Twin Falls, Sun Valley/Ketchum, and the Sawtooth Mountains lure folks who like nature on a high note.
By Lee Majors, F53805
The musical advice to “Climb Every Mountain” is an appropriate suggestion for those visiting the part of south-central Idaho known as the “American Alps.” Travelers who explore this region and the surrounding countryside will have lasting memories of beautiful, varied scenery; interesting sights; and fun activities.
For the sake of simplicity, we’ll begin the journey right off of Interstate 84 in the town of Twin Falls, in south-central Idaho, and then head north from there. Twin Falls is located in the “Magic Valley,” a land of high desert that is irrigated by the Snake River. Cattle raising and agriculture are major industries. With a population of approximately 30,000, Twin Falls may seem like a big city to visitors from the tranquil towns and resorts to the north.
Much of what the world knows about Twin Falls came from daredevil Evel Knievel’s aborted Snake River Canyon jump on September 8, 1974. Nothing is left of the tent city and concession booths that accommodated the 10,000 visitors who lined the canyon rim, waiting for the big event. Of course, the beautiful canyon is still visible, and drivers who enter the city on U.S. 93 across the Perrine Memorial Bridge will get a spectacular view. Pedestrians brave enough to cross the 1,500-foot span can look 486 feet straight down into the Snake River Gorge.
Springtime visitors will get the best view of Shoshone Falls, approximately five miles northeast, since upstream waters are diverted into agricultural canals by early June. The horseshoe rim of the falls is nearly 1,000 feet wide, and its 212-foot drop is 52 feet higher than Niagara Falls. A lovely park includes hiking trails and picnic tables that overlook the falls. A poorly maintained road (as of this writing) just to the east takes visitors to the Caldron Linn, an intriguing natural area where the Snake River flows turbulently through a 40-foot-wide passage.
The Buzz Langdon visitors center features a beautiful view of the Snake River Canyon. (It’s possible to drive down into the canyon; turn at the first right and follow the golf course signs. Yes, a golf course has been built way down there, with its greens along the Snake River.) Volunteers at the visitors center can furnish information about where the Oregon Trail passed through southern Idaho.
History buffs may enjoy a stop at Stricker Rock Creek Station, reputed to be the first trading post along the Oregon Trail. In its heyday it also served as a saloon, a dance hall, a post office, and a polling place. Today’s visitors can explore a log store, a cemetery, two stone cellars, and the 1901 Stricker home.
Twin Falls straddles the Thousand Springs Scenic Byway (U.S. 30), and many attractions are within a short drive of this road. For example, some of the most important fossils discovered in North America can be viewed at the Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, approximately 30 minutes from Twin Falls in the town of Hagerman.
From Twin Falls, head north via U.S. 93 to Jerome, where, if you like antiques, you’ll find many shops in which to browse. Continue toward Shoshone, where the 116-mile Sawtooth Scenic Byway begins (State Route 75). Soon lava fields will appear on the west side of the highway. At Shoshone City Hall you can pick up a copy of a historic walking tour brochure; some buildings along the route feature unusual lava rock construction.
From Shoshone to Stanley, this scenic byway takes visitors through mountains, valleys, and fertile agricultural land.
Approximately 17 miles north of Shoshone is the cold underground wonderland known as the Shoshone Ice Caves. Since the year-round temperature inside the cavern is approximately 30 degrees Fahrenheit, it’s good to have warm clothing, but don’t worry if you arrive underdressed; courtesy jackets are available.
Continue north to the towns of Sun Valley and Ketchum, the crown jewels along the Sawtooth Scenic Byway. As you do so, you’ll note that the scenery changes from land with a flatter and agricultural nature to that of mountain grandeur. For a dramatic overview of the area, tourists may opt for a glider ride at the airport in Hailey. This little town proudly boasts that it was home to Idaho’s first telephone exchange and its first electric light plant. Summer weekend tourists may want to peruse historical artifacts at the Bellevue Old City Hall Museum, just four miles south of Hailey.
Today Sun Valley has gained international acclaim with its popular ski resort. But long before Sun Valley Ski Resort existed, the spectacular array of mountains, valleys, rivers, and lakes that form central Idaho was created by the upthrust of mountains, volcanic activity, glacial ice, and ancient seas. Campsites have been discovered that indicate that American Indians followed game herds into the area perhaps 10,000 to 13,000 years ago. In 1805 Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were among the first white explorers to traverse the area. Trappers and fur traders carried on their business until the mid-1800s; and for almost 60 years, settlers passed through, usually without stopping, as they followed the Oregon Trail to the fertile fields of the Northwest. Mormon farmers established the first permanent settlement in Idaho in April 1860, and prospectors rushed to the area after the discovery of gold that same year.
By 1884 the south-central Idaho town of Ketchum was home to prospectors and miners, while many tourists visited the local hot springs resort for its healing waters. Outdoor activities such as tennis and croquet were popular in this resort town. By 1889 thirteen saloons, four restaurants, and two hotels catered to its more than 2,000 inhabitants. But times changed, and by 1936, Ketchum’s population was reduced to approximately 100.
Help was on the way. W. Averell Harriman, chairman of the board of Union Pacific Railroad, thought that America’s West should be opened up for winter sports activities, so he hired Austrian Count Felix Schaffgotsch to locate the ideal destination ski resort area. The count selected the Ketchum area, stating, ” … this combines more delightful features of any place I have seen in the United States, Switzerland, or Austria for a winter ski resort.”
Harriman purchased 4,300 acres in the Ketchum area, and on December 23, 1936, the Sun Valley Ski Resort opened. The resort has expanded over the years, but it always has maintained its reputation as one of America’s premier winter recreation regions. However, the magnificent location is also ideal for summer activities, and today the area is a four-season vacation paradise.
Ketchum and the town of Sun Valley are located in the Wood River Valley. Ketchum is a charming place in which to browse amid boutiques, art galleries, and antiques shops. A wide variety of restaurants entice the casual stroller to come inside. See something across the main street that you’d like to inspect? Pick up a bright orange flag at the nearest corner, hold it high, and traffic will obligingly stop while you cross safely to the other side! The Ketchum Ore Wagon Museum contains original vehicles that once hauled the area’s silver ore; these wagons are used in the annual Ketchum Big Hitch Parade. Held during Labor Day weekend as part of the Ketchum Wagon Days celebration, the parade is the largest non-motorized event in the West and celebrates the town’s mining history.
The Ketchum/Sun Valley Historical Society Heritage & Ski Museum offers exhibits that help preserve the area’s rich history. The Sun Valley Center for the Arts presents visual and performing arts programs throughout the year.
If you plan to visit Ketchum and Sun Valley in summer, get ready for fun. Outdoor sports such as golf and tennis are popular, and swimming pools will attract visitors to their facilities. If you’re more sedentary, or ready for a break, you may wish to take a carriage ride or a local guided tour.
Sun Valley fondly remembers an adopted daughter, Olympic ice skater Sonja Henie. Many years ago, this graceful young lady from Oslo, Norway, glided into the hearts of the world. Henie earned top honors in Norway’s national ice skating competition at age 11; and at 14, she won the first of her 10 world figure skating championships. After taking home Olympic gold in 1928, 1932, and 1936, she turned professional at age 24 and began traveling in ice shows. From there, she moved on to Hollywood stardom. Her seventh film, Sun Valley Serenade, is probably shown most often — it’s presented every day at the world-famous ski resort featured in the movie.
The original Sun Valley Lodge, built in 1936, is certainly the place to go if you wish to surround yourself in luxury. Wood-paneled walls, a commodious fireplace, comfortable chairs, and pictures of celebrity guests greet all who enter this beautiful building. Non-resort guests are invited to use many of the facilities, including the spectacular golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones Jr. Several other courses are available in the area as well.
Certainly a “must” trip while you’re at Sun Valley Resort is to take a summertime chairlift ride up Bald Mountain. The world’s very first chairlift was unveiled at this resort; the idea for the design came from a hoist used to haul bananas onto ships in Panama.
For a different route down Bald Mountain, visitors can hike back (five miles) to the bottom, contemplating the beauty and serenity of the silent paths. Mountain bikers can sample some of the 28 miles of trails laid out for their pleasure. Fifteen hours of summer sunlight each day may not be enough time to really appreciate the surroundings.
Other enjoyable activities include watching Sonja Henie’s movie, which is shown regularly at 5:00 p.m. at the Sun Valley Opera House. It’s actually only one of 19 films made here, which include How To Marry A Millionaire (1953) and Bus Stop (1956), both starring Marilyn Monroe.
In mid-summer, the Sun Valley Summer Symphony performs free concerts, and in October, ragtime, jazz, and swing music are featured at the Swing ‘n’ Dixie Jazz Jamboree.
Perhaps you have read Ernest Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls, which he completed while living at the lodge in Suite 206. Incidentally, Hemingway is buried in Ketchum; his grave can be seen in Ketchum Cemetery.
Hungry? Let the kids enjoy the video arcade and food at Bald Mountain Pizza and Pasta while mom and dad have a romantic dinner for two in the elegant Sun Valley Lodge Dining Room.
For a real treat, attend one of the Saturday night Sun Valley Ice Shows, which usually feature world-class skaters. In the past, Scott Hamilton, Brian Boitano, Katerina Witt, and others have performed there. From mid-June through mid-September, these programs take place on an outdoor ice rink adjacent to Sun Valley Lodge. An optional buffet dinner is available before each show. For reservations, tickets, and schedule information, contact the Sun Valley Sports Center at (208) 622-2135 or visit www.sunvalley.com.
From Ketchum and Sun Valley, continue up the Sawtooth Scenic Byway to where it terminates, at Stanley. Stanley’s residents live along the banks of the Salmon River and at the junction of three of Idaho’s 19 scenic byways: the Sawtooth; the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway (State Route 21, which travels between Stanley and Boise); and the Salmon River Scenic Byway, which travels northeast via U.S. 93 and State Route 75.
The route between Ketchum and Stanley has a “high point,” literally, at Galena Summit, which has an elevation of 8,701 feet. Another “top” attraction is the Sawtooth Fish Hatchery, where 3 million spring chinook salmon are produced each year. The hatchery also traps and spawns steelhead trout and sockeye salmon, and cares for other species used for stocking lakes and streams. Guided tours of the hatchery are offered during the summer months, but the visitors center is open year-round. The hatchery is five miles south of Stanley.
In Stanley, a tiny town 6,260 feet above sea level, you’ll be entering the 756,000-acre Sawtooth National Recreation Area (NRA), which is managed by the U.S. Forest Service. Outdoor lovers will be ecstatic about the wide variety of activities available here: whitewater and/or scenic float trips; horseback and llama treks; fishing; bird and wildlife watching; hunting; rock climbing; and enough hiking trails and mountain bike paths to keep folks of all ability levels involved and satisfied.
The recreation site’s Redfish Lake Visitors Center is open year-round. Exhibits and interpretive programs educate visitors about the surrounding area.
From here, you can choose to head toward Boise or continue northward, along other scenic byways that lead through mountain splendor.
Sawtooth National Recreation Area
HC 64, Box 8291
Ketchum, ID 83340
Visitors Center: (800) 260-5970,
Fax: (208) 727-5029
The NRA offers 35 basic, no-hookup campgrounds; phone the visitors center for more information.
Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber and Visitors Bureau
371 Main St., Suite 202
P.O. Box 2420
Sun Valley, ID 83353
The visitors bureau offers information about attractions and area campgrounds.
South Central Idaho Tourism and Recreation Development Association
P.O. Box 5155
Twin Falls, ID 83303-5155