July/August, North America, Travel Guide

Guide to Sun Valley, USA

Tuesday 18 February, 2014
Smoky mountains. Photo: Jody MacDonald

Smoky mountains. Photo: Jody MacDonald

It’s the Wild West, and a rodeo ride like no other. Launch your glider from Bald Mountain and experience the true scale of the American West. The Sun Valley region boasts nearly a million acres of wilderness and mountain ranges with names like The Pioneers and the Sawtooths. It’s rugged, wild and all yours.


In a word, strong and high.

The most commonly used paragliding site is Bald Mountain, which is the main ski mountain too. Late-June to early September features a gondola and lift service that connects the main landing zone to the multi-directional launch sites at the top. When the lifts are not running, the local tandem operation, Fly Sun Valley, has limited space available in their shuttles.

For big XC, launch from Double D, or Dust Devil. It’s appropriately named: the southeast-facing launch is usually in the lee of the predominant wind, so be ready to jump on your glider. More than one pilot has been swaddled by their wing!

Down in the valley, Sun Valley was once home to Ernest Hemingway and is now home to as many art aficionados as mountain athletes. To go with the world class skiing, hiking, rock climbing, rafting, kayaking and mountain-biking there is an impressive cultural scene, from bands and music to opera and film festivals. If you prefer to keep it low-key, drop in to the River Run Plaza landing zone for their informal, once-a-week barbecue.

The mountains-meets-desert setting translates into a feisty anabatic flow here. Conditions fluctuate “between strong and very strong” and can carry you across the state line into Montana. Cloudbase exceeds 5,500m on a good day, and 8m/s thermals are not uncommon.

Distance pilots here fly with oxygen, trackers, survival gear and bear mace. Basically, it’s strong, ripping mountain flying. Landing midday at the height of summer is not advised. The local safety tip is, “Stay up and go far”.

July and August are best for long distance XC adventures. Sun Valley can also be flown in the winter. Just be aware of skier traffic while laying out and launching!

Launch: 2,788m
Landing: River Run Plaza, 1,737m
Cloudbase: Can exceed 5,500m

Hang gliders are welcome on Bald Mountain, although no one has seen one in years. Local pilot Gavin McClurg says, “We want them back!”

The 80km flight to the town of Stanley is a classic route, or you can get even more ambitious and try to fly to Montana. To get there, thermal high, head east with a tailwind, and hop several mountain ranges until you cross the continental divide.

If you see the eight-lane I-15 freeway, you’ve reached Montana. Pilot Nate Scales says: “Once in Montana, the ranges continue to stretch out in front of you as far as your imagination will allow you to dream.” Good luck getting back to Sun Valley.

Conditions can change quickly so advanced skills, a level head, and a sense of caution will keep you safe when conditions get strong. Get a site introduction from a local, and time your flights carefully. Hitchhiking is easy, but be prepared for a night out if you go deep. Have a GPS messenger with you and tracking.

The playground of Hollywood glitterati, Sun Valley mainly offers very expensive hotels and extremely expensive hotels. Best Western at the base of Bald Mountain should be able to keep it under $100. Public land surrounds the town offering plenty of wild camping. Local pilot Mitch Riley recommends Corral Creek. Boundary Campground is a few miles east of Sun Valley – ideal if you want amenities like fire rings, grills, toilets, and drinking water.

Fly Sun Valley

So much to do. Horse riding, art galleries, operas, lectures, and film festivals. If you are a Hemingway fan, visit his old house and memorial. Or for some underground adventures, head to the Shoshone Ice Caves. Even when surface temperatures are above 37C, you will find ice in the cave.

Weather links and wind reports on www.flysunvalley.com. There are good winds-aloft readings from Boise, Pocatello, and Dillon, Montana. Also, ask the tandem pilots for condition analysis; a few of them are quite dedicated XC hounds.

The cheapest way is to fly into Salt Lake City or Boise and drive three hours. If you’ve got cash to spare, you can fly into nearby Hailey instead. Either way, hiring a car is pretty essential, especially if you plan to camp on public lands.


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