Friday, January 24 was the start of McCall, Idaho annual Winter Carnival. This family centri event is bound to please all the snow hounds in your household with everything from gorgeous snow sculptures to fireworks, parade, dog sledding and mongrel racing. Of course there are all the snow events; downhill skiing, skating, cross country skiing, snow shoeing, and sledding. We go almost every year and I am always amazed by the local creativity and work that goes into the sculptures.
We go every year. I remember the kids finding the big piles of snow to crawl on better than the sculptures. Their dad is still delighted by snow. He likes to knock it off our cabin roof. He loves to chop wood and fill the wood stove to make our cabin really cozy. The Winter Carnival offers something for everyone, a place to make family memories of good times in snowy weather.
Do you have a hard time finding activities that young children, teenagers, parents, and grandparents can all enjoy together?McCall Winter Carnival is one of those rare events providing family fun for all age groups and the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors by escaping the constant demands of social media and screen time. All of this and it’s free!
As I write, the 51st Winter Carnival is in full swing. Kicking off Friday, January 29th with a children’s torch light parade and fireworks, the festival runs through February 7th , 2016 with a variety of activities all week. This year’s theme is Beyond Tomorrow, boasting 40 futuristic snow sculptures scattered all over town.
The necessary ingredients for a great winter celebration are snow (lots of it) and cold weather. This year McCall has had plenty of both. We own a place in McCall and we’ve had enough snow to knock down a tree in our front yard and require us to dig a path way for our dogs out to the backyard. I like to think the path out back as our own little interactive snow tunnel for dogs.
The kickoff event for the carnival is a children’s torch light parade to the shores of Payette Lake for a fireworks display.
This year it was so icy everyone joined the torch light parade to walk in the streets and avoid the slick sidewalks. There is an indescribable joy, marching in the crisp, cold dark with children waving light wands and parents wearing glowing multicolored necklaces on a cold night. Since it gets dark early this time of year, fireworks start at 7, still early enough for young children. For those who like to party, the fireworks provide fabulous festive start to a night on the town.
This year, the fireworks were shot from the shore of the lake. The viewers lined up along the snow banks just above the launching point. The dazzling bursts of color burst right over our heads. Some explosions were so close, I felt like it could reach out and touch them. My feet reverberated on the ground when the big boomers went off, sprinkling a few harmless ashes among us. The area near the lake was covered with a light dusting of smoke, like English fog. As my 16 year old daughter said, “The smaller the burst, the larger the boom.” Once the fireworks were over we headed home for board games around the table in front of a blazing wood stove. We have internet but no regular TV in our cabin. But since we tend to gather as a group, we have found cards and games to be a good social activity at least one night of the weekend.
The next morning my crowd of teenagers were up early to catch the first chair up Brundage Mountain. The ski hill tends to be empty during Winter Carnival because of all the activities in town. The kids’ ski report that afternoon was the “hill was uncrowded” and there was lots of new snow.
Meanwhile back in town, the crowds were huge for the annual Mardi Gras Parade. Replicating New Orleans, McCall’s pageant is resplendent with purple, green and gold beads for partiers, lively music and an array of local floats.
Parade viewers are lined up three or four deep in sloshing snow. I heard one mom tell her toddler not to get wet. With all the snow and slush, this order was like trying to stop a locomotive when the brakes go out. He promptly jumped in a puddle splashing water half way up his legs and on everyone standing near him. This total disobedience made me laugh out loud.
Snow and kids are a magical mixture, assuming the kids are dressed for the cold weather. In McCall this weekend, I saw kids of all sizes sliding down snow hills on butts, sleds or whatever other device would move. During Winter Carnival, McCall balloons from a sleepy mountain town of 3,000 to over 60,000 visitors so believe me there are lots of interesting people and activities all around you. One man fighting his way through the slush on the way to the car was overheard describing the crowds on his phone with, “I’m in the guts of this thing right now!” The downtown on the first Saturday of Winter Carnival is not for the faint heart. The pulsating energy of so many people is also part of the appeal of the festival.
Other events throughout the week are pancake breakfasts, gourmet dinners, bike races (motorcycles), Nordic racing, snowmobile fun run, theater, and continuous live music on an outdoor stage, hockey games in the town’s fabulous indoor rink, ice shows, beer garden, and food trucks.
There are also the McCall regular activities including skiing on a great hill, tubing at the Activity Barn, soaking at one of three hot springs, or just hanging out in front of a warm fire and watching it snow.
My favorite event because I’m an animal lover is the Monster Dog Pull. Sponsored by McPaws Animal Shelter, regular people showcase their every day dogs pulling appropriate weighted sleds on a short course.
Competition and sled size is determined by the size of the dog. While some dogs were born to run, others take the race as the opportunity to meet and greet all the by-standers along the way as if they were beauty queens in a parade, and other canines take on the role of victim and just sit down refusing to transform from pets to working dogs. You can see by their expressions these dogs think their owners who are calling them loudly, waving treats, and otherwise making a fool of themselves are just plain nuts. Maybe during Winter Carnival, similar to New Orleans, happiness and fun may make us all just a little nuts (in a good way).
If you didn’t get to McCall this weekend, don’t despair. There is still time to spend a day in McCall and see the snow sculptures which this year should stay in pretty good shape throughout the week. In warm winters, the snow sculptures melt right before viewers’ eyes.
If you are from out of state, consider putting the Carnival on your travel bucket list. If you are a couple with money, try out the Hotel McCall which is right in the thick of the action so you won’t have to use your car. The next closest high end choice is the Shore Lodge, great for couples and families but further from the action. The lodge does run regular shuttles throughout the event. For families with fewer resources and a weekend to spare, America’s Best Value Inn, while a little run down, has reasonable rates, a swimming pool, and breakfast each morning. The biggest draw is it’s within walking distance of everything. McCall has some great new hotels including the Holiday Inn and Best Western but they are on the outskirts of town and require you either take the shuttle, walk longer distances or fight the traffic. If you are coming to spend the week and get in some high quality skiing and relaxing, I would recommend you look into renting a cabin. McCall has gorgeous rentals at reasonable prices. Since McCall does sell out, don’t wait until the last minute to make your travel plans for next year. Under any circumstances, I would plan my trip to take advantage of the community shuttles or to stay within walking distance events. Hassling with traffic jams and no parking in a small town really detracts from the overall joy and carnival spirit.
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.