This year the snow hounds are running Idaho’s ski slopes with gleeful abandon. The snow started early, late October. By Thanksgiving, Sun Valley, Idaho’s premier, internationally-known ski resort was open. With an average of 220 inches of snow and 3,400 vertical feet of mountain, Sun Valley deserves the kudos as one of the World’s great ski resorts. Sun Valley was recently ranked by National Geographic as one of the top 25 ski resorts in the world.
Sun Valley has a long and storied history, opening the first chairlift in 1936. Sun Valley has produced some of the nation’s best skiers and snowboarders, including a large share of Olympic team members and medalists. In honor of this history, Sun Valley has runs named after medalists such as Gretchen’s Gold (Gretchen Fraser, first American to win gold medal in skiing, 1948), Christin’s Silver (Christin Cooper, silver medal, 1984), and Picabo Street (Picabo Street, first American woman to win the World Cup and three Olympic medals, 1998).
The summit of Bald Mountain (Baldy), the main hill, rises a majestic 7,540 feet. The resort hosts 19 lifts transporting skiers to 80 runs, the longest providing 4 miles of terrain. Sun Valley attracts celebrities and the wealthy to its slopes.
The hill and base of Baldy are populated with 5 day lodges offering a relaxing mid-day break at the bottom or a quick stop off at the Round House at the top or at several other stops along the hill. The resort village is filled with condominiums for the well-off. The internationally known Sun Valley Resort (Lodge and Inn 4 miles from the main ski resort but a stone’s throw from a small hill called Dollar Mountain) offers outdoor skating, bowling, movies, spa treatments, sleigh rides, Nordic skiing, year-round outdoor swimming, an array of restaurants all within a small Nordic village. In and around, the western town of Ketchum, home of the resort, the uber wealthy live in multi-million dollar homes and ranches and dart in on their private jets regularly for long weekends.
Sun Valley reminds me of a wealthy, eccentric older uncle–fun to see occasionally, elitist by nature and difficult to keep up with because of the expense. The lift tickets for Sun Valley this year are adults, $115 ($125 over Christmas Holidays) and children, $65 ($75 Christmas). The lodging in Sun Valley echoes the bluster of Old Baldy. They are beautiful to see but expensive to utilize. The restaurants provide exquisite delights at equally astounding prices.
Because of the sometimes haughty and expensive nature of Sun Valley; many Boiseans drive 80 minutes north to ski in McCall, Idaho (Sun Valley’s cheaper, friendlier and smaller cousin). Located 8 miles from McCall, Brundage Mountain has no condos at its base. But it sports 46 trails, 2 terrain parks, 5 lifts and this year has 75 inches of snow at its summit (average snowfall over the winter 320 inches). The vertical drop at Brundage is only 1800 feet. So unlike Sun Valley where you can peer over a ridge and look straight down into Ketchum, Brundage terrain is more rolling. Make no mistake, many Idaho skiers know how to find challenging terrain at Brundage by hiking up parts of the mountain or skiing in the trees. With one run of 2 miles, Brundage offers wide expanses of skiing before hitting the tows again. Brundage ski tickets cost $62 for an adult, $37 for teens and $23 for children.
If you buy a mulit-day pass, a teenager can ski for 5 days for about $150. There are lots of families on the hill and in the single lodge on the mountain. Because Idaho’s population is small, many days, you will see people you know from Boise (Idaho’s largest city) on the lifts, in the tow lines or taking a break at the lodge. My daughter’s 30 second elevator speech to describe Brundage this year is “Waist Deep Powder with great food in the lodge!”
Brundage is a much better location for children to learn to ski than Sun Valley. Both of my children participated in the Brundage Bear ski program. We would drop them off in the morning, pick them up for lunch and then drop them off in the afternoon.
This left us free to ski the hill without little children in tow. Now ages 22 and 16, both of my kids are excellent skiers. On the other hand, when we went to Sun Valley, Bald Mountain is too difficult for young children. While a children’s ski program is offered, you drop your children off at Dollar Mountain and then ski Bald Mountain 4 miles away. We actually never utilized the full ski program at Sun Valley. Rather we chose the Kinder Care program where children were offered an hour of skiing with excellent day care. We weren’t comfortable with young children being in a full day ski program with such a large distance between Dollar Mountain for children and Bald Mountain for adults. Other parents may feel differently.
We own a cabin in McCall, as do many other folks from Boise, because the cost of real estate is relatively inexpensive. We bought the cabin to have a haven for family gatherings.
Like Brundage Mountain, the town of McCall focuses on being friendly and accessible with reasonably priced dining and family activities including an indoor ice skating rink, tubing hill and several natural hot springs located a few miles outside of town. The only movie theater is 30 minutes away on winter roads, so most folks utilize streaming or DVDs for media entertainment. Winter in McCall is a much more rustic experience than winter in Sun Valley. If you don’t own your own place, there is one resort, Shore Lodge, and an array of lodging of the Holiday Inn Express variety. With possibly one or two exceptions, the McCall restaurants while tasty are not gourmet and the prices reflect this.
In conclusion, both Sun Valley and Brundage are part of the Idaho ski hill family but they have very different personalities. If you are planning a skiing vacation in Idaho and have lots of money and you are expecting a five diamond experience or if you are an expert skier, go to Sun Valley. If you have a family, or many different levels of skiers in the group consider McCall. Both resorts are worthy of a visit but depending on your skiing ability and pocket book one may have more appeal than the other.