Surrounded by a sea of mountain ranges, vast wilderness, and more skiing and biking terrain than most mountain towns, there is a lot more to Sun Valley, Idaho, than its reputation as a getaway for the wealthy may suggest. Sun Valley is widely known as one of the best mountain biking destinations in the Western United States, and the backcountry skiing terrain is so big and vast that it would take multiple lifetimes to truly get to know the surrounding mountains.
Mountains, mountains, mountains. I have traveled to many ski towns across Utah, Colorado, California, Washington, and British Columbia, and very few ski towns can compete with Sun Valley in terms of how extensive the surrounding mountains are. For the backcountry skier, the amount of terrain is truly mind-boggling. To the east of Ketchum are the Pioneer Mountains. The Pioneers are not well known outside of Idaho, but they are home to some of the state’s highest peaks and most dramatic backdrops. Hyndman Peak, at 12,009 feet, is Idaho’s second highest peak and can be seen from the town of Ketchum. To the north, the aptly named Sawtooths rise out of the Sawtooth Valley to create the largest mountain range in Idaho, and one of the largest in the Mountain West. The Sawtooths feel every bit as wild and rugged as the distant peaks appear, and the backcountry skiing matches the terrain. Boasting the highest snow totals in Idaho, the Sawtooths are a backcountry skier's dream.
Close to the town of Ketchum lie the Boulder Mountains. The Boulder Mountains are an impressive pack of tall, rocky peaks that are accessible right off Highway 75. Due to the proximity to town and the sheer size of the terrain, the Boulder Mountains are gaining popularity among the backcountry skiing crowd.
The Sun Valley area and its surrounding mountains have arguably the best system of yurts in the United States. Run by either Sun Valley Trekking or Sawtooth Mountain Guides, these yurts are located deep in the wilderness and deep in big time backcountry skiing terrain.
The Pioneer Yurt in the Pioneer Mountains is arguably the closest to town. Owned by Sun Valley Trekking, the Pioneer Yurt is by far the best option for backcountry skiing the Pioneers. Located in the heart of the range in a basin below Hyndman, Old Hyndman, and Cobb Peak, the terrain surrounding this yurt is truly awe-inspiring. Right out the door of the yurt is a large meadow with mellow slopes, while slightly steeper terrain can be had just a few miles toward Hyndman. Oh, and did I mention the sauna that accompanies the yurt?! True luxury in the depths of the wilderness.
The Fishhook Yurt, run by Sun Valley Trekking, is borderline famous in the backcountry yurt community for its wood-burning hot tub. Located 4 miles up Sawtooth Canyon, the Fishhook Yurt is situated in a beautiful, remote alpine setting in close proximity to big ski lines, the prize being the Sickle Couloir, which is arguably the most iconic ski line in Idaho.
If you don’t have multiple days to dedicate to skiing, have no fear; Galena Summit is a scenic 45 minutes north of Ketchum and is a playground for backcountry skiers. Galena Summit feels a bit like Teton Pass in that good skiing is close to the car, though the terrain is arguably bigger and has far less crowds. Skin up the ridgeline from the car at Galena Summit and you can ski anything from mellow glades to intimidating mountain faces. I have never seen a place with so many options so close to the parking lot.
Feeling like you should brush up on your skills before heading out into the Sawtooth wilds? Ketchum has a wealth of operations that aim to teach backcountry education, skills, and safety. Sun Valley Trekking, which operates the Pioneer and Fishhook Yurts mentioned above, offers a variety of backcountry avalanche classes as well as guided tours. They will also supply a guide for parties venturing out to their yurts for the first time. My group was incredibly happy that we made the decision to be guided to the Pioneer Yurt when it was a blizzard with whiteout conditions on our hike in. Sawtooth Guides, which operates the famous Williams Peak Yurt, also teaches avalanche education as well as mountaineering classes. Looking to bag peaks and ski off the summit? Sawtooth Guides will help get you there.
If you'll be traveling with the family and going on long ski tours isn’t an option, the Sun Valley area still has a wealth of options for recreating in the snow. Galena Lodge, just north of town, offers a wide variety of activities from cross-country skiing and snowshoeing to ski touring right from the backyard. Located at the foot of the Boulder Mountains and with 50 kilometers of a groomed Nordic skiing track, there is something for everyone at Galena Lodge.
Of course, anyone planning on venturing out into the wilds surrounding Sun Valley during winter should be educated in the topic of avalanches and how to safely travel in avalanche terrain. The Sawtooth Avalanche Center should be the primary tool for those planning on skiing the local terrain, while many other mountain ranges across the west have their own forecasting system. There are also plenty of resources online that can help teach you what to bring while backcountry skiing and how to use that gear.
With more mountains than can be tackled in a lifetime, a small town with a vibrant culture, and backcountry skiing resources that are second to none, the Sun Valley area should be high on the list for any backcountry skier. Anywhere.