Sun Valley skiing with kids: How to plan a Sun Valley Idaho adventure

If you want to go to the source of American ski culture, Sun Valley, Idaho is the country’s original destination ski resort. Thanks to the resort’s iconic reputation coupled with ongoing new projects and improvements, you’ll step into a mountain experience that’s steeped in history while alive with newfound vigor. What’s new: Sun Valley’s Warm Springs day lodge has a whole new look, complete with expansive windows facing the mountain that set the perfect scene for aprés cocktail hour; the Sun Valley Inn has undergone an extensive remodel; and a brand new performance space, The Argyros, hosts annual events such as the Sun Valley Film Festival as well as arts performances throughout the year.


What’s tradition: two mountains ready for fresh turns in Idaho’s light powder, and a village with a distinctly European feel, a historic downtown (the town of Ketchum is a charming combination of wild west meets ski chic). Plus, you get Idaho’s famous blue skies for much of the winter season, and the long summer season filled with mountain biking, hiking, fishing and golf. Here’s what you need to know to get the lay of the land before your Sun Valley winter ski trip.

Overview of the mountains:

Sun Valley is spread out, but in the best possible way, allowing for a sense of tranquil instead of a bustling base area/village combo. It has two mountains, but in European-style, they’re not adjacent. Situated next to the town of Ketchum and a mile or so from the Sun Valley village, you’ll need to shuttle between the two mountains, the village, and the town, but you won’t mind, because the Sun Valley Ride shuttle system is free and efficient. Plus, most likely, you’ll spend your whole day at one mountain or the other. Here’s why:

Dollar Mountain is the beginning mountain, housing the snowsports school, the daycare, and a very innovative ‘Terrain that Teaches’ program, for which the snow is actually sculpted in such a way that helps you learn (and is totally fun, too). What you’ll see in the Terrain that Teaches areas are rollers, banks, and bumps designed to teach you how to turn, how to balance, and more. While smaller (Dollar has four lifts plus a magic carpet), Dollar is very manageable for families with young kids; the lodge is beautiful and quiet, there’s a full rental system in place, and terrain parks for those who want to challenge themselves. If all you need is Dollar, you’ll pay a lower lift ticket price, too. Guest services are extremely attentive at Dollar, assisting families with gear and providing wagons for toting skis and tired kids.

Bald Mountain, or Baldy, boosts the advanced terrain, and they do mean advanced. If you’re unsure of your ski or snowboard level, definitely start on Dollar, where the green and blue runs are plentiful. Over at Baldy, the greens truly are more like advanced blues, and the blues are often more like blacks. The grooming on Baldy is phenomenal, so you can usually count on groomed blues and greens, but the steep vertical still makes them very challenging. The widest, easiest greens and blues can be found on the Seattle Ridge side, where you can look across the way to the ‘bowls’, Baldy’s least groomed and arguably most challenging terrain.

The Roundhouse Restaurant

Tip: Join Sun Valley’s mountain guides for a guided 1.5-hour tour of Baldy, offered complimentarily. This tour is rich in Sun Valley history and also helps you get the lay of the land. Intermediate skiing and above needed.

But with over 2000 acres, everyone who is intermediate-level and above will find something perfect for their ski needs. There are two main base areas at Baldy: River Run and Warm Springs. Both are downright relaxing: since the main Sun Valley village atmosphere is found on the other side of Ketchum at Sun Valley, what you find at both River Run and Warm Springs is a single large day lodge and rental snowsports retail. It’s very manageable, which starts your ski day off right. On the Warm Springs side, you’ll find Greyhawk lift and Challenger lift, both of which service long, steep groomers with some tucked away mogul skiing throughout. River Run houses the Roundhouse Gondola and River Run chair, with more blues and a few greens, plus some shorter, steeper blacks. Head to Cold Springs (soon to be upgraded) and Mayday to access the bowls, and head to Seattle Ridge for more contained blues and greens.

Tip: The top of the mountain, at Lookout, is a central hub: you can ski down to either base area from the top. Dining on the mountain is plentiful, with the beautiful and historic Roundhouse Restaurant the sit-down option at mid-mountain (definitely at least peek inside) and Lookout Restaurant serving grab-and-go Mexican food. For all the other standard ski fare (with some gourmet twists) Warm Springs, Seattle Ridge, and River Run are all there to serve you.

Where to stay:

Families have several generalized options: lodge stays at Sun Valley Lodge or Sun Valley Inn, both located in the Sun Valley village (just a few minutes’ shuttle to Ketchum and the base areas), condo stays associated with these Sun Valley hotels, in-town hotel stays (the Ketchum Inn and the Limelight are popular options), and area house vacation rentals in Ketchum and Hailey.

We stayed at the Sun Valley Inn, which had it’s perks and its challenges. On the pro side, the inn is typically more affordable than the nearby lodge, with all the amenity access to the latter. Yes, this means you need to walk across the village to use the Sun Valley Lodge heated outdoor pool and hot tub, expanded fitness center, and spa, but access is there. At the inn, you get a smaller heated pool (almost hot tub temperature) and a smaller fitness center. Excellent dining options are available in both; at the inn, we loved the traditional fare at the Ram Restaurant and newly remodeled Ram bar, but I was disappointed to find a lack of a central lobby area in the inn. At the lodge, the lobby area is expansive, looking out over the year-round ice skating rink, and dining options include Gretchen’s and the Duchin Lounge. At both the inn and the lodge, be sure to linger in the public hallways to take in all the framed photos chronicling the visits of celebrities and who have visited and loved the resort.

Tip: From either the inn or the lodge, it’s very easy to access Ketchum (only about a mile away), the base ski areas for both mountains, and the airport via the complimentary shuttle system. I never waited longer than five minutes for a shuttle and never needed a car during my stay.

Where else to eat in Sun Valley and Ketchum:

We loved Konditorei in the village for breakfast and lunch. The Austrian feel was both cozy and delicious. In town, Warfields is the only area distillery and brew pub (although Sun Valley Brewery is located in Hailey) and currently makes their own gin and vodka, with whiskey coming soon. We loved the ambiance inside Warfields, but if you want something more distinctly local, the Casino is right down the street, with pool tables and pretty basic (but good) drinks and plenty of local flavor (21 and over). At the Limelight hotel, Ketchum’s newest lodging option, their large ‘living room’ serves as an informal dining option, with space for kids to spread out and play (a big plus for parents). The Covey is one of Ketchum’s newest restaurants and popular enough to warrant a line outside the door when it opens at 5:30 pm (no reservations taken). The atmosphere is cozy but modern, with an open kitchen concept and a wide selection of beer and wine. We loved the winter squash appetizer. Also popular are the Pioneer (for the steak and potatoes crowd) and Village Station (in Sun Valley village) for a classic pub fare option.

What else to do in winter:

The town of Ketchum is worth spending at least one afternoon perusing, and the Sun Valley Nordic and Snowshoe Center is the hub for winter snowsports activity aside from downhill skiing. (In the summer, this area transforms into a golf haven.) At the Nordic center, families can snowshoe, classic XC ski, or skate ski on the perfectly groomed 25-mile trail system, which includes dedicated snowshoe trails as well. Rental fees are reasonable at approximately $20-30 for half-day rentals (depending on the rental choice) and trail fees of only $28 for adults and $10 for youth. We spend a very happy morning at the Nordic center and highly recommend it as an alternative to downhill skiing. Or, spend the day here on your ‘ski rest’ day if you’ve purchased 2 out of 3 or 4 out of 6 day ski passes.

There’s also ice skating and bowling at the Sun Valley Lodge, adjacent to the village.

Tip: the Nordic center also has fat bike rentals. During our visit, they were not available, however. There’s also a full restaurant at the Nordic center, as well as a full bar.

For parents, a half day at the Spa at Sun Valley, located in the Sun Valley Lodge, is a win. While it’s relaxation rooms are not large, they do have steam rooms, dry saunas, and experience showers in both male and female relaxation areas, and spa guests can go back and forth between the second-floor relaxation area and the ground floor outdoor pool and hot tub. Spa treatments are in the full range, and there are beauty services available as well.

After spending a wintery getaway in Sun Valley, you may, like me, be tempted to return in summer. The ‘off’ season of summer is actually Sun Valley’s busier time period, with outdoor symphony performances, trail systems, golf, fishing and rafting. Consider a trip back!

Have you been to Sun Valley with kids in the winter? Disclosure: we experienced Sun Valley for the purpose of review. All opinions remain our own.