Sun Valley is best known for its ski resort, celebrity sightings, and a lifestyle centered on the art of being outside. Residents boast a perennial tan, an effortless sense of eternal youth, and own enough seasonal sports gear to fill a commercial airplane hangar. It makes sense to spend most of your time outdoors in an area nestled between five mountain ranges and home to more than 40 miles of trails.
The town’s quirky, iconic sense of self is evident in the little things: it’s home to the world’s first chairlift, designed by Union Pacific engineer Jim Curran in 1939 to grace the slopes of Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain in order to lure luxury travelers away from the warmth of tropical beaches during the winter months to the cold, snowy mountains of Sun Valley; celebrities made it their “see-and-be-seen” hotspot in the heyday of the early years, hosting the likes of Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood, and Ernest Hemingway, to name a few.
But the real stars of Sun Valley are sheep. Yes, sheep. The wooly creatures take center stage each fall at the Trailing of the Sheep Festival, an event celebrating the Valley’s rich history of sheep farming and ranching in a four-day, family-friendly fest that’s made the list of Top 10 Fall Festivals in the World by USA Today and The Huffington Post.
For more than 150 years, sheep farming has been an integral part of Sun Valley’s identity. Its history traces back to the town’s founder, John Hailey, an early pioneer of the Northwest who took part in the Boise Basin Gold Rush of 1862 and settled in the area, bringing with him a small sheep herd. At first, only 14,000 breeding sheep were recorded in Idaho, but those numbers continued to grow as the town’s ore mining industry dwindled and sheep ranching became a major source of revenue. By 1890, the number of sheep grew to 614,000; by 1918, the population boomed to 2.6 million, making Idaho more densely populated with sheep than humans. The town of Hailey had made its mark as a worldwide sheep ranching center, second only to Sydney, Australia.
Today, those numbers have died back down again, with very few sheep farmers actively working in the area, but the sheep still make their seasonal pilgrimage up and down the mountain regardless. In the spring, a herd of 1,500 sheep migrate north from the lower elevations of southern Idaho’s Snake River Valley through the Wood River Valley to the high country of the mountains for summer pasture. Their route wends a course of 1,000 miles in total, tracing a route through the residential towns of Hailey and Ketchum up Highway 75, on to nearby Galena and into the scenic Sawtooth Mountains.
In the fall, the sheep retrace their steps back down the mountain over the course of five days to the valley, where they will settle in for the winter months; their return is celebrated on the last day of the festival when hundreds of sheep fill the main street of Ketchum in a “Running of the Bulls” style party, a moving, jumping “wall of wool” cheered on by locals and visitors. This year’s Trailing of the Sheep Festival will be in the Ketchum/Hailey area from October 7–11.
Looking to visit this summer? The Ride Sun Valley Bike Festival is a must. This four-day bike extravaganza from June 25–28 features FREE guided rides, bike demos and races, bike prom, live music, and a head-to-head elimination race where bikers tow flaming logs as fast as possible until a victor is crowned.
Ride Sun Valley is also the second stop of the Scott Enduro Cup, a mountain bike race series that challengers riders on the area’s best single-track, downhill trails.
In honor of these events, we’ve found the best trails for hikers, bikers, and campers in Sun Valley inspired by the sheep’s seasonal trek up.
Wood River Campground, part of the Sawtooth National Forest, is composed of 30 campsites in a densely wooded area near the Big Wood River with self-guided nature trails nearby. Fishing is allowed in the Big Wood River. Call 877-444-6777 or visit recreation.gov for more info.
Boundary Campground is located along Trail Creek with nine campsites, nestled in a canopy of cottonwood and Aspen trees with beautiful views of Bald Mountain Ski area to the west. Amenities include hand-pump drinking water, two vault toilets, a fire ring, grill stand, and picnic tables at each site. $10 per day, no reservation required. Call 208-622-5371 or visit the US Forest Service website for more information.
Galena Lodge, located 23 miles northeast of Ketchum on Highway 75, offers two yurts for rental during the summer months, if you don’t want to tent camp. The yurts are rustic adaptations of ancient shelters that resemble tee-pee structures (no electricity, no laptops, no cell phones) and are situated on the ridge above the lodge, easily accessible by a short hike from the building. The Senate View Yurt is located closest to the lodge and sleeps eight people; the Honeymoon Yurt, located farthest from the lodge and situated in a dense forest of trees, sleeps four people on two double futons. Both yurts must be reserved in advanced. Contact Galena Lodge at 208-726-4010 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Multi-use Trails for Hiking, Biking, Running
A popular trail for hikers, runners, and mountain bikers is the White Clouds Loop Trail across from the Sun Valley Lodge. It’s a quick, gently-graded four-mile circuit with an elevation gain of 265 feet around Sun Valley’s scenic, nine-hole White Cloud Golf Course, offering up spectacular views of Bald Mountain, Griffin Butte and the skyline of downtown Ketchum below. Most of the trail is single-track and wide with variable trail tread along the route to keep things interesting for bikers. A great starting point is Carol’s Trailhead across from Trail Creek Road and Sun Valley Lodge. Sunrise Loop, a short, easy, mile-and-a-half course, can be added on to White Clouds trail for more milage.
For a more challenging workout, check out Bald Mountain Trail, a five-mile trail with long traverses and great views of the Wood River Valley in the distance. Small Aspen groves mix with mature evergreens to provide plenty of shade throughout the trail with patches of seasonal wildflowers. The trail surface is made of packed dirt and small gravel with sections of looser rock; elevation gain is 3,300 feet. Uphill bike traffic only; ride the ski lift back down to River Run Plaza on the Christmas Lift during hours of lift operation.
Mountain Bikes Only
Bald Mountain Perimeter Trail is a strenuous 20-mile, full-loop trail for experienced mountain bikers featuring an elevation gain of 2,400 feet and stunning views of surrounding Smoky and Pioneer Mountains. Start at River Run Plaza and go south on the bike path to Cold Springs Road. From there, go up Cold Springs Trail, down Warm Springs Trail, and take the bike path back to Ketchum and River Run Plaza. Not recommended for hikers or runners.
If you’re looking for a moderate-to-strenuous, “Best of Sun Valley” hike, Proctor Mountain Trail is a popular five-miler with a vertical climb of 1,600 feet. The path starts off near the Hemingway Memorial and offers stunning views of Bald Mountain and the valley below, rambling through sagebrush and Aspens with switchbacks throughout. Keep your eyes peeled: the trail passes by the remains of the world’s first chair lift.