Sun Valley, Idaho, summer rush
Larry Habegger, Special to The Chronicle
Sunday, July 3, 2011
(full article: http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/07/03/TRVH1K1S8K.DTL)
“This has got to be the craziest sport I’ve ever done,” my friend George said to me as we rested on our mountain bikes gazing down a precipitous slope toward pine forest and distant spiky mountains. “Here we are in one of the most beautiful places on Earth, and when we’re riding, we can’t even look at the scenery.”
The mountain bike trails from the top of Sun Valley’s fabled Bald Mountain (9,150 feet elevation) wind through meadows, switchback down sheer slopes, weave through pine forests and really get the adrenaline flowing. We were cruising (or rather, braking) down 8-mile-long Warm Springs Trail, because the friendly fellow who sold us tickets for the gondola to take us to the top sized us up and said, “When you get up there, you have two choices, Cold Springs and Warm Springs. You folks want Warm Springs. Cold Springs is not for the faint of heart.”
I would say that mountain biking on a ski mountain by definition is not for the faint of heart.
As any ski bum knows, Sun Valley, Idaho, is one of North America’s premier ski destinations and a true winter wonderland. Its summer attractions, though, are many and often overlooked. I was there because a friend put together a mini reunion of college pals and told us he thought Sun Valley would be the ideal place to meet. We wanted to be playing in the outdoors, doing physical things, perhaps trying to convince ourselves that we were as young as we felt. And it turned out my friend was right, Sun Valley was the ideal place.
You don’t have to be an outdoors fanatic, however, to enjoy Sun Valley. This year-round resort area rubbing shoulders with the town of Ketchum offers plenty of non-outdoorsy summer fun and frolic, from film festivals to free outdoor symphony performances to Old West hoedowns to art fairs.
The area has ample resort activities to keep you busy (spa treatments, Jacuzzis, lying poolside book and beverage in hand, swimming, tennis, golf) and also a long history as a playground for the rich and famous. But the decidedly nonrich and nonfamous can have a grand time here as well. Vacation condos are available at reasonable prices, and there are plenty of good restaurants that won’t break the bank. This was all good news for our group.
That day on mountain bikes, it wasn’t a stretch to say that one of us could easily have flown off the mountain over the three hours we made our way down. The widest part of the trail was about 2 feet, most of it loose rock with the occasional boulder and gnarly tree root, and hairpin switchbacks took us down the steepest sections.
At one point, when one of us had a minor crash and skinned knees, a more experienced biker who stopped to help commented merrily, “If you aren’t bleeding it wouldn’t be mountain biking!”
The wildflowers on the open slopes near the top dazzled us with their pinks and purples and yellows and blues, but as we descended and entered a forest burn zone, we came upon a scene “straight out of the ‘Wizard of Oz,’ ” my friend Lee said: wild hollyhocks as far up and down the slope as we could see.
The previous day we hadn’t pushed ourselves so hard.
“That’s a big-fish cast,” guide Jim Santa said as my fly landed on the far side of the creek just shy of the willows lining the bank. The fly caught the current, drifted through the ripples into the shade, swirled once and flowed under the overhanging bush in the deep water. “Whoa. There’s gotta be a fish there. Put it back there again.”
I recast and landed the fly in the same spot, watched it run with the current in the shade, under the willows and through the deep water again. But no strike.
We were fishing Wild Horse Creek, a quintessential Idaho trout stream in Copper Basin in Challis National Forest 26 miles north of Sun Valley. Idaho is legendary country for fly-fishing. The snowmelt streams that flow out of the high-desert mountains and cut through the valleys are loaded with trout and have drawn avid fishermen (and fisherwomen) for decades.
It didn’t take me long to get my baptism. I was feeling my way across the stream in calf-deep water when I lifted a foot to step over a boulder. The fast-flowing river wasted no time in pushing that raised foot downstream, pivoting me on my one solid foot and planting me nearly on my face.
The good thing about being out of sight of your fishing buddies at times like this is that they don’t see your pratfalls. The bad thing, though, is when you do catch a fish, no one will believe you unless you produce some evidence.
About 30 minutes later, I did manage to land an 18-incher. Because we were catching and releasing, I didn’t want to keep him out of the water long, so I got him next to my boot, pulled my camera out of a dry box and snapped a photo. A moment later, fly extracted, he was swimming again. And I’d caught the first fish of the day.
On the run
On our last day we drove 60 miles north to Stanley to put kayaks and rafts into the legendary Salmon River for a half-day run downstream. This stretch of the Salmon, which courses through forested terrain much more lush than Sun Valley’s high desert, churns up Class II and III rapids, whitewater manageable by occasional kayakers like us.
We joined a couple of other parties to form a group of about 20. Once stuffed into our wetsuits, we made our way a short distance to the put-in, and after the usual warnings and advice (the one that stuck in my mind was to paddle straight into the waves so you’re going faster than the current and not at the river’s mercy), we set off.
I rediscovered that Class II and III are plenty for me. Most of the rapids were easy to handle, but we were soaked within minutes on our inflatable kayaks and grateful for the wetsuits. The river cut through pine forests and rocky outcrops, sparkled through shade and sunshine. Western tanagers flitted across the river, flashes of yellow against the green forest when I had a moment between rapids to watch and reflect.
In one Class III rapid, I made the mistake of following another paddler too closely, and when she got hung up on a rock, I couldn’t avoid her, catching my bow on her stern and spinning broadside downstream. The best I could do was put my stern into the waves and backstroke through as the rapids battered me on both sides. But I made it, only to see my friend flip soon after she’d dislodged herself. The guides reached her promptly and got her back aboard, and we were ready for more.
Near the end of the run, we stopped on a beach for homemade cake and cookies before drifting to the takeout, and a bus ride back to the outfitter’s camp and a return to Sun Valley.
You can get your share of thrills here in three days, and like my friend George said, when we reached the bottom of Bald Mountain that day on our bicycles, bruised, dusty, fingers locked in a claw grip and forearms aching from squeezing the handlebars, “Heck, I’d do it again. But not tomorrow!”
After the river trip, just like after mountain biking and fishing, the next stop was the Jacuzzi. And, lucky for us, our condo had one waiting.
If you go
Multiple airlines fly SFO to Hailey-Sun Valley airport (13 miles from Sun Valley-Ketchum), the most direct flights being Delta connecting with SkyWest through Salt Lake City. Another option: Fly to Boise (United and US Airways fly nonstop), rent a car and drive 160 miles (about 2 1/2 hours).
Where to eat
Vintage Restaurant: 231 Leadville Ave. N., Ketchum. (208) 726-9595. Tiny restaurant with a rustic setting inside a restored historic cabin serves “handcrafted” cuisine.
Grill at Knob Hill: 960 N. Main St., Ketchum. (208) 726-8010. www.knobhillinn.com/restaurant.html. Near Ketchum Cemetery where Hemingway is buried, the restaurant at the Knob Hill Inn is worth a splurge.
Where to stay
Aston Hotels & Resorts: Sun Valley Resort Village. (800) 635-4444, (208) 622-6400. www.astonsunvalley.com. The Wildflower and Atelier luxury condos are walking distance from the village and include access to the Olympic-size pool and fitness center. Peak season (June 12-Sept. 6) condos run $130-$515 from studios to 3 bedrooms, plus a reservation fee ($85-$105) and 11 percent tax.
Tamarack Lodge: 291 Walnut Ave., Ketchum. (800) 521-5379. (208) 726-3344. www.tamaracksunvalley.com. Tamarack Lodge is more a motel than a lodge, but it’s located four blocks from downtown Ketchum. Free bicycles for cycling around town and continental breakfast across the street at Tully’s. July to mid-August rooms start at $149, other times $109.
What to do
Fishing, cycling: Sturtevants Mountain Outfitters, 340 N. Main St., Ketchum. (208) 726-4501, (800) 252-9534. www.sturtos.com. Three locations in the valley (in Ketchum, at Warm Springs Village at the base of Bald Mountain and in Hailey) and provides service and equipment for fishing and cycling (both mountain biking and road biking).
Whitewater rafting, kayaking: White Otter Outdoor Adventures, Highway 75 and Yankee Fork Road, Sunbeam Village, Stanley. (877) 788-5005. www.whiteotter.com. River rafting and kayaking outfitters offer guided half- and full-day tours on the Salmon River and provide everything you need, including wetsuits.
Sun Valley Chamber & Visitors Bureau: www.visitsunvalley.com.
Larry Habegger is the executive editor of “Travelers Tales” books and compiles the Quotable Traveler feature in the Travel section. E-mail comments to email@example.com.
This article appeared on page D – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle