Sun Valley: Endless Options for Every Idaho Road Trip

After spending the last three summers backpacking in the Sawtooth Range, I was keen to explore the trails and dispersed camping in Sun Valley, which tend to fly under the radar. While I usually set my schedule in stone, this year I’ve been modifying it weekly as I adjust to the new normal with road tripping. With a wealth of options (plus a commitment to the safety of tourists and locals alike), Sun Valley has something for every traveler, budget and schedule — even those subject to change. Without further ado, here are some ideas and suggestions for an amazing Idaho fall road trip to Sun Valley.

Where to Hike

Sun Valley Fall Road Trip - Pioneer Cabin
Pioneer Cabin sits at 9,460 feet and boasts sweeping views of the valley and the Pioneer Mountains.untains. | photo: Elisabeth Brentano

From the jagged peaks in the background to the catchy phrase painted on the roof, it’s easy to see why Pioneer Cabin is one of the more popular hikes in Sun Valley. With four different routes to the cabin, overcrowding on the trail is not an issue, thus making it a very appealing day hike. Hikers can access the cabin via the Pioneer Cabin Trail (8 miles roundtrip, 2,570 feet of gain), Long Gulch (9 miles roundtrip, 3,000 feet of gain), Johnstone Creek (12 miles roundtrip, 3,000 feet of gain) and Hyndman Trailhead (8 miles roundtrip, 2,370 feet of gain); all of which feature stunning scenery. 

Sun Valley Fall Road Trip - Johnstone Creek - Elisabeth Brentano
Views from the Johnstone Creek Trail, one of four routes to Pioneer Cabin | photo: Elisabeth Brentano

I hiked in via Johnstone (6 miles) and out via Hyndman (4 miles, plus another half a mile on the road to get back to the Johnstone trailhead), but the main route and Long Gulch can be connected as a loop as well. If you go during the week, start early and consider taking one of the more challenging routes, you won’t see many other people on the trail, which is just 30 minutes from Sun Valley.

Fall Road Trip to Sun Valley - Kane Lake - Elisabeth Brentano
Kane Lake can be done as a day hike or as an overnight backpacking trip. | photo: Elisabeth Brentano

I was concerned about trail traffic on a Sunday afternoon, so rather than day hiking Kane Lake, my friend and I opted for a late start and spent the night. We passed half a dozen groups hiking down as we made our way up, but everyone was courteous and there was plenty of space to move aside. The hike is approximately 8.5 miles roundtrip with 1,780 feet of gain, so it was totally manageable with an overnight pack. There were a number of campsites around the lake, and we only spotted one other group overnighting. The trailhead is a little over an hour from Sun Valley, and a high-clearance vehicle is recommended, as the road is rough in spots.

For more hiking suggestions, call or stop by the Sawtooth National Recreation Area Visitor Center in Ketchum or the Blaine County Recreation District office in Hailey for details on permits and closures — and to obtain maps of the area.

Where to Stay

Knob Hill Inn - Elisabeth Brentano
The spacious, open-air hot tub at Knob Hill Inn is a standout amenity. | photo: Elisabeth Brentano

My favorite way to recover after a backpacking trip is a night or two in a hotel, and not only are the accommodations at Knob Hill Inn outstanding, but I felt as though staffers made my comfort and safety their top priority. All rooms have spacious balconies, and the property also has an open-air hot tub (pictured above), plus hand sanitizing stations and signage reminding guests to practicesocial distancingand wear masks. I enjoyed breakfast in the garden courtyard by myself, and while The Grill was a bit busier at dinner, tables were spaced far apart, creating a relaxing outdoor dining experience.

For travelers on a budget, Wood River Inn & Suites in Hailey is sparkling clean, and rooms have fridges, microwaves and coffee makers. The property observes a 24-hour gap period between guests, and staffers use hospital-grade cleaning agents and a fogging system to disinfect the rooms. It’s worth noting that a number of hotels in Sun Valley offer walk-in discount rates, so even if you’re arriving at the last minute, you may still be able to score an amazing deal.

Dispersed Camping

Fall Road Trip to Sun Valley - Dispersed Camping - Elisabeth Brentano
Sun Valley has a seemingly endless amount of dispersed camping for RVers and overlanders. | photo: Elisabeth Brentano

Sun Valley is home to a handful of designated campgrounds, but dispersed camping on nearby National Forest roads is truly the best way to spend the night under the stars. Lake Creek Road is a favorite among RVers, and many of the spots are large and flat, making them ideal group sites. Campers are limited to three-day stays on the first section of the road, but it opens up to 10 days after about a mile. In addition to several campgrounds along North Fork Road, there are over a dozen clearly marked dispersed campsites that offer more privacy. It’s a slightly rougher ride, but there are plenty of options for larger rigs, and the stay limit is 16 days.

Aspen Leaves - Elisabeth Brentano
Many prime car camping spots in Sun Valley are also near trailheads, so be sure to set aside time to wander. | photo: Elisabeth Brentano

While dispersed camping has its share of perks (it’s free and you generally can’t see your neighbors, among other highlights), these sites don’t have bathrooms or garbage collection. In order to keep our public lands pristine and protect them for future visitors, it’s important to pack out all trash and practice Leave No Trace principles, especially with regard to human waste and campfires. If we do our part to look after these wild and beautiful places, they are a gift we can all continue to enjoy, year after year.

Where to Eat

 Where to Eat - Elisabeth Brentano
Most restaurants in town offer takeout, and many have outdoor dining and delivery. | photo: Elisabeth Brentano

The Grill at Knob Hill Inn is one of the more popular dinner spots thanks to its stellar menu and wine selection, and reservations are recommended, as outdoor seating is limited. Cookbook Restaurant and Limelight Lounge are fantastic options as well, especially if it’s date night. If you’re seeking something a bit simpler and want to stay in your sweatpants, Wiseguy Pizza Pie delivers…literally. For those craving tacos and looking for a more inexpensive meal, Barrio 75 is just the spot, with both a patio and an open-air dining space, plus online ordering and takeout. For breakfast and lunch, Big Wood Bakery has two locations and ample outdoor seating, while Glow offers vegan options you can get to go, or enjoy right outside the cafe.

If you’d rather whip up your own meal, Atkinson’s and The Village Market have fare from local farms and bakeries, plus essentials like ice and firewood. Be sure to check out a complete list of local businesses on the Visit Sun Valley website, and remember to call ahead to double check on hours, as many eateries close by 9pm. Reservations are also highly recommended.

What are you waiting for? Pack the car and make that fall road trip to Sun Valley happen!

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