Sun Valley for the Non-Outdoorsy Family


What the heck was my family going to do for a summer week in Sun Valley, Idaho — a place identified with fishing, river rafting, mountain biking, rock climbing, hiking, and horseback riding?! This was my travel-planning problem.

Let me explain.

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Zealous fans of the BBC show, Top Gear, my kids completely identify with a phrase uttered by one of the hosts in a 2007 episode. (see Top Gear Polar Special web page) James May, in the middle of a tirade about being forced by producers to participate in an auto adventure to the North Pole, strongly and unapologetically asserted in his English accent, “I hate outdoor pursuits.”

My kids are like-minded. They each rejected team sports years ago (though the oldest now competes on his high school swim team, after refusing to even attend meets during middle school), and I fondly refer to our current middle schoolers as “reluctant Scouts” since they prefer the steps to earning a Citizenship badge, which requires knowing all the government branches, discussing current leaders, and writing letters to council members, over the steps required to earn a badge for, say, Wilderness Survival.

They all greatly admire the Top Gear host’s keen intellect and quick wit, latched onto his anti-push-the-body-to-find-the-limit statement, and derive a sense of camaraderie and support for their physically comfortable endeavors. Mr. May, who also has his own show (see James May’s Toy Stories website on BBC America) that super sizes toys such as Legos, has become one of our boys’ role models.

So, what could my family, with our not-so-rugged boys, possibly do to enjoy 5 days in an outdoor recreation area?


In addition to some excellent meals cooked by my kids at the condo we rented (lucky me – they love to cook and grill!), two dinners out, and a couple of easy swims and short bike rides, our itinerary proceeded as follows:

Day One, Monday — Craters of the Moon
About an hour’s drive from Ketchum, through sagebrush and grassy hillsides dotted with evergreen trees, we knew we were getting close when the landscape became black and we realized it wasn’t from a roadside grass fire, it was cooled and hardened lava.  It is easy to find the Visitor Center, which has documentary video shows, wildlife dioramas, interactive topography maps, gifts, books available for purchase, newer, spotless restrooms and the most refreshing drinking fountain water I’ve ever had!  We paid $8.00 to drive the paved loop through lava fields and abundant tiny wildflowers, with places to park, walk a path, and read explanation boards.  We all agreed it was fascinating!

Here are hubby and two of our kids, standing on a path, looking at 7,000+ year old lava:

Look close to see hubby and kids in the distance, walking along a path:

Day Two, Tuesday — Movie Matinee
On the single day of sprinkles we had during our June week, we took a long drive through other neighborhoods, then went to a matinee.  Our theater choices were Big Wood Cinemas in nearby Hailey, or the Magic Lantern Cinemas right in Ketchum.  The Magic Lantern sounded great, with plush rocking seats and beer and wine, however its first show was 4:30, so we selected the 1:30 matinee at Big Wood, where the matinee price on Tuesday was only $5 per person!  We spent more on the snacks than we did getting in!  Big Wood was clean, with friendly attendants, and nice seats.  Toy Story 3 was wonderful, and there were only about 15 people in the theater.

Day Three, Wednesday — Bowling at Sun Valley Lodge
You don’t have to be staying at the resort to enjoy its activities; we drove here, and parked for free.  The cost for one game with two lanes, four bowlers, and four shoe rentals was $34.  I kept score — which took some thinking and mental calculating since it was not electronic, instead requiring paper and pencil, and I had to read the instructions to learn how to indicate spares and strikes and bonuses.  (I had planned to bowl, but they were out of those disposable socks and I was wearing sandals.)  We arrived just before the lanes opened at 4:00 and had the place to ourselves!  The atmosphere was fun with the 1950s design, low-ceiling, and diminutive six lanes.  Bumpers are available for helping kids’ rolls avoid the gutters.  The light over the scoring table was broken, and the lanes needed the manual reset button pushed hard sometimes, but it was charming.  The kids also played a couple of arcade games.

Day Four, Thursday — Gondola at Bald Mountain
For ticket information, click the link above, but for a better description of the lifts, see this Idaho Mountain Express newspaper article.  The gondola is enclosed and very comfortable.  We hopped off at the end of its ascent, and walked a few steps to the next lift, which is an old ski lift with wide seats.  This one, called the Christmas chairlift, was quite scary at first, since it is open air and very high and this day was very windy.  But I got used to it after a bit and enjoyed it, except for the especially windy spots which felt freezing.

We brought our lunch in a cooler (there is food available in restaurants), sat momentarily at a picnic table, and decided it was too windy so we rode back down to the base and enjoyed our food at an outdoor table with an umbrella to shade us from the sun. Be sure to check the lift’s opening date — in 2010 it did not start operating for the summer season until June 26.  It is expensive, too: $75 for our family of 5, but a very special experience we felt worth the money.

Gondola ride, going up:

Chilly at the top, but great view!:

View of Sun Valley, and Gondola lift:

Descent on Christmas lift:

Eating our lunch at the base, Gondola start point on the left:

Day Five, Friday — Paddle Boats and Golf
Renting a two-person paddle boat for half an hour is enough to tire out kids and parents alike!  Even the nice young man attending the rental shed near the small dock said most people never paddle for an entire hour.  Our 15-year old initially chose to watch us from the grassy slope between the parking area and the lake.  After my legs got tired though, I convinced him to take my place and I think he had a good time.  We were happy to be the only customers on the small, calm lake!  Total for two boats: $22.

View from a paddle boat of the dock and parking area:

Our 15 year old is calling me on shore to tell me to stop video taping them!


Later, my hubby and our two pre-teens played the 18-hole putting course that is family friendly.  They reported that it was challenging, and more of a miniature, actual course than the usual, flat putting green.  This one had curves and hills and varying heights of grass.  Without reservations, they drove to the clubhouse, and didn’t have to wait.  For $27 the three of them played the putting course the day before, and enjoyed two large buckets of balls at the driving range on Friday (may be an additional charge to rent clubs at the driving range).  Putters are provided for the putting course.

Our 11 year old twins on the putting course:

At the driving range, with Dollar Mountain in the background:

Summer Time at a Ski Resort
A summer week at a ski resort was something I had long wanted to experience.  And even my family of indoor-types enjoyed the mellow, slow-paced active fun and fresh mountain air.  There were many great restaurant choices, and easy access to a large grocery store for meals prepared in the condo.  Best of all, there weren’t the crowds that I imagine there might be in the winter season, and the condo and hotel rental rates are reasonable.  If we had stayed during the weekends, there was a rodeo, ice skating shows, and concerts to enjoy, some of them free.  It was a mostly sunny and warm week that any family would like, even our somewhat geeky one!

Sandy Nielsen


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