48 Hours in Sun Valley: A Skier's Guide to Idaho's Best Backcountry
Steep couloirs, burn zone ski tours, natural hot springs, and hazy 35mm photography by way of local legend Wyatt Caldwell
Graham Hiemstra, David Ryder
For decades I’ve been told time and time again how good the skiing is in Sun Valley, Idaho. How the natural terrain is beyond beautiful—and how so many celebrities own seasonal homes there. The former always piqued my interest, but the later kept me away. Aspen isn’t my scene, so why would Sun Valley be any different? Then last season I had the opportunity to see for myself, under the guidance of legendary local Wyatt Caldwell, a friend of friend, decades-long pro snowboarder, and guide athlete for Northwest outfitter Eddie Bauer.
And let me tell you, all the years I avoided Idaho have been wasted.
Developed by the chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad in 1936, Sun Valley is recognized as both the first destination winter resort in America and home to the first chairlift in the world. But when most refer to “Sun Valley” they’re often speaking more broadly about the neighboring city Ketchum and the Wood River Valley (Sun Valley is the name of the ski resort, not an actual town). This is an important designation. Though the area has been a destination for the rich and the famous—including a favorite and final resting place of Ernest Hemingway—for going on 80 years now, it feels largely less like a fancy resort village and more like a classic mountain town.
Surrounded by the Pioneer Mountains to the east, Boulder-White Cloud Wilderness to the north, Sawtooths to northwest, and Smokey Mountains to the west, and peppered with natural hot springs, this modest valley in central Idaho might just be paradise.
Over the span of three days—two on hill—Field Mag contributor David Ryder and myself explored the Sun Valley area backcountry with Wyatt and fellow local and Eddie Bauer ski guide Reggie Crist. Working with Sun Valley Guides, the Stellar Media founders took us on a tour of their favorite local backcountry zones. Scroll on to see for yourself.
Day 1: Sled Skiing in the Boulder Mountains
Day one consisted of sled-access lines in the Boulder Mountains where we learned the thrill and efficiency of the exhilarating Idaho Elevator (doubling up a snowmobile, charging up a face as one person bails off once the sled reaches its apex) and hiked a rather puckering couloir on the shoulder of 11,240’ Lorenzo Peak.
Day 2: Splitboard Tour of Smokey Mountains Burn Zone
For day two Wyatt took us for a mellow ski tour in the Smokey Mountains. After using snowmobiles to reach a backcountry trailhead eight miles in, we skinned up through a pristine burn zone, admired the perfect matchsticks, and enjoyed satisfying turns on warming corn snow on the way down. Earn your turns ladies and gentlemen. Ain’t nothing like it!
13 Do's & Don'ts for Backcountry Exploring in Sun Valley Area, as Told by Lifelong Local and Pro Snowboarder Wyatt Caldwell
- DO pack a hot thermos of miso soup for mid-morning warm up break
- DON'T leave your sandwich in bottom of backpack to get smashed
- DO check the avalanche report and double check your avy kit (does your beacon need new batteries?!)
- DON'T underestimate a bumpy sled trail—pack extra rubber voile straps and strap down your gear
- DO use the terrain feature around you to combat vertigo in flat light conditions
- DON'T make it easy for other backcountry riders to follow your tracks
- DO pack a small flat scraper for ice on skins & board base
- DON'T leave your aprés beer in truck, stick it in snowbank for a cold snack at the end of the day
- DO put your heel risers down before attempting to splitboard ski downhill!
- DON'T put your splitboard bindings on the wrong feet, you WILL fall
- DO hit the hot tub at Hotel Ketchum to soak the sore bones—or better yet, befriend a local and get the scoop on one of many natural hot springs in the area
- DON'T under estimate the power of nature's fury, we are guests in the backcountry
- DO grab a beer and 1/2 lb burger at Grumpys in Ketchum after a long day in the woods