November 24, 2008 · Updated 5:34 PM
Some of the West’s best skiing is close
Throughout its history, Idaho has seemed remote and inaccessible to visitors. With more than 80 named mountain ranges, including the rugged Sawtooths, even Lewis and Clark needed two separate attempts just to pass through this challenging state.
Does it surprise you that, of all the states, Idaho has the highest percentage (40 percent) of its land designated as National Forest? Moreover, with 64 percent of Idaho being federally owned, much of the state is virtually untouched, and offers some of the West’s best snowsport opportunities.
I have visited the state twice already this year, celebrating the New Year in Sun Valley, and seeing my shadow on Groundhog’s Day at Tamarack. In each case, I can highly recommend the experience, in spite of relatively low snowfall totals so far this season.
Have you heard of Tamarack, North America’s newest mountain resort? When it opened in December 2004, it was the first all-season resort to open in the United States in more than 20 years. Located about 90 miles north of Boise, Tamarack borders the north end of Lake Cascade, and features Nordic, showshoe and snowmobile trails, a small but growing upscale village and a really fun mountain of 2,800 vertical feet for all snow riders to enjoy. In addition to the 1,100 acres of lift-accessed terrain, backcountry options open up another 5,000 acres of pristine, advanced terrain.
If my experience can be any guide, lift lines here should be practically non-existent. Although the management policy is to restrict lift ticket sales to a maximum of 2,000 per day, so far this has not been necessary. In the four days I was there, I often skied for an hour or so before seeing anyone else except the lift attendants. It was almost spooky, but getting a part of the mountain all to myself made it feel like a private club. In fact, that could be a pretty good description of Tamarack: a semi-private mountain without the initiation dues.
Because there had not been any fresh snowfall for about 30 days, the lauded glades were pretty crusty, but it is easy to see why this would be a powder hound’s paradise. There are almost too many ways down through the trees to count. But on this trip, I pretty much stuck to the groomers, and it was fantastic. The terrain has characteristics not unlike a rollercoaster ride, and the tree-lined runs help with visibility when necessary. In my case, it was cold-smoke sunshine all the time, and though the temps were near 0 in the valley, the temperature inversion made it warmer to ski on the top part of the mountain.
I should mention that this resort is being fueled financially by robust real estate sales, and the complete build-out will run about 20 years. Right now the lodging options are just fine, with ski in/ski out the norm, but restaurants and nightlife are somewhat limited for the time being. This should change when the new Fairmont Tamarack hotel is built in the village, as it will feature amenities geared to attract the upper-end consumer.
My summary: With fresh snow, I could spend a full week there and be very happy. Without fresh snow, I think three or four days would enable you to experience most of what is available. It is worth mentioning that the advantage of being a totally new resort means that everything has been really well conceived and implemented, and employees here really seem to feel pride in showing off their newly created resort.
If Tamarack is the newest kid on the block, then Sun Valley is the other bookend of Idaho skiing, the most seasoned and experienced citizen in the state. You hardly even need to check the snow report when going to Sun Valley, because as long as the temperatures are low enough, there is fresh snow every day. Nowhere is there better snow making and snow grooming, the combination of which pretty much guarantees a good day.
Sun Valley has lots of star power. I’m not much for the Hollywood crowd, but even I recognized Clint Eastwood walking past me in the lodge. The Governator of California was no longer there, having broken his leg a few days before. (It was said he fell on his ski pole while standing still. I’m not making this up.)
I encountered one group in Sun Valley that is about as far from the fantasy of the Hollywood crowd as is possible to be. At age 60 you would probably be the youngest person there. Most are in their 70s and not a few in their 80s. They call the Warm Springs Lodge “God’s Waiting Room.”
What these veteran skiers have in common is a love of the mountains and skiing, and they ski fast — many of them faster than the kids. Most of the octogenarians have world cup age-group medals. They are very real, down-to-earth types with a quiet confidence born of lifetimes of accomplishment. Nearly all served in the military. They came from an era when absolutely everyone served in the military. Check out this list.
Why Sun Valley? They said they come for the mountains and its reliable snow product. They ski together for a few hours each day. In the summer, they’re members of the 10,000 foot club, which means they hike 10,000 vertical feet a week.
I met these guys at 8:30 a.m. in the Warm Springs lodge; if you want to meet them, it’s easy, because most are there every day during the week. “God’s Waiting Room” — that’s what they call it. But they’re adamant that when they get the call for their last mission, they will be called home fit, and very happy.
John Naye is a Mercer Island resident and the President of the Western Region of the North American Snowsports Journalist’s Association. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org