Both Idaho’s Sun Valley and Wyoming’s Jackson Hole are a little longer to get to than, say Park City or Whistler, (generally you’ll need to change planes in Salt Lake City) but the bonus of this is that they are both pretty much ‘destination’ resorts, so free from weekend and day-tripper crowds, and both are served by good local airports, so there’s no long bus transfer to get to the slopes.
Sun Valley, in central Idaho, celebrated 75 years of skiing in 2011 and has the proud boast of being America’s first ski resort. It’s also where the Hollywood stars and writers of the 30s and 40s came to play – the local elementary school bears Ernest Hemingway’s name!
Light on crowds (non-existent on my mid-February visit) and high on luxe-rustic charm, Sun Valley features two mountains – the beginners’ Dollar Mountain, where the SnowSports School, a tubing hill and terrain park are situated, and Bald Mountain, ‘Baldy’, with 13 lifts and 65 runs. All up, the area is more than 800ha and offers 1000 vertical metres of skiing – plenty to keep even the fastest snow bunnies happy, and the runs are for the most part wide and beautifully groomed. Both mountains have spacious, extremely comfortable day lodges at their base, with welcoming fireplaces and comfy sofas, where you can rest tired legs, warm up with a hot chocolate, refuel at very healthy buffets, or relax for some après in the afternoon. The mountains are a short bus ride (buses are frequent and complimentary) from the town of Ketchum and the Sun Valley Resort, which features historic lodging, heated open-air swimming pools, a day spa, a range of restaurants (Bald Mountain pizza is really good) and shops – be sure to sample the chocolate and nut ‘turtles’ from the chocolate shop, an a bowling alley and ice rink. You can also stay in Ketchum at one of a number of condos, and there’s a good selection of dining options here too.
There isn’t really any ski-in ski-out accommodation in Sun Valley, but the frequent shuttle bus service makes getting around extremely easy, and once you’ve checked the kids into the SnowSports School on the first day, you can all head over to Bald Mountain on subsequent days and they’ll be picked up from there if you prefer. You can also check the kids in from 8.30am, if you’re keen to get some early tracks yourself. If the kids are in lessons, then be sure to make some time for Mum and Dad to have a leisurely mountain lunch at the historic Roundhouse mountain restaurant.
The SnowSports School is unique in that it offers a boot and ski/board fitting service too, so no need to worry about getting the kids kitted out before their lessons, you just show up and everything is taken care of, including their lift passes. The kids have their own lunch area and lunch is included in the day’s lesson.
You can bring the baby to Sun Valley safe in the knowledge that there is excellent care for bubs from three months to six years old. Lessons on snow start from four years old, and for teens there is a specially designed Teen Adventure Program with trained Freeride instructors. You can also take a private ‘Parent & Child’ lesson for three to four-year-olds, where you can tag along and learn some basic teaching skills of your own.
From the moment you arrive at Jackson Hole’s airport (just a short 20-minute drive from the main town of Jackson), you get the sense that this is a sophisticated town, but one that hasn’t forgotten its cowboy heritage. The town of Jackson itself is a 15-minute drive from the slopes (the development slopeside is known as Teton Village) and served by a regular bus. Stay in town (perhaps at the historic Wort Hotel, which is popular with Australians) and you’re closer to the tubing on offer at nearby Snow King Resort, and the fascinating National Elk Refuge. A horse-drawn sleigh ride through the 25-acre reserve to get up close to elk, bison and coyotes is a must-do for the whole family. You can also take one of a number of snowmobile day trips into the nearby Yellowstone National Park, or even go heli-skiing, if the nerves and budget permit, with High Mountain Heli-skiing.
Stay slopeside in Teton Village, however, and you’ve got plenty of ski-in ski-out accommodation to choose from, with condo-style being the best option for a travelling family. Both the more traditional Teton Mountain Lodge and the funkier Terra offer condos with fully equipped kitchens, living/dining and separate bedrooms. We were extremely comfortable here and were able to choose from a range of family friendly eating options, as well as stocking up in the compact but well-stocked Mangy Moose Cellars & Grocery.
Jackson Hole’s Kids Ranch is close to the base of the gondola and takes babies from six months old and will put little ones on skis just as soon as the boots fit them (usually around the age of two). There is a gentle beginners area, with a magic carpet lift, as well as a ‘Ranch Wagon’ which gives kids a ride up the slope and is easier for little ones to manage than a chairlift, as well as being much more fun! Kids are graded into Pioneers, Rough Riders or Little Ripper boarders and Team Extreme caters to able teens who might be outskiing their parents. All kids – even the big ones – will enjoy the undulating trail, Mr Toad’s Wild Ride.
Looking up at the mountain, and the majestic Grand Tetons, the slopes look alarmingly steep, but once you’re up the mountain (on either the tram, gondola or quad chair), there’s plenty for intermediate as well as advanced skiers. The run that will earn you bragging rights is the Rendezvous Bowl, accessed from the gondola.
Just over the other side of the ranges, and accessible by a daily shuttle is the small resort of Grand Targhee. It’s small and friendly and has a great vibe to it – this is the place where local families bring their kids to learn to ski, sometimes for several generations. ‘Targhee’ as it’s known to the locals, claims to get more than its fair share of powder, as storms regularly dump on that side of the mountains – in fact it’s been voted as having the best snow in North America. There’s also a terrific CAT skiing operation, for some back-country powder. It’s worth taking the whole family over for the day, not least for the kids’ ski area, which really embraces the fun of learning to ski – they can explore the eyeball forest, the wind chimes and dreamcatchers in the Sacred Forest and see where Fred, the resort’s resident moose likes to hang out – his toothbrush is even hanging in the trees. Stop for a hearty and delicious lunch at the Branding Iron Grill, in the small base village – the kids might even be game to try the peanut butter bacon burger!