The history of the “American Shangri-La,” as Sun Valley is sometimes referred, is not too different from the magical village of legend. It all began in 1935, when Count Felix Schaffgotsch, under the hire of Union Pacific Railroad chairman Averell Harriman, set out in search of the perfect spot for a grand American resort.
The count spent months searching the mountains of the west and surveying many areas that would later become famous resorts, but none of them met his strict criteria.
Feeling defeated and ready to abandon the search, the Count was preparing to wire Harriman the bad news when he heard locals talking about Ketchum, an old mining town in central Idaho. The Count postponed his return home and set out for the Ketchum area.
Upon reaching the Ketchum valley, Count Felix Schaffgotsch was overwhelmed by the area and wired his employer, saying: “This combines more delightful features than any place I have ever seen in Switzerland, Austria or the U.S. for a winter resort."
The Count’s enthusiasm spread to Harriman, who rushed to join the Count, and within days purchased 4,300 acres of what was soon to become Sun Valley.
Harriman was determined to build Sun Valley into a resort worthy of its breathtaking and majestic setting. "It is not enough to build a hotel and then mark with flags and signs the things you propose to do in time to come.” Harriman said. “When you get to Sun Valley, your eyes should pop open. There isn't a single thing that I could wish for that hasn't been provided." Part of what he “wished for” included a timeless lodge complete with glass-enclosed pools, haute cuisine, impeccable service and nightly orchestra performances.
After just seven months of construction, Sun Valley opened to the public in the winter of 1936. The resort was an instant success. Local wildlife was seen sharing the mountain with European nobility and Hollywood royalty. Clark Gable, Errol Flynn, Claudette Colbert, Bing Crosby and Gary Cooper were all regulars in the lodge, while world champions including Don and Gretchen Fraser, Gracie Carter Lindley and Andy Hennig used the mountain for Olympic training.
In 1977, Sun Valley joined the Little America family, under the ownership of R. Earl Holding. Since then, Holding has redefined the standard of elegance and excellence subscribed to by Harriman. He has lavishly refurbished the Sun Valley Lodge and Sun Valley Inn, from the stairs and halls to the guest rooms and made profound improvements to the mountain amenities. But Holding’s greatest accomplishment is Baldy’s “triple crown.”
"Baldy," says Holding, "is a regal mountain and it is only fitting that she wear a crown radiant with three precious jewels.” Those jewels are Baldy’s three distinctive and award-winning day-lodge facilities: the Warm Springs Lodge, Seattle Ridge Lodge and River Run Lodge.
Unlike the Shangri-La of legend, Sun Valley welcomes visitors back year after year. The tradition of beauty and service, “roughing it in style” as Harriman called it, has become the tradition for families across the globe. So, don’t be surprised if you catch a glimpse of a world champion as you carve your way down Bald Mountain. And just nod if you hear a familiar voice telling tall tales at the local watering hole. It’s all part of the magic and mystique that has made Sun Valley the American Shangri-La.