well-shaded trail that tops out in the alpine of the Pioneer Mountains overlooking a historic cabin that was built in 1937. Be warned, the Pioneers are steep. You’ll climb 2,500 vertical feet in less than four miles. Want something easier? Head to Baker Lake. It’s a five-miler, but with only 850-feet of elevation gain. Bring a fishing rod and a picnic.
If you chose biking, you can keep grinding on the 94-mile Big Potato course. Or wash up, grab the rest of the family, and head out with Silver Creek or Lost River Outfitters for an afternoon of fly-fishing. With families, both outfits will typically assign two guides so one can offer lessons to the kids while the other puts the adults onto fish—or vice versa, depending on the family dynamics. The longer the outing the better the experience, according to Lost River guide manager Susanne Connor. “It takes a while to chill out in the mountains and not be all hyped up like you are in the city. Our goal is to always go to a gorgeous place with few people and catch big fish.”
Refuel with a pilsner and burger on the Grumpy’s patio. You’ll want to eat early so you can spend the evening stargazing. The International Dark-Sky Association recently awarded Gold Tier status to this pocket of Idaho. To protect that ranking and fight light pollution, 906,000 acres north and west of town are now part of the Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve—the first designation of its kind in the country. Considering 80 percent of Americans can no longer see the Milky Way because of light pollution, the night ski in Idaho is not to be missed. For optimal viewing, head to Sun Valley Lake, just a short walk from Sun Valley Lodge.
Option #1: Watersports
In spring, the northern stretches of the Salmon River offer rowdy whitewater. Summer brings gentler whitewater rafting and mellow tubing closer to town. There’s also plenty of places for stand-up paddle boarding. Hulen Meadows pond is close to town, or you can make it a day-long adventure and head to Alturas, Pettit, and Redfish Lakes. The staff at Sawtooth Adventure Company can assist with all of the above, and offer everything from SUP rentals and classes to guided fly-fishing and rafting trips.
Option #2: Mountain Biking
Sun Valley and Ketchum are webbed with fast-rolling singletrack that seasoned riders flock to. It’s one of the original “long live long rides” destinations, with more than 400 miles of singletrack. For a family-friendly take on the sport, drive 23 miles north of town to the community-owned Galena Lodge, where expert riders can bank turns on purpose-built flow trails while newbies develop skills with the help of a guide on mellow terrain, and youngsters can head out on a guided nature walk. Galena offers 40 miles of modern singletrack with the luxury of a day lodge and restaurant. “I’ve never seen a location better suited to family mountain biking than Galena,” says Outside contributor Marc Peruzzi, who has made many bike trips to Sun Valley. “It’s the rare cross-country ski area that converts well to summer riding.”
As you drive back south, stop in the equally family-friendly Easley Hot Springs. While most Idaho hot springs are backcountry affairs, and often on the banks of rivers, the Easley springs were developed into chlorine-free tubs (98 degrees) and a large swimming pool (85 degrees). Admission is just a few bucks and it’s easy to spend an entire afternoon relaxing here.
Time to spoil yourself and celebrate your weekend of adventures. Do so at The Grill at Knob Hill, where owners Bob and Jolie Dunn offer a dining experience that’s akin to Tuscany in its aesthetics (open-air romantic garden) and Northwestern in its cuisine (Idaho lamb and rainbow trout are staples). Like Sun Valley, it’s casual but classy—and you won’t want to leave.
With an expansive network of hiking and biking trails, an unrivaled arts and culture scene for a town its size as well as some of the best and most surprising dining and shopping of any mountain town, Sun Valley is a place that once you visit you never will want to leave. The authentic small town, big life experience is as unpretentious and pristine as the mountains and rivers that surround the area. But don’t take our word for it, come check it out yourself!