After almost three decades of skiing all over North America, we’ve begun to seek out smaller resorts on our way to bigger ones. They help restore our soul that skiing is fun. Give us a respite from the rat race for first tracks (even on powder days). And most of the time, we end up having more fun there than we would at the big guys. On our journey to Sun Valley, we made it a point to hit up Soldier Mountain Ski Resort. And guess what? We weren’t disappointed.
Bruce Willis Owned Soldier?
Soldier Mountain came on our radar when it went up for sale a few years ago. Its claim to fame, at least for us, was that Soldier Mountain Ski Resort was owned by Bruce Willis. It sparked our curiosity. Why would a celebrity buy a tiny ski resort in Idaho? To see if we could find out, we looked into its history. Started in 1948 by two friends, they were inspired by watching the Olympic trials in nearby Sun Valley / Ketchum. As seasons progressed, they upgraded from a rope-tow and installed two lifts in the seventies. Then in 1996, Bruce Willis purchased it. The question was still up in the air of why did he buy this cozy local spot? So we made it a point to visit Soldier Mountain Ski Resort on our way to Sun Valley.
Fog You’d Expect Made From A Machine
We arrived late in the cozy town of Fairfield Idaho and went right to bed exhausted from our long drive. As we awoke the next morning, I opened the door and was greeted to a wall of thick rolling fog. The kind that a fog machine would make. Dry. Cold. The sun was barely aglow in the sky. It made you feel like you were dreaming. Later on, we talked to a few residents and apparently this is a normal morning weather phenomenon for Fairfield but it’s usually clear up on the mountain.
Our First Taste Of Fairfield’s Welcoming Community
Our stomachs rumbling, we quickly threw our gear into the back of the truck. First stop, the local coffee shop – Musher’s Mug for some breakfast and our caffeine fix. Maybe a block from the Prairie Inn, as soon as we step into the cozy structure, we’re greeted by the owners with a big smile and a “Hi!” Inside the comfy confines we found a handful of bench seats all facing the kitchen. The way it was situated, it made the atmosphere like a communal dining area. Everyone talks to everyone including the owners as they whip up your coffee and food. The breakfast burrito was delicious. Like a panini meets a burrito.
Are We Going Skiing?
With bellies full, we begin our journey up to Solder Mountain ski resort. We zip past the stone store front facades of the main drag of Fairfield. The surroundings quickly transition to snow-covered fields. The fog in town had lifted enough that you can see further but the terrain is flat as a pancake. It makes us wonder “are there even mountains?”
Reminiscent Of Scotland
As quickly as this question pops into our heads, the plains are replaced by hills and then mountains. Normally the mountains I’ve seen in North America are covered in trees or craggy granite. These look more like you’d find in Scotland. Sparsely covered in vegetation. Spackled in snow with wind lips and gullies. The only place you find deciduous trees are in the sinewy valleys where you’d except the snowmelt to flow down into. You could literally ride anywhere if you wanted to. The road follows one of the drainages up. Winding our way up, the fog continues to thin. Until… it finally breaks through.
A clear blue sky! Smiles begin to form on our faces. If it isn’t going to snow, a bluebird day with soft snow is mighty fine as well. In the rearview mirror, you can see the fog sitting in the valley but above is all clear skies. We pull into the parking lot to see a few dozen vehicles. My jaw drops! It’s 9:30 a.m. on a Saturday and yet NO ONE is on the lift.
A Mini Bachelor
Jumping out of the truck, I look up. The mountain reminds me of a miniature Bachelor. Curvy terrain with only a few trees around. Waves to slash and shred. Open gullies and untracked snow in some spots. Perfect groomers to just let ‘er rip without having to worry about crazy skiers or snowboarders taking you out. Booting up, we hear the familiar *BRRAAAPPP* noise echoing through the valley. A dozen snowmobiles zip through the parking lot and head into the wilderness.
Quiet Even On A Busy Day
Jaime and I stand in line for a few minutes waiting for the ticket window. Finally it’s our turn. We’re greeted with a big smile and the ticket person says, “We’re so sorry. It’s the busiest the day of the year.” I look around for a second. There’s MAYBE three hundred people tops at the resort. If this is busy, I’m excited for the day.
Up, Up, And Away
Quickly pocketing our newly minted Soldier Mountain RFID cards, we head to the main lift. As quickly as we strap in, we’re already being loaded onto the chair. Even at ten o’clock, the main run under High Trail called Canyon still has corduroy. With almost nobody around, I let ‘er rip. Taking huge arcing turns down the mountain, the snow is soft and carveable. In fact, the best we’ve skied in more than a month since Tahoe had been stuck in its normal Juneuary high-pressure sunny loop. We do this a few more times with permanent grins stuck to our faces. I can’t believe how good the snow is.
Skis Bigger Than Its Size
It may say that it’s only 1,100 acres, but Soldier skis MUCH bigger. Like it’s 2,000 acres or more. This might be because there really aren’t any trees on the front side. This allows for every nook and cranny to be skied. This mountain makes you feel like Picasso with a pair of skis. With only a few hundred people on the mountain, you can see where you laid your tracks from the lift.
Where The Wild Snowcats Go
Taking the upper lift called Bird’s Eye, we head to the highest point of the resort. Gliding off it we’re greeted to a big view of the Soldier Mountain Range. In front of us stands Peak 1, Peak 2, and Smoky Dome, all of which are yet another 3,000+ feet above the top of Soldier Mountain Ski Resort. This is the playground of their snowcat operation and where we’re going to go cat skiing tomorrow. Glades, cliff bands, chutes, and plenty of bowls to play in. I couldn’t wait to sample it.
Sawtooths And Plenty Of Backcountry
Turning around, I look down the mountain. In the distance, the valley and the town of Fairfield are still socked in with low lying fog. To our skier’s left, the craggy Sawtooth Mountains jut up into the sky. And to the right, my mouth drops. Just outside of the ski resort’s boundary is yet another gully filled with every aspect and angle you can imagine. Without our backcountry gear or knowledge of the local snowpack, today was not that day. Instead, we’re fortunate enough to be skiing with a friend that knows this mountain like his own backyard.
Onwards To Mill Point
With only a few hours left in the day, the plan is to hike over to Mill Point. On the trail map it seems like it’s a traverse. From the top, Millerton Peak looks like a BIG boot pack to its apex. It isn’t either. Maybe five to ten minutes tops. We slowly trudge our way up and are gifted by jaw dropping views. To our right, the slope falls quickly into a large bowl. To the left is a wall of trees that drops into a due north aspect of glades. From here, you look over to the other ridgeline and it feels as though you’re far away being a voyeur. Soft snow sparkling in the air from each turn. You yearn to be that person.
Powder A Month After A Storm?
Focusing back on our current situation, I realize you can honestly go in any cardinal direction. The question is which way?!? Our good friend smiles and says let’s go left. Cutting through the tight barrier of trees like a theater curtain, it opens to an open slope with a few trees. Besides the four inches they received overnight, it’s been AT LEAST a few weeks or more since Soldier has gotten fresh snow. And there it is… backcountry pow inbounds. A blank canvas without any ski turns. Soft and flowy but supportably enough that you float on the top twelve inches. Beyond my expectations. Just grip and rip…. Perfection. We do this over and over again until the lifts finally stop turning.
I Vow To Come Back
Standing at the top with the sun setting and no one around, I take it in one more time. The mountains are as naked as a newborn baby except covered in snow… it makes my mind wander. You want to explore. The lifts may only take you to a few of these peaks… but you FEEL as though you can ski anywhere. It’s right there to be taken. Easy access. I vow to come back with my backcountry gear and explore them further.
Things To Know
Soldier Mountain is truly a local’s mountain. Instead of ski bros and bras, you’ll find families and farmers. A relaxed atmosphere that’s super welcoming. The bar inside the lodge is incredibly affordable. We ordered up a Bloody Mary and a local micro-brew for ONLY $12! That might be why at the end of the day, it’s packed with everyone smiling, laughing, and talking about their exploits. And for those on the Indy Ski Pass, it’s one of the ski resorts that’s on it.
Don’t Judge A Book By Its Cover
Again and again, small ski areas continue to blow my mind. Numbers aren’t everything. Yes, Soldier Mountain Ski Resort only receives 100 inches annually. It’s true that they don’t have insane steeps but there’s MUCH more to the story. During the season, they’re typically closed Monday through Wednesday (except for holidays). When they are open, the “busy” days host maybe a few hundred at most. And these skiers are typically beginners that don’t want to hike. This translates to DEEP powder stashes days or WEEKS after a storm.
Another big reason to visit Soldier is its cat skiing. Situated above the resort, these peaks typically get more snow than the resort does. The terrain that the cat can access is impressive. Depending on avalanche conditions, you’ll find a bit of everything. Steep chutes. Big bowls. Even tight glades on those storm days where you can’t get into the alpine. Out of the ski resort snowcats we’ve experienced, this is one of the better options out there. We will delve into detail about our experience regarding Soldier Mountain cat skiing in a later article.
Where To Stay
The best part about Soldier having nonexistent crowds is also its most challenging. The closest town is Fairfield which only has one real option for lodging, the Prairie Inn. The owners have put their blood, sweat, and tears into the place and you can really tell. The property is well maintained. Each room is decorated differently and features high-end mattresses to make sure you have a good night’s rest. It also provides a great continental breakfast (bagels, waffles, eggs, and cereal).
Places To Eat
Fairfield Idaho is a quiet town, but it has everything you’ll need for a long weekend stay. Musher’s Mug provides a great coffee/breakfast option. Soldier Creek Brewing does also have a great breakfast and the dinner is on point. We also had dinner at the Cliff Bar and Grill and was pleasantly shocked to find out the owner is originally from Alaska, and she gets her fish shipped in from her old Alaska town.
Soldier Mountain Ski Resort may not be a destination ski resort, but it’s well worth the visit. It’s a great option for those who fly into Boise and are driving to Sun Valley. You can make it as a pit stop on your way there or back. For those staying IN Ketchum, the resort is about an hour away on mostly flat roads. If the snow is firm in Sun Valley or you’re just looking for a change of scenery, we highly recommend coming this way.