It seems everyone who spends time around Sun Valley has stories to tell of celebrity encounters.
They stood in line at the bookstore last week behind Bruce Springsteen, or at Tully's Coffee the other day with Arnold Schwarzenegger. They performed in community theater with Bruce Willis in neighboring Hailey or introduced themselves to Larry David at Dollar Mountain, one of the two ski areas that make up the fabled 74-year-old resort.
"You see movie stars and it just doesn't mean much after a while," said Bill Smith, a longtime Hailey resident. "They just come and go, and most of them are very nice."
Hollywood potentates, skiing, and a strong pride in local history merge seamlessly in this string of small communities in the northern Rocky Mountains. Sun Valley is a city of its own that includes a large resort and hotel complex. But the name is often used by visitors to describe the entire resort area of the Wood River Valley, including the cities of Hailey and Ketchum, a dozen miles apart.
The cultural and natural elements of this stunning valley form a complex realm that includes farmers, artists and local businesses, small local music festivals and large private jets, many dozens of great restaurants and a backdrop of towering mountains.
The Sun Valley Resort, near Ketchum, has upscale lodging for 1,200 in its main lodge building, an inn, and condos, apartments and houses within walking distance of the lodge's heated pools and skating rink. The lodge has an unusual old-world charm heightened by its tall evergreens and abundance of snow. It's the kind of place where you might see a pair of young girls skating around the rink in black velvet frock coats.
Established in 1936, Sun Valley is generally accepted as the first destination ski resort in the United States (though some argue the honor belongs to Peckett's-on-Sugar-Hill in Franconia, N.H., established in 1929). Union Pacific Railroad developed the first chairlift in the world at Sun Valley, said Jack Sibbach, director of public relations for the resort.
There are two ski mountains in the immediate area. One is Dollar, which at $40 per day for adults is a magnet for families who send their young children snowplowing down the gentle slopes as part of Dollar's extensive lesson program. Dollar has just five lifts and 10 runs, making it the kind of place where you can set your kids loose on skis with a reasonable expectation of spotting them here and there on the mountain throughout the day.
Just down the road is the huge Bald Mountain, where you're liable to see spectacular feats of skiing prowess, some performed by senior-citizen virtuosos. Baldy has 65 runs and 14 lifts, including a brand-new eight-passenger gondola that travels 2,000 vertical feet in less than eight minutes. Tickets at Baldy start at $82 for adults, though as with Dollar, check the Web site for deals.
And then there's the more modest Soldier Mountain, 50 miles southwest of Hailey. Soldier is co-owned by Bruce Willis. The lodge at the base of the ski area was destroyed last spring in a fire, but it's being rebuilt. Construction is in the final phase and a notice on Soldier's Web site said a Jan. 28 opening was likely.
Sun Valley's skiing history is irresistible. Warren Miller, whose annual "Off the Grid" documentaries showcase extreme skiing and other winter sports, began his career while living in a camping trailer in the Baldy parking lot. Sun Valley Lodge's walls are lined with photos of the Hollywood types who have skied there over the year - including Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, Ernest Hemingway, Arnold Schwarzenegger, a few members of the Kennedy family, and former U.S. House Speaker Tip O'Neill.
It has also been host to many famous names in the skiing world - such as Chuck Ferries, who helped develop the fiberglass ski, and Dick Durrance of the 1936 Olympics.
"It has a special place in the hearts of veteran skiers in the United States because it had some of the first classic alpine races in the United States," said Seth Masia, a former SKI Magazine editor who writes about history for Skiing Heritage Magazine and is a veteran skier himself. "It's one of the important cultural centers of American skiing."
Sun Valley and its neighboring communities also have a long history of gathering wealthy visitors and local characters. Legend has it that Hemingway, a longtime on-and-off resident of Ketchum, wrote at least part of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" in a room in the Sun Valley Lodge. Hemingway is memorialized by a statue on a trail a mile from the lodge and he is buried in Ketchum, where he spent the last two years of his life.
Hiking and mountain biking abound in the uncrowded Sawtooth Mountains. "Every little canyon has its trails," said Smith.
Ketchum has high-end dining, shopping and art. Hailey markets itself as a more down-to-earth destination, the kind of place where you can find more affordable lodging at the brand-new AmericInn or just camp out in the summer to attend the Northern Rockies Folk Festival downtown.
Bruce Willis can often be found playing in his band at The Mint, a bar he owns in Hailey. In warmer months, many visitors stay in Hailey and spend the day at the Silver Creek Preserve, a high-desert Nature Conservancy area with an abundance of wildlife. Silver Creek is a clear, spring-fed stream.
"It's challenging, with big fish, and a chance to catch brown trout and rainbow trout in the same river," said Chris Walser, a biology professor at the College of Idaho who also fishes the nearby Big Wood River. "And it's world-famous. You say you went to Silver Creek, and most fly fishermen are going to know where that is."