At an elevation of more than 5,300 feet, Hailey is a small but growing town in the marvelous Wood River Valley.
The mountains of the Sawtooth National Forest track the valley on both sides. This immense wild region is ripe for all manner of outdoor activities like hiking, mountain biking, horseback riding and cross-country skiing.
The headline attraction close by has to be Sun Valley Resort, rated as one of the best places to ski and snowboard in North America.
The mountainscapes around Hailey have an undeniable romance that attracted Ernest Hemingway, who came here in the summer for 20 years to live an outdoor life, hunting, fishing and canoeing.
1. Wood River Trail (WRT)
The old trackbed of the Grand Union Railroad has become a 20-mile multi use path through the Wood River Valley.
Linking the towns of Bellevue, Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley, the Wood River Trail gives you stunning vistas of the mountains walling the valley, but also takes you past plenty of interesting locations.
Interpretive signs along the route tell you about the early days of tourism at Sun Valley, historic depots, silver mines, tram lines, sheepherding and the area’s Basque community in the 19th century.
The WRT has pocket parks, restrooms and connecting trailheads on the way, while in winter it becomes a cross-country ski route.
2. Blaine County Historical Museum
Put together with a lot of love, this local history museum is a mine of information for Blaine County, which encompasses Hailey, Ketchum and Sun Valley.
In a building standing since 1882, the permanent display will send you down a number of different rabbit holes.
You’ll learn about the poet Ezra Pound’s early childhood here, as well as the Union Pacific Railroad, sheepherding, the Shoshone and Bannock tribes, the origins of the Sun Valley Resort and the pioneer days.
One enthralling exhibit covers the last decades of the 19th century, when Blaine County was riddled with mines for silver, galena (lead ore) and gold.
The museum also lays claim to one of the nation’s largest publicly displayed collections of political campaign buttons and memorabilia.
3. Sun Valley Resort
In Hailey you’re just ten miles from one of the best winter sports destinations in the country. A few things combine to make Sun Valley a world-class place to ski and snowboard.
Bald Mountain here has a staggering 3,400 vertical feet of fall line terrain, with powdery snow, a consistent pitch and a noticeable absence of wind because of its orientation on the west side of the valley.
There are 75 runs here, evenly weighted between green circle, blue square and black diamond, and accessed by a highly-efficient system of 14 lifts.
This isn’t all, because Dollar Mountain at Sun Valley has a sprawling, family-friendly terrain park, with a gentler pitch to suit younger and less experienced skiers and snowboarders.
And then you’ve got one of the few outdoor ice rinks in the country that is open all year round. This is blessed with outstanding views and is graced by olympic and world-class skiers, so it’s special even if you stay on the sidelines.
4. Rotarun Ski Area
You’ll find a compact alternative to Sun Valley on the slopes three miles southwest of downtown Hailey. When it comes to convenience, you can’t beat Rotarun Ski Area.
This has been a community winter sports hub for Hailey since 1948, offering affordable access to high-quality runs.
The hill has a vertical drop of 475 feet, served by a single Poma lift, with 2.8 miles of runs available.
There’s free night skiing on Wednesdays and Fridays, as well as free entry level programs to give local children the chance to learn to ski or snowboard, no matter their background.
5. Ernest Hemingway Legacy
It’s not hard to see why a rugged outdoorsy type like Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) would be drawn to the untamed landscape around Sun Valley.
The writer chose this place as a summer residence in 1939 after the resort had just been created, writing For Whom the Bell Tolls during this time.
For the next 20+ years Hemingway divided his time between Ketchum, Cuba and Spain, and would come here to write, hunt, fish, canoe and wine and dine.
At the Sun Valley Visitor Center (or website) you can get hold of an itinerary of places relating to the writer, including his memorial at Ketchum Cemetery, the places where he would drink downtown and the restaurant where he had dinner with his wife, Mary, the night before he died in 1961.
6. Sawtooth Botanical Garden
Ten minutes along State Highway 75, on the way to Ketchum there’s a gorgeous showcase for the plant life that grows at this high altitude.
The Sawtooth Botanical Garden is in five acres and has developed steadily since it was founded in 1994.
Among the various sub-gardens there’s a sage steppe garden, a xeriscape garden, wildflower garden, a lava rock garden, a montane garden and a streamside garden.
One important space is the Garden of Infinite Compassion, planted with alpine species and landscaped by a Zen Buddhist monk. In September 2005 the Dalai Lama visited to bless this garden.
The greenhouse, always full of color, is also a delight, planted with a citrus grove and demonstration beds, and used for classes and events all year.
7. Fly Sun Valley
If you’re looking for something out of the ordinary, you can admire Sun Valley’s sumptuous natural beauty from high in the air as you float on thermal currents.
Fly Sun Valley offers tandem paragliding flights, in which you’ll be a co-pilot requiring no special training.
Launching seamlessly from Bald Mountain you may be surprised just how smooth the ride is, and you’ll be free to survey the mountainscapes at your leisure.
All of Fly Sun Valley’s pilots have helmets equipped with GoPro cameras recording the flight for the perfect souvenir.
8. Central Idaho Dark Sky Reserve
The Sawtooth National Recreation Area is staking its claim as one of the best places in North America for stargazing.
Beginning in Ketchum and extending northwest into a massive swath of the Sawtooth Range is the first gold-tier dark sky preserve in the United States.
The cities in the region including Hailey and Sun Valley, have long sought to combat the effects of light pollution on the night sky, and this reserve, established in 2017, is the next step.
The State Highway 75, which passes through these 1,416 square miles has been installed with a series of sky quality meters, while local governments have equipped street lights with shields to prevent pollution.
This will all help preserve the glorious spectacle of the Milky Way for future stargazers at the Sawtooth National Recreation Area. All you have to do is look up with the naked eye, and the galaxy is right there.
9. Craters of the Moon
At Hailey you’re in a handy position from which to reach a surreal volcanic wonderland protected as a U.S. National Monument.
Craters of the Moon is around 40 miles to the southeast and stands as one of the best-preserved flood basalt areas in the continental United States.
In this almost alien landscape you can discover the full gamut of basaltic lava formations, including lava tubes, tree molds (created by burned up trees), fissure cones and spatter cones.
The most recent of these features were formed just 2,100 years ago. Start at the visitor center for context, interesting exhibits and maps and then head out onto the seven-mile loop road, connecting a series of trailheads for cones, lava tubes and much more.
10. Galena Lodge & The Trails
This local favorite is couched in the Boulder Mountains off the meandering State Highway 75, northwest of Sun Valley.
In the not so distant past Galena was a mining community, a remnant of which survives at this lodge, a beloved recreation outpost owned by the Blaine County Recreation District.
Galena Lodge offers access to 47 miles of non-motorized trails, disappearing into the Boulder and Smoky Mountains.
In summer it’s a basecamp for hiking and mountain biking trips, while in winter you’ve got more than 30 miles of cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails to discover.
The lodge organizes all kinds of events and special seasonal activities all year round, and is your first port of call for equipment rentals, passes and to book lessons and special tours.
After your adventure you can head back to the lodge, which has lunch and dinner menus that change with the seasons, as well as outdoor fire pits for a cozy moment in winter. And if you’d like to stay overnight you can rent a semi-backcountry yurt.
11. Sun Valley Museum of History
You could easily spend a couple of hours engrossed in the exhibits at this historical museum at Ketchum’s historic Forest Service Park.
The Wood River Valley region has a lot of interesting stories to tell, and you can find out about the area’s early pioneers, Ketchum’s first inhabitants, local ski history, mining, the arrival of the railroad, sheep ranching and Ernest Hemingway’s time in Sun Valley.
The temporary exhibitions are always worthwhile, going into depth on specific topics from Japanese internment in WWII to mid-century publicity photography for the Union Pacific Railroad.
12. Silver Creek Preserve
A short way southeast of Sun Valley is the gentler landscape of Silver Creek Preserve, protecting almost 900 acres of lush, flower-rich meadows on the banks of a clear stream.
The preserve is the property of the Nature Conservancy Idaho, which has spent the last 45+ years restoring this high-desert spring creek to a flourishing ecosystem for more than 150 species of birds, and mammals like moose, bobcats and coyotes.
The Silver Creek Preserve is famed most of all as a fly-fishing destination for its abundance of rainbow trout and brown trout.
13. Draper Preserve
On the west side of Hailey there’s a beautiful neighborhood park on the banks of the Big Wood River.
Despite being on the edge of the town Draper Preserve is heavily forested and feels like a slice of wilderness, with good opportunities for spotting animals like moose if you go quietly.
The eye-catching Bow Bridge crosses the Big Wood River, with a span of 160 feet, while stretches of well-maintained boardwalk will carry you over the Cory Creek Wetland.
And when you do step out from the cover of trees, the valley’s sumptuous mountainscapes are all around.
14. Sun Valley Suns
Hailey has its own highly successful semi-professional sports team. The Sun Valley Suns are a hockey outfit, based at the Campion Ice House in downtown Hailey, and competing in the Black Diamond Hockey League.
Expanding fast, this competition is made up of teams from the Western United States, and the Sun Valley Suns have been crowned champions three times since 2015.
On the roster you may find some veterans formerly playing in the NHL or AHL, as well as a lot of up-and-coming talent that might grace a big league arena in the future.
Campion Ice House also puts on causal stick & puck and public skate sessions if you’re inspired to get on the ice.
15. Wagon Days
Celebrating the Old West, the big cultural event on Sun Valley’s calendar takes place on the five days leading up to Labor Day.
Based mainly at Festival Meadows on the north side of Ketchum, Wagon Days has a diverse, crowd-pleasing program.
On the agenda are roving musicians, art and antiques shows, a car auction, riding demonstrations, poetry readings, a barn dance and fun activities for children.
The event all ramps up to the Big Hitch, which is the largest non-motorized parade in the Northwest, with cowboys, wagons and marching bands.