By Larry Olmsted
The first true destination ski resort in the United States, Sun Valley celebrated its 80th winter of skiing, and has such a rich history that even its après-ski scene is a classic of the genre.
W. Averell Harriman, chairman of the Union Pacific Railroad, grew up skiing in the Swiss Alps, and decided to build the first European-style resort in North America, modelled on places like Gstaad, St. Moritz and Interlaken. After meticulously scouring the mountains of California, Nevada, Wyoming, Utah, and Colorado, he found his perfect site near Ketchum, Idaho, and the resort opened just outside town in 1936 with the Swiss alpine-inspired Sun Valley Lodge, and most notably, the world’s first two chairlifts.
Harriman challenged his railroad engineers to create a better people mover, and they invented the chairlift. Allowing skiers to ascend while seated leisurely was such a novel luxury that the resort immediately became the favorite of A-list celebrities—and still is today. Early regulars included Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Marilyn Monroe, and Ernest Hemingway, who finished For Whom the Bell Tolls during a several-month stay here, then bought a home and stayed. More recent skiers include Clint Eastwood, Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Tom Hanks, Justin Timberlake and current homeowner Bruce Willis.
This rich history and celebrities have carved up one of the best après-ski scenes in the US:
Sun Valley Lodge
For many of these visitors, the first post-skiing cocktail stop has long been the classic lobby bar in the Sun Valley Lodge. The Lodge was completely rebuilt for its 80th winter season in 2015-16, and the après scene is better than ever. The Duchin Lounge has been repositioned as the Lodge’s social centerpiece, a gathering spot and focal point of the grand new lobby. This is the place to see and be seen and represents swank Sun Valley, but there are many other colorful choices. In fact, Sun Valley après skiing is not always “after,” but often starts on the mountain itself, which has some of the most vibrant lodges in skiing.
Seattle Ridge Lodge
Highest up Bald Mountain, the primary of the two separate mountains comprising the ski resort, is the Seattle Ridge Lodge, which has great panoramic views. From here you can ski down to either of the two main base lodges, both of which have live music during most après sessions. Closest is River Run, which can be reached easily by green or blue runs. River Run is especially famed for its exquisite bloody marys. Skiing across the breadth of Baldy, as Bald Mountain is known, to the Warm Springs Lodge is longer and more challenging, but the reward is the off-the-menu bartender’s special cocktail (ask) and Happy Hour specials. Close by Warm Springs is a true local’s favorite, Apple’s Bar & Grill, which has a great outdoor deck on which to enjoy the fact that this is usually the sunnier side of Baldy.
After exploring the options within the base areas of Sun Valley itself, the next stop for après is in the town of Ketchum, just minutes away. This stage often becomes more of a segue between après ski and dinner. Perhaps the most famous watering hole is Grumpy’s, a small shack—smaller than the laundromat it sits behind—that famously has a website but no phone, serves beer in huge quart-sized “schooners,” and has the colorful motto “Sorry we’re open.” Other popular bars in town include Lefty’s Bar & Grill, the Cellar Pub, which mixes British/Irish tradition (fish & chips, Guinness) with mountain culture, and the Sawtooth Brewery, the region’s craft beer specialist. For a bit more Euro style, hit Enoteca, which means wine bar in Italian and is exactly that.
For more Old West flair, try the Cornerstone, set in an 1884 building that is the sole Ketchum structure other than Hemingway’s home on the National Register of Historic Places. For a quintessential Ketchum experience, hit the bar at the Pioneer Saloon, a true Ketchum institution that is equal parts steakhouse, bar and Old West museum.
Other than a monument to Papa and his final home (he died here), there is little evidence left of the considerable time Hemingway spent in Ketchum. Most of the bars and restaurants have opened since his time. The exception is Michel’s Christiania, coming up on the ripe old age of 60. The main restaurant is a fancy French eatery, but the highlight is the Olympic Bar, adorned with pictures and mementos of Sun Valley’s many Olympians, and a spot Hemingway frequented so regularly he had his own table.
Ready to hit the slopes? Find a vacation rental home in Sun Valley.
Larry Olmsted writes regularly on both ski travel and wine and spirits topics, making après-ski one of his favorite subjects. He also enjoys visiting any bar Hemingway frequented.