Idaho's golden skiing circuit is brighter and richer than ever with the addition of Tamarack Resort, America's newest ski area. Tamarack's grand opening is December 15.
Tamarack joins Bogus Basin, Soldier Mountain, Sun Valley and Brundage Mountain: a travel circle in the heart of Idaho. A week to ten-day trip is a perfect vacation schedule, allowing one to ski and experience these resorts.
Though Tamarack's opening is imminent, my partner and I had the pleasure of snow cat and Nordic skiing the abundant Tamarack trails and off piste earlier in the year. Our guide was Steve "YT" Nelson, a cowboy who has had a life long dance with skiing when not on horseback. I had met him once in the deep oven of summer at Nevada's fabled Winecup Ranch back in 1992 while tracing by horseback the Southern Route of the Oregon Trail.
YT led us off the 7700-foot Tamarack Summit down Geronimo Trail. The foot of new powder was thrilling as we swooshed whooping and hollering to the confluence of Adrenaline Run, crossing Heaven Run to Purgatory. Purgatory would cross Vista, Flamenco and Tango Trails before we met the snow cat for another ride to the top.
Tamarack is the first ski, golf and lake resort to be fully authorized and permitted in the US in more than 20 years. It is located 100 miles north of Boise, Idaho's capital city, and west of the charming small town of Donnelly. The resort lies on the western shore of Lake Cascade. There are 28 kilometers of groomed Nordic skiing at Tamarack. My partner Amy Hartell spent the day sampling ten miles of the groomed, reporting back with the superlatives "sublime, beautiful, a great workout and plenty of winter critters along the way."
Tamarack has 2800 feet of continuous vertical drop spread over 700 skiable acres, including many open bowls and glades. There are five lifts featuring two high-speed quads and a 500-foot super pipe and terrain park. Impressive since none of this existed since our January Tamarack foray. Eventually Tamarack will have seven high-speed chair lifts and numerous surface lifts. Cat skiing will be available throughout the ski season along with snowshoeing on 10 kilometers of trails.
"This is a grand mountain with tremendous terrain," says YT. "It reminds me of some of the big spreads I use to work for while buckarooing. Plenty of space in big country." His moniker comes from the famous Northern Nevadan YT Ranch.
I found the setting to be quite extraordinary with the backdrop of Cascade Lake, mindful of skiing Heavenly near Lake Tahoe or Sutton in Quebec.
The Golden Circle
Logically for most, Idaho's Golden Ski Circle would begin by flying into Boise, renting a car and driving to Bogus Basin, a dizzying hop and skip drive up a tight and curvy road 16 miles north above the Gem state's capital The day we went, an air inversion had been hanging over Treasure Valley for two weeks. Bogus though was bathing in brilliant sunshine and velvet snow. My guide Gretchen Anderson revealed to me a Bogus Basin I never knew since my last ski there in the early 1970s. The Pioneer Area subsequently was developed along with the Pine Creek chairlift to serve the "backside" and the Bitterroot basin. This "new to me" terrain was exhilarating to explore. It was like skiing above the clouds with the inversion blanket covering the lower valleys and hills as far as the eye could see.
The non-profit Bogus Basin ski corporation took a leap of faith in 1998-when the ski industry was sagging-by discounting their season passes to $199 and $29 for a kids pass (age 7-11). "We became a ski town overnight," says Anderson. "25,000 passes were sold for the 1998-99 season." The sale season pass has risen minimally to $229 if purchased within a window of March to mid April yet is still very affordable at $399 after mid-April, especially since Bogus is open to day and night skiing seven days a week.
Bogus has 52 groomed runs. The longest, Paradise Trail, is 1.5 miles.
Bogus was named after fool's gold found at nearby Deer Point, referred to by some locals as "bogus gold." Don't be fooled though, the skiing is far from bogus!
Taking Interstate 84 south of Boise, exit east on Highway 20 outside Mountain Home to Fairfield. Small, intimate, family oriented Soldier Mountain is 10 miles north abut to the Southern Sawtooth Mountains. Open Thursday through Sunday, Soldier has 36 runs accommodated by two lifts and one handle tow. Cat skiing is offered on 1500 acres of spectacular backcountry terrain.
If there is a heart to Idaho's Golden Ski Circle, it has to be Sun Valley. Indeed, it may be the heart of skiing in America!
There's something magical about skiing Old Baldy or Dollar Mountain. Sun Valley conjures up images of Bing Crosby singing White Christmas, of Ernest Hemingway (who lived and died here), of movie stars from the "golden film era" such as Gary Cooper and Clark Gable who skied and hunted here, of America's most famous winter Olympians: Gretchen Fraser who won America's first ski medal, a gold in alpine skiing at St. Moritz, Switzerland; Andrea Mead Lawrence, winner of two gold medals; and Picabo Street, the 1998 downhill gold medallist in Nagano.
Sun Valley was America's first destination ski resort. Jack Sibbach, Sun Valley Resort's pr/marketing and sales director, tells the story, "Union Pacific Railroad president Averell Harriman purchased 3900 acres at $10.90 an acre here in 1935. Soon after the world's first two chairlifts were installed, revolutionizing the ski industry. Until then, there was not much skiing in the world. Sun Valley led the way to what we are seeing today."
What we are seeing today is one of the world's premiere ski areas. The natural beauty of the Wood River Basin, abundant snowfall, the world's largest automated snowmaking capability, a community (Ketchum and Sun Valley) robust with art, fine food and lodging and a mother lode of winter outdoor activities, including Nordic skiing, backcountry skiing, snowshoeing and ice skating to compliment downhill skiing. Sun Valley's ski lodges are second to none. The romance and charm of staying at the Sun Valley Lodge or Inn-- complete with circular heated outdoor pools and an ice skating rink-is wondrous.
One evening we took a sleigh ride to the rustic Trail Creek Cabin (a favorite of Hemingway's) for a hosted dinner. As is often said, "we died and went to heaven!" All bundled and blissfully nourished, we boarded the horse drawn sleigh and headed back to the resort under a winter moon and jingling sleigh bells. En route, we sang Jingle Bells, Moon River and White Christmas.
BRUNDAGE MOUNTAIN, MCCALL
To complete Idaho's Golden Ski Circuit, skiing McCall's Brundage Mountain is a must. McCall, known as Ski Town USA, is nestled against lovely Payette Lake, approximately a two and a half hour drive north of Boise. Traveling from Sun Valley, we ascended Galena Summit on Highway 75 to Stanley, turned west on Highway 21 and traveled to Banks where we followed the picturesque Payette River to McCall.
Brundage is often blessed with dry, feather light powder snow. It is a skier's mountain with no fancy on slope lodging or dining (those amenities are in McCall). Lift tickets are not out of sight. The views are wonderful and the terrain equal to that. The seasonal Yurt Bar at the top of the Blue Bird High-Speed Quad chair is a must stop sometime during the day for a hot beverage or drink. I amusingly witnessed several skiers-including my mate-ski through the open door to the bar and order a round.
Cat Skiing Brundage is some of the best in the west with 19000 acres of powder glades, steep chutes and tree skiing. Overnight yurt stays are available, too.
McCall's Winter Carnival takes place in late January, early February. Superb ice carvings, competitions and events are held during this lively festival.
Photos by Larry Turner and Amy Hartell