To be completely honest with you, if I have a choice I opt for skiing. Most of the time. I simply love the rush of flying downhill.
There are days, however, when I have an itch to be closer to the pristine—away from the lines, the crowds, the $15 lunches, the snowmaking machines. During the summer months I hike; and in the winter, since I’m no cross-country skier, snowshoeing allows me to hit some of my favorite trails.
Sun Valley is, without doubt, a destination SKI resort. But even skiers need a change of pace every now and again. For one, a day on the hill will cost you, while snowshoeing is free. Not to mention the fact that skiing takes many years to master (after twenty years, I’m still working at it).
For a great workout that’s easy on the pocketbook and so simple that even your five-year-old can go along, why not spend a day on snowshoes? Just strap them on. All you need is an affinity for the outdoors. (Even your dog can join in the fun.) My last snowshoeing excursion took me up Titus Ridge, a half-hour drive north of Ketchum off the west side of Galena Pass. Two friends and I grabbed snowshoes, poles, dogs, powerbars, and water bottles. Toasting ourselves for choosing the perfect March day, we hit the fresh powder.
Some snowshoers participate for the physical workout. (I’ve read that the best racers can cover a 100-yard course in just over 12 seconds, and a mile in about five minutes.) For me, though, snowshoeing is a slow, contemplative journey. The crunching rhythm of footfalls frees my mind to wander. As we hiked, I inhaled the crispness of the day and let the previous week’s stress dissipate. My shoulders relaxed, my breath deepened.
Sunlight flickered on the dry snow. We climbed the ridge through the weathered pines mostly in silence, laughing occasionally as the dogs rolled and frolicked around us.
The view at the top was stunning. The immense Boulder Mountain range loomed before us and the craggy Sawtooths stretched behind. From the summit we had a bird’s-eye view of the magnificent natural beauty of our world; we felt awed by the peacefulness and purity of a landscape blanketed with snow. We were affected by it, consumed by it—and thankful for the snowshoes that had given us the freedom to explore this winter world.
Later, I stopped into The Elephant’s Perch to ask outdoorsman extraordinaire Nappy Neaman for a bit more information on the nitty-gritty of snowshoeing. Neaman said that snowshoeing has continued to be a popular sport in Sun Valley because so many residents and visitors are avid hikers: “Sun Valley is known for its hiking. Hiking suits the wants and needs of almost any age group, and snowshoeing allows hikers a winter release. The sport gives outdoor lovers a chance to get out into the winter world and take a deep breath, to enjoy and recapture all that they might have missed in their indoor working lives.”
The Wood River Valley even hosts various snowshoe events. The Paw ‘n’ Pole features a snowshoe entry for pets and their owners, and in early March, The Elephant’s Perch hosts the annual Snowshoe Challenge. For $10 you can join the 80 or so participants who gather on the River Run side of Baldy at 8 a.m., don snowshoes, and race to the top. If you survive the climb, toast yourself with refreshments at the top and enjoy a lift back to the bottom.
A less strenuous do-it-yourself adventure is available through Sun Valley Trekking Company, which runs several yurts (circular, walled tents) in the Sun Valley area. Just a few miles north of town and an easy snowshoe or ski in, the Boulder Yurt is a popular choice. The Boulder Yurt can accommodate up to fourteen people and is equipped with a wood-burning stove, bunk beds, full kitchen and dining amenities, an outhouse, and even a rustic hot tub in case you’re in the mood for a dip. You will need to pack in your own personal gear, sleeping bag, and food, but overall, yurts make for a comfortable backcountry experience.
How about renting snowshoes for a winter birthday party? Kids and adults alike will relish the experience. Pack a lunch and head in to Alturas, Petit, or Redfish for a picnic beside one of these otherwise inaccessible lakes.
Snowshoes allow you the ability and freedom to wander. There is nothing more revitalizing than a walk up to a stunning vista, and nothing more magical than a snow-laden forest so quiet and still that your heartbeat seems to thunder into the woods. Of course, backcountry explorers need to be aware of winter conditions and hazards, but if you set out prepared, snowshoes can take you just about anywhere.
When I decide to put on my snowshoes, it is more about the process and the destination than the actual sport. They are a means to an end, a way to reach the quiet backcountry, hike a snowy ridge, climb a jagged peak, and visit a slice of nature’s winter beauty. Along the way, the journey rewards body, mind, and spirit.
This is a slow, quiet, and undemanding sport, yet completely rewarding. Try it, and see how your eyes open, your smile widens, and your stress fades into the crisp mountain air.
A Little History
Snowshoes first came into existence several thousand years ago as a necessity for finding food in previously unreachable, wintry areas. Archaeologists claim that snowshoes developed in central Asia and that explorers used them during forays into Europe and North America.
The original snowshoes were large and unwieldy—some reaching up to seven feet long. By the turn of the last century, traders, trappers, explorers, and surveyors had modified them to around three feet in length.
Two very influential styles of snowshoes were modeled after animals: the “bearpaw” (short and wide with a round tail) and the “beavertail” (round nose with the ends coming together in a long tail). The bearpaw is thought to be better for rough or heavily wooded terrain, while the longer shoe is better for more open country or for racing.
Trappers wore snowshoes while scouring Idaho and other western territories during the fur trade of the early 1800s. Peter Skene Ogden, Nathaniel J. Wyeth, and Jedediah Smith all used snowshoes while hunting beaver in the Snake River region. Later that century, as mining boomed in Idaho, postal workers wore snowshoes to carry supplies from Ketchum to the Sawtooth Valley mining camps during the winter months. And by 1880, the Ketchum Keystone was advertising snowshoes as an essential form of winter transportation in the Wood River Valley.1
Those snowshoes were made from a wooden frame covered with untanned cowhide webbing. Recent improvements, including lightweight metal, synthetic lacing, and plastic, have given modern snowshoes a new ease and efficiency. The original design remains about the same; only the materials have changed substantially.
If you can walk, you can snowshoe. You may feel a bit silly at first, but after a few minutes you’ll be cruising down the trail with ease. I wouldn’t advise running on your first time out (yes, I’ve eaten more than a few mouthfuls of snow), but your beginning bumbles should be part of the fun.
To stay on your feet, focus on keeping the tips of the snowshoes up and leading with the tails (plant the back end of the snowshoe before the toe) to help prevent catching the tips. Use ski poles for extra balance. Cleats on the bottom of the snowshoes provide traction on hills and icy spots. When the going gets tough, push down on each step to engage the cleats.
For a physical workout, try Rudd Mountain, the home of the original Sun Valley ski lift. Access the mountain from the end of Fairway Road behind the Sun Valley Golf Course. This trail is easily accessible from town and offers steep, challenging terrain that will get your blood flowing in a hurry. Be sure to stop at the summit to enjoy the stunning view of the valley below.
Although Sun Valley Resort has offered a snowshoe program on Baldy in the past, they currently discourage the sport because of conflicts with skiers, snowboarders, and grooming machines. Peter Sterns, Assistant Director of Mountain Operations and Director of Snowmaking, suggests renting snowshoes from the Sun Valley Nordic Center and using their groomed snowshoe trails along the Sun Valley Golf Course.
Another local favorite is Billy’s Bridge, the ultimate shared trail where dogs, cross-country skiers, and snowshoers gather for a winter workout. Billy’s Bridge is included in the North Valley Trail System, which starts at the Sawtooth National Recreation Area (SNRA) Headquarters and continues north alongside Highway 75. Located 18 miles north of Ketchum, the eight-kilometer trail has a very gentle slope and is a terrific area for beginners.
For a social stroll followed by hot chocolate and pastries, or perhaps a nighttime jaunt under the full moon before their famous Full Moon Dinner, try the groomed trails surrounding Galena Lodge, 24 miles north of Sun Valley. With over 50 kilometers of groomed snowshoe trails, there is something for everyone at Galena. Rentals and a $3 trail pass can be picked up at the lodge. Owners Carlin Thompson and Charles Savage also encourage guests to try their New Moon Dinners combined with a stargazing tour, led by local amateur astronomer Steve Pauley.
For a more quiet, backcountry experience, pick a sunny day and head up with a friend or two to my favorite spot, Titus Ridge. Please check the avalanche report before leaving, and be sure to stay on the trail if you are not prepared with backcountry gear.
Remember: Groomed cross-country trails are groomed specifically for skiing and are NOT for snowshoers, as the cleats on the bottom of snowshoes wreak havoc with trails. Please stay on designated snowshoe trails or in the backcountry. If you are new to the area, stop into the Ketchum Chamber of Commerce or the SNRA headquarters for a free snowshoe map.
Avalanche Hotline: 208.622.8027
Mountain Sports: 208.726.8818
Elephant’s Perch: 208.726.3497
Galena Lodge: 208.726.4010
Sawtooth National Recreation Area Information: 208.727.5000
Sun Valley Trekking: 208.788.1966
1 Sun Valley: An Extraordinary History, Wendolyn Spence Holland, 1998.
Katherine Rixon, an avid hiker, skier, and soccer player, is a former editor and writer for the Environmental News Network, an internet magazine.