Finding Nordic Nirvana in Sun Valley, Idaho

Northwest Editor Mike Lanza explores the country's cross-country skiing capitol

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The groomed white track tilts sharply upward and continues for a discouragingly long stretch before disappearing around another bend in the lodgepole pine forest. Climbing this relentless hill on my skate-skis, my heart wails loudly enough to scare off birds, while alarming sounds and fluids spew from my mouth. I feel like I’m locked in mortal combat against gravity and the battle isn’t going so well for me right now.

But I finally crest the hilltop and stop in an open meadow buried in deep snow. A view that’s become familiar over the years—and never less than exhilarating—spreads out before me. Central Idaho’s forested Wood River Valley, dappled with fields of white, meanders south for as far as I can see, and then some. Two long ramparts of jagged, snowy, 10,000-foot peaks frame the scene, the Boulder Mountains on the left and the Smoky Mountains on the right.

Every time I see this valley, I wonder how it can be that I don’t get out here more in winter. Little wonder this place has become one of the West’s skiing meccas.

Then I take off on a screaming downhill—on a trail appropriately named “Psycho”—my skinny skis chattering and wind filling my ears as I set out for a couple of hours cruising around one of the biggest, most varied, and prettiest Nordic trail systems in the country.

As we have for nearly all of the 12 winters we’ve lived in Idaho, my family spent last weekend in Sun Valley for the annual Boulder Mountain Tour Nordic ski race. It’s the climax of the weeklong Sun Valley Nordic Festival in a town that bills itself, not too hyperbolically, as “Nordic Town, USA:” Ketchum, Idaho. Several hundred skiers, including some of America’s best athletes, compete in the 32-kilometer race for everything from prize money to the satisfaction of nailing their best time or just finishing. The race attracts kids and skiers in their 80s. You can’t help but smile and cheer seeing the variety of people who cross that finish line.

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—Mike Lanza