The first purpose-built winter resort developed in this country, Sun Valley, ID was the baby of Averell Harriman and his Union Pacific Railroad. A true destination resort, Sun Valley was as an end in and of itself, a reason to get people on the train and sell more tickets – the original “build it and they will come.”
It worked. Mirrored on the Swiss resorts Harriman loved like Davos and St. Moritz, Sun Valley exuded luxury – it built the first chairlift in the world at a time when rope tows were the norm – and immediately attracted star power. After opening in 1936, it became THE place to ski and be seen for the top stars, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Lucille Ball, Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedys and many, many more. Ernest Hemingway finished For Whom the Bell Tolls while staying here. The stars still come in droves and today the hallways of Sun Valley’s twin hotels are jammed with pictures of celebrities spanning three quarters of a century.
Sun Valley remains justifiably famous as a top ski resort and just got a huge boost last season when a virtually snowless winter across the nation showcased its best-in-the-country snowmaking. But far less people know that it is a top golf destination as well, and has been for decades – but it just got much better.
In recent years ski resorts all across the country have scrambled to add golf courses in order to position themselves as four season resorts and sell more vacation real estate, the primary driver for golf construction at ski destinations. Unfortunately the courses themselves are often afterthoughts, and relatively few of the country’s many ski resort golf courses are standouts, the bulk being forgettable. Sun Valley chose a different tact when it built its first course more than thirty years ago, and unlike almost any in the nation, gave it an ultra-prime spot, right at the base of the ski resort, curving past lifts, where almost any other developer would erect pricey ski-in/ski-out homes and hotels. The Trail Creek course, designed by Robert Trent Jones, Jr. is one of the best resort courses in the country that most golfers have never heard of, but the critics have – Golf Digest consistently has ranked it in the best 75 US resort courses. It combines classic parkland design with an unequalled setting and is not just very good but surprisingly good. I know because I have played it, along with just about every other major ski resort course in the US.
Five years ago Sun Valley added White Clouds, a brand new 9-hole course built on an elevated ridge opposite the mountain, a roller-coaster ride with 360-degree views. I am not normally a big fan of 9-hole courses, but this is quite literally one of the best I have ever seen. The views are stunning, the strategic elements and risk/reward decisions great, and this is a nine golfers will immediately want to play again. And again.
For this season the resort has grown to 45-holes, a size that immediately puts it in an elite class of destination golf resorts with three or more courses, of which there are relatively few. They even have an 18-hole putting course on real grass, a rare amenity. Among top ski resorts the only one I can think of with three courses is Whistler/Blackcomb, BC. Sun Valley grew its collection by acquiring the nearby Elkhorn golf course, which is actually now the oldest of the three, a 1974 collaboration between the legendary Robert Trent Jones, Sr. and his fast rising son who would six years later do Trail Creek. The course was completely renovated in 2005 and was a private club until Sun Valley bought it last year. Elkhorn is big time golf, with over a hundred bunkers and stretching over 7,200-yards, impeccably maintained and a great addition to the resort. I’ve played Elkhorn as well, several years ago, and really enjoyed it.
While just about every major ski resort now offers golf, there are very, very few that warrant a golf vacation. Sun Valley has suddenly emerged as the leader of that small pack. It certainly does not hurt that the prices are great, with a slew of early late and unlimited golf packages from spring to fall combining golf and lodging for less than many resorts charge just for greens fees. It also doesn’t hurt that the resort is bustling and vibrant in summer, with a great weekly outdoor concert series that attracts the most gourmets picnickers I’ve ever seen, a weekly ice show featuring Olympic and world champion skaters, world class mountain biking, plus all the shopping, dining and charms of Sun Valley and the adjacent town of Ketchum.