Perhaps you’ve seen them while driving out Trail Creek or passing you by on a backcountry road. Maybe you’ve even seen some driving through town—these vehicles that aren’t quite ATVs but certainly aren’t cars or golf carts either. What are they? They’re UTVs—utility-task vehicles.
Anyone who has been out on a backcountry rode or wide trail in Idaho has most likely seen an ATV, or all-terrain vehicle. With room for only one passenger, ATVs are typically seen with more following behind—a group of four would require four ATVs. This is the beauty of UTVs, utility-task vehicles also known as SxS or side-by-sides. These recreational vehicles fit up to four people and feel much more like driving or riding in a car. UTVs have a steering wheel and foot pedals for the gas and break pedals and have seatbelts like a car would. While a UTV is generally slower than an ATV, there are many features of a UTV that make it a worthy investment.
During the pandemic, there was a noticeable rise in outdoor recreation; it became difficult to purchase bikes, kayaks, and other outdoor gear as people flocked to rural areas. This same time has seen a rise in the popularity of purchasing and riding UTVs in the Sun Valley area, a trend that can be seen in the businesses that rent and sell them here. “It has grown immensely,” says Ryan Parton of Ryan’s Mountain Rentals in Bellevue, a purveyor of two- and four-seater UTVs. “I think COVID was a big factor. I think people have shied away from the four-wheelers (ATVs) because it’s a one-person thing. These are more family-oriented.”
Being able to cart the family into the backcountry and do so comfortably and safely is a major selling point of UTVs. In addition to seatbelts and a windshield, UTVs typically have a cabin or bars that surround its passengers to protect them in the event of a rollover (also known as a roll cage). They also have added storage space, which makes it easy to haul gear or equipment.
Julie Harris and her husband, Shane, and daughter, Lucy, have lived in Ketchum for five years but frequently visit their property in Pine and nearby Anderson Reservoir on the weekends. While driving ATVs last year, Shane and Lucy were in an accident that required hospitalization for Shane and a few small injuries for the then-11-year-old. It was this accident that prompted them to buy their RZR UTV. “That’s why we upgraded to a UTV,” says Julie. “For the five-point harnesses, a roll cage, and so we can all be together as opposed to having three or four four-wheelers strung out.” The Harris family also cites being able to adventure where a truck or four-wheeler wouldn’t be as safe as part of its appeal as well as the ability to haul things like coolers and their kayaks.
Parton also became a convert after having an accident on an ATV. He bought his first four-seater Polaris RZR UTV in 2010 when they came out and couldn’t believe the ability of the machines and the kind of ground they could cover. While his family and friends scoffed at these vehicles at first—most saying that he could have bought a Jeep instead—soon they were all onboard and buying their own.
There are a variety of optional upgrades and creature comforts available when using a UTV, which Parton provides with his rentals. All of his have a roof to provide shade, jockey boxes and cubby holes for your phone, stereo systems, and a GPS system right on the dash. “They’re amazing machines,” says Parton. “You can throw the dogs in the back, an ice chest, throw in a family of four. It’s a big enough cargo system to where you can throw all your camping gear and fishing poles in and get to places where you just can’t carry that much equipment on an ATV. They’re very family-friendly that way.”
The terrain in the Sun Valley area accessible by UTV is vast. One particularly popular spot for UTV-ers is Boulder City, an old ore mining town (now a ghost town) north of Ketchum in the Boulder Mountains. Usually a destination reserved for hikers, the 12.5-mile trail/old mining road with an elevation gain of 2,500 feet is fair game for a UTV. Local company ExploreWith partners with Ryan’s Mountain Rentals for a full-day Boulder City guided trip for those looking to explore with a guide. The site offers beautiful views from its 10,000-foot perch and still has remains of cabins and other structures.
There is tons of other terrain to explore, from the Baker Creek area to Trail Creek and Copper Basin. Clients renting in Hailey or Bellevue can check out the Muldoon Trail, Slaughterhouse Trails, Bell Mountain, or the Little Wood Reservoir for something close to town. There are miles of trails and old logging roads approved for UTV use, maps of which are provided by the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management. For those looking to explore farther destinations, head up Trail Creek to the Mackay Mines Trail or Challis Trails. If you’re visiting in July, you can participate in Rally in the Pines, an annual UTV gathering in and around Mackay.
Like any outdoor endeavor, safety is of the utmost importance when using UTVs. After a fatal UTV crash in Ketchum in July 2022, the UTV community and local police force are even more vigilant about keeping UTV enthusiasts safe. Just as in a car, wearing a seatbelt in a UTV is important—the woman killed in the UTV rollover was unfortunately not wearing hers. UTV rentals from Parton’s shop come with an emergency beacon so that help is available at the push of a button. “We’ve been doing this for 10 years and never lost anybody,” says Parton.
Former paramedic and firefighter, Josh Swenson, who is the GM at Karl Malone Powersports Hailey, says they are organizing more group rides locally to help educate riders. “It’s important to learn more about the safety features and operational features of the vehicle,” says Swenson. “Side-by-sides are the easiest, fastest way to get a family into the mountains,” Swenson adds, “and we want them to have fun and explore the terrain, being safe and knowing where they can and cannot ride.”
To that end, Karl Malone Powersports Hailey is offering courses on driving, safety, vehicle use and recovery basics for all riders of any age and ability. Check with the U.S. Forest Service for trail maps open to UTVs, know the rules of the road, be courteous and check out the safety tips below.
Always wear your seatbelt
A certified helmet and goggles (if your helmet doesn’t have eye protection) are recommended
Don’t drink and drive
Know how to operate the vehicle fully
Do a pre-ride check for things like full tires and fuel levels
Stay on the trail
Take a safety course. Karl Malone Powersports Hailey Spring/Summer 2023 course offerings include: Base Course Driving—an entry-level course that includes driving, minor mechanics, basic recovery rules and proper use of your vehicle and skill level. Recovery Basics—covers risk assessment, recovery points on your vehicle, and proper use of recovery gear.