Sun Valley - `civilized wilderness'. The queen of ski resorts isn't just for winter vacationing. In summer, visitors come to `rough it' in comfort and luxury.
| Sun Valley, Idaho
STEVE HANNAGAN, the first publicity director for America's first ski resort, actually hated winter. To help him forget the snow and cold, he dubbed the Union Pacific-built complex ``Sun Valley,'' with emphasis on the ``Sun.'' He also suggested ways to make life in snow country bearable. ``Roughing it must be a luxury'' was his motto. So Sun Valley opened with all the trimmings of a full-fledged European resort in place.
For 50 years now, Sun Valley has reigned as the glamour queen of ski resorts, the quintessential blend of perfect snow and classy apr`es. But to the ``natives'' - people who have lived here for more than three years - there's more to this place than the slopes. Most did indeed come for the winter, but they have stayed for the summer.
The Sun Valley resort - and the next-door town of Ketchum - is the southern gateway to the Sawtooth National Recreational Area. White water rafting, horseback riding, backpacking, and mountain climbing are just some of the summer activities.
But as in winter, so in summer, roughing it is still done in style. Here, a bag lunch might include smoked trout and vichyssoise. A backpacking trip can be finished off with a swim and sauna. You can take a photography lesson on horseback from noted photographer Jack Williams, or explore the mountains by trail bike.
If you would rather just see the wilderness than be in it, you can enjoy the mountain scenery from a golf course or tennis court, then feast on fresh salmon at a creekside restaurant. The old Wild West was never like this.
City and country elements blend easily here. Art galleries are interspersed with Western wear shops. Music festivals include jazz and classical, as well as folk and country. There's even a ballet foundation, but you can also see Western swing dancing at some of the night spots.
Even the condos and the cowboys seem to go together, and just about the only thing that distinguishes a cowboy from an actor is his car - the actor drives a newer truck. But then, some Sun Valleyites, such as Clint Eastwood, are both.
The whole town pitches in for the ``Wagon Days'' parade and festival at summer's end. Teen-age skateboarders with flattops and red sunglasses will be serving up the flapjack breakfast alongside old-timers in cowboy hats and boots.
Sun Valley is like one of those pictures that gives a different image, depending on whether you slant it toward you or away. At eye level, you see a resort with every comfort and luxury. But look up, and you see the Wild West. The mountains on three sides of the valley look like brown velvet pyramids lovingly brushed in by Disney animators on a background sky of billowy clouds. A stubbly beard of dark green pine trees is painted here and there down a north slope, while the southern and western faces glow in warm earth tones of golden sage.
At the foot of the valley stands Mt. Baldy, at 9,200 feet the only wooded mountain in sight, except for its pate. On other mountains, ski runs can look like ugly gashes in summer. Not so Baldy, perhaps because other mountains around the valley are bare, or because the runs follow the natural contours of the mountain.
An ordinance keeping the condos and villas down in the valley instead of up on the hills also helps preserve the natural look of the landscape.
Beyond Sun Valley-Ketchum is the wilderness area of the jagged Sawtooth range. Cross over Gelena Summit, and you're out of the new West and back in the old. This is the Stanley Basin, the headwaters of the Salmon River that Lewis and Clark dubbed ``The River of No Return.''
Still a working area - mining, timbering, sheep and cattle raising - in winter, this place gives new meaning to the term ``snowed in.'' Watch the weather reports next winter, and notice how often Stanley, Idaho, gets top billing as the coldest spot in the continental United States.
The women of the families out here call themselves ``Sawtooth Mountain Mamas'' and are quite adept at quilting.
The town of Stanley looks like a postcard from Alaska. Glacier-tipped mountains hover above a high plain. Low wooden buildings huddle together along a dirt street lined with hitchracks for horses, and there are more huskies and malamutes than trees. The town comes alive on Friday and Saturday nights with swing dancing to the sounds of steel guitars and country fiddles.
Hundreds of miles of hiking trails crisscross the Sawtooths, with many suitable for day hikes. The mountains can also be seen from horseback or trail bike. Guided tours and lessons are available for just about every outdoor activity.
I signed on for a day-long trip on the Salmon River with Sun Valley Wilderness Outfitters in Stanley. Our rubber raft held six paddlers and the guide, who steered from the stern. Once aboard, we received a quick course in river running. This mainly entailed knowing left from right, and forward and back.
As our guide called out commands - ``Left forward paddle,'' ``Right back paddle,'' ``Everyone dig it in!'' - we went down ``Piece of Cake,'' the first rapids, bumper-car style. By our third round of white water we were pulling together like champs. It was undoubtedly the admonition ``Paddle or die!'' that did the trick.
Between rapids, we floated more leisurely downstream. An occasional swarm of river gnats would be a tipoff to look below for schools of trout.
We stopped for lunch along the riverbank for a gourmet meal of chicken breasts, salad, rice, and Dutch oven apple cake, cooked by our handsome and handy young boatman while we dried our socks and sneakers by the fire. Back in the boat, we navigated through ``The Rock Garden'' like pros, and then floated the last mile down to our landing site.
At one point in the trip I took a wave full-on from head to waist. This was refreshing at the time, but left me looking like I had been in the river rather than just on it. When I returned to the Sun Valley Lodge that evening, the fresh-faced young doorman asked if I had enjoyed the day. When I enthusiastically answered, ``It was fabulous!'' he suggested I might like to try horseback riding. He obviously knew a rugged adventurer when he saw one!
As it happened, I was already booked on a day-long ride into the high country off Trail Creek with Outfitters. Feeling like a real cowgirl in my new straw cowboy hat and boots, I climbed aboard my noble steed, a small gray mountain pony called Jake.
Our group included dignitaries from the sister city of Tegernsee, West Germany, only some of whom spoke English. The only German word I could pick up from their conversation was ``cowfrau,'' which I assumed was alluding to our trail guide. She was a dead ringer for Annie Oakley, down to the six-shooter at her side. She turned out to be a charming young woman, which was more than you could say for her horse, a large mare obviously used to having its own way, and just as obviously not getting it with this lady in the driver's seat. Not for sissies, the life of a high-mountain cowfrau!
Our ride was a three-hour, up-hill-and-down-dale affair, along the side of a mountain. We were above the timber line when we stopped for lunch. Our picnic was packed-in by horse in ice chests. At this elevation, over 10,000 feet, we watched an eagle soar above. Small glaciers still clung to the crags in the mountains beyond us, while close by, Indian paintbrush poked out from piles of shale and granite.
A sauna and swim were particularly welcome at the end of this day. As I strolled back to the lodge through the mall of shops and restaurants, the pianist on the terrace of the Ram Caf'e was playing ``The Lonely Goatherd'' from ``The Sound of Music'' while children fed the swans and ducks in the small pond in front. Although I was in the heart of the West, it seemed oddly appropriate to be watching the sun sink over a Tyrolean clock tower.
On the way back to the lodge, I noticed a T-shirt in a shop window that said, ``Sun Valley, Civilized Wilderness.'' That says it all.
If you go
Alaskan Airlines flies into Sun Valley. Delta and United Air Lines connect with Alaskan through Boise, Idaho, and Salt Lake City.
A reservation service will book a complete vacation package for you, including airline tickets, rental car, activities, and accommodations. Call or write Sun Valley Accommodations, PO Box 313, Sun Valley, ID 83353, or call 800-635-4156.
Sun Valley Lodge prices start at $60; other accommodations in the area start at $30.