Tourism By Trail: Sun Valley, Idaho
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A place that lives up to its name …
Training on the Backcountry Run trails. Photo by Hank Dart
Roughly four hundred miles of singletrack slither through the Sun Valley surroundings. “Fast, buffed-out trail? Check. Techy trail? Check. Lung-busting vert? Check. Trails leading to lonesome backcountry? That, too,” says 45-year-old medical writer, proprietor of the Run Junkie website and Sun Valley area trail runner, Hank Dart. And, just beyond Sun Valley’s northern horizon is the 2.1-million-acre Sawtooth National Forest and its 1000-plus miles of trails. “It’s hard to imagine a better place to be a trail runner,” says Dart.
Fourteen hundred-person Sun Valley is perched in the high-altitude air of central Idaho’s Wood River Valley along with neighboring town, 2600-person Ketchum. Together the region is known in the winter for downhill skiing, in the summer for singletrack-based recreation and year-round for ample Vitamin-D dosages. “The most compelling aspect of trail running in Sun Valley is its annual nature,” elaborates 45-year-old Andy Jones-Wilkins, who lived and worked as Head of School at an independent school in the Sun Valley area for five years. “Because the trails are snow-covered half the year, the slow build-up of the spring melt, the increasing trail access and the way town talks about summer’s arrival feels like a second Christmas.”
From glitzed-up celebrities to burly mountain men and women to Olympic medalists like skiers Christin Cooper-Taché and Picabo Street, an eclectic blend embraces the seasons of Sun Valley. The question is, will you?
Get There. The Friedman Memorial Airport, located 15 miles south of Sun Valley, sends and receives more than a dozen daily flights. The Boise Airport is 150 miles west of Sun Valley, and you can rent a car or take a shuttle from there. You’ll appreciate your own wheels, though.
Play Tourist. Over a dozen hot springs are located within a two-hour drive of Sun Valley, and each purvey excellent post-run chill (er, warm) time. Try out the nearby Frenchman’s Bend, Warfield or Worswick hot springs. Ernest Hemingway lived, wrote and recreated in the Sun Valley region. Visit the Hemingway Memorial northeast of town on Trail Creek Road. Summer season is outdoor concert season in Sun Valley, so check local event calendars when you arrive.
Learn More. Read anything written by Ernest Hemingway in the second half of his life, during which he spent time around Sun Valley, developed an ethic for nature and infused it into his writing. Check out the Sawtooth National Forest website for the lowdown on its recreation ops.
Take Note. Sun Valley trail running is swallowed up by snow (and ski season) from sometime in October to sometime in June.
Pioneer Cabin out-and-back or loop.
“The trip up to Pioneer Cabin is a touchstone run,” says Dart. “The historic ski cabin is located at just over 9400 feet with striking views of the Pioneer Mountains.” Visit the cabin, located at essentially treeline and surrounded by the range’s 11,000-foot, talus-ridden, snaggle-tooth peaks, via an eight-mile out-and-back on the Pioneer Cabin Trail or an 8.5-mile loop using the Pioneer Cabin Trail on the way out and the Long Gulch Trail for the return. Both routes proffer 2500 feet of ascent.
Alice Lake and Toxaway Lake loop.
Locate this 19-mile loop’s trailhead at Pettit Lake, about 45 miles north of Sun Valley, in the Sawtooth National Forest. “It’s characterized by alpine lakes, a wonderfully empty trail and a trip over a rocky-notch pass that belongs in a black-and-white cowboy movie.” Dart adds an insider’s tip: “Run it counterclockwise for a stunning reveal of appropriately named Twin Lakes at the top of Snowyside Pass.”
Dollar Mountain 10K Trail Run.
This June race, according to Dart, “smacks of true mountain running” with its 1700 feet of elevation gain on a mix of rocky and steep singletrack and doubletrack. Showy wildflowers also decorate the course.
“At over 30 years old, the Backcountry Run is the granddaddy of local trail races,” says Dart. “In July and with 10- and 16.5-mile options, you may be working too hard to enjoy the fantastic views of the Wood River Valley and Pioneer Mountains, but they’re there when you look up.”
Harriman Trail 10-Mile Run.
This point-to-point solo and relay event is run in September on the doubletrack Harriman Trail. The trail meanders the Wood River Valley bottom, allowing you to gawk at the mountains sweeping uphill around you.
Trail Creek 12K Trail Run.
Held in late October, runners are encouraged to wear costumes and enjoy a course designed for athletes of all abilities. The race has about 1800 feet of climbing among sweet-smelling sagebrush and a flat, fast loop through aspens.