The spring water is served in plastic bowls — on the floor — at Sun Valley’s finest restaurants.
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The biscuits are cold and hard, and they taste doggone funny, come to think of it. But patrons pant for more. Sometimes they bark, too.
Welcome to the most dog-friendly resort in America.
Canines are a central part of this former mining town known for its celebrity sightings and isolated beauty. “Sun Valley knows how important our canine friends are to us,” says Steve Giordano, author of The Dog Lover’s Companion to Seattle. “Seems like water bowls are everywhere, at restaurants and construction sites alike. Some shops even hand out dog biscuits.”
No wonder. The Travel Industry Association of America reports that more than one in ten people vacation with a pet, and dogs are the most common animal traveling companions. But Sun Valley didn’t go to the dogs in order to accommodate a trend. In fact, the dogs were here before the skiers and the celebrities (and often the animals are held in higher regard than both).
The locals — the real locals, not the part-time property owners who show up for a few weeks out of the year — have their reasons for being so accommodating to their furry friends. Sure, being nice to the dogs attracts more visitors with pets. And that’s good for business. But Fido is also an important part of life in this mountain resort. Sometimes, a critically important part.
Ellen Gillespie, a Sun Valley spokeswoman, says the townsfolk go out of their way to make their canine companions a part of everything they do. “Most households either have a dog or borrow their friends’ dogs to take on hikes and excursions around town,” she says. “Many businesses in town actually allow employees to bring their dogs to work. Restaurants even have take-out windows near the kitchen, so no dog gets left behind.”
There’s no shortage of dog accommodations in Sun Valley. Most small inns welcome your pet as long as you give it a little advance notice (they sometimes charge a small surcharge if you check in with a shaggy traveling companion, but nothing unreasonable). Even the bigger hotel chains, including the Best Western Tyrolean Lodge and the Clarion Inn, roll out the red carpet for canines. Both properties offer special doggie-rooms for their four-legged guests — ground-floor quarters that are especially dog friendly.
Need to spend a little time away from your best friend? No problem. Doggie day-care is available at the Sun Valley Animal Center. But don’t expect Rover to stay cooped up in a cage all day. Creature comforts rival those found at childcare facilities, including a dog-playground with squeaky toys and chewy bones. In nearby Hailey, a business called Hound Around caters to the pampered pooch, offering exercise classes for your dog and — no joke — pet massages.
But there’s no reason to leave your dog behind. Many restaurants have designated doggie-dining on their outdoor patio, where helpful wait-staff serve bowls of spring water and canine biscuits while you dine at your own table. The offbeat Grumpy’s Goat Shack, a Sun Valley burger joint, provides loaner leashes for mischievous mutts. And Rico’s Pizza and Pasta gives you a discount if you bring a photo of your pooch.
Shops are no strangers to dogs, either. At Williams Market, a popular grocery store on Main Street, your best friend is offered a free doggie-treat at the cashier’s station. You can literally find a water bowl at every street intersection in town, too.
Maybe Sun Valley’s dog-friendliness has something to do with its history. In the 1930’s, long before Union Pacific tapped Sun Valley as a site for an exclusive ski resort, sled dogs were used by gold miners to move supplies which otherwise had to be carried on foot. Once the resort opened, the payload became thrill-seeking movie legends — among them, Gary Cooper, Clark Gable and Ingrid Bergman.
Today, dogs still carry visitors in the old tradition at Sun Valley Sled Dog Adventures. Human guests are bundled into a wooden sled and sent on an exhilarating trek through the pine forests, pulled by a team of adrenaline-enhanced Alaskan huskies. Full-day and overnight excursions explore remote regions and pioneer homesteads dating back to the late 19th Century.
For folks who like to take life at a slower pace, they can bring their own dogs on many of Sun Valley’s snowshoeing and cross-country skiing trails during the winter. The North Valley Trail System just above Ketchum sets aside about 34 kilometers of trails for dogs.
In summer, dogs are pretty much welcome everywhere. They’re a common sight beside the banks of the Big Wood River accompanying their fly-fishing owners, or trailing mountain bikers through dense paths along the Sawtooth Mountains.
Don’t have a dog? Not to worry, you can always borrow one from the Sun Valley Animal Shelter. Every Wednesday afternoon, it lets people take dogs for a test spin in Adams Gulch, a park near town. If you like your adopted pet, the shelter can see to a more permanent arrangement.
But dogs are more than just companions here. The Wood River Valley, which surrounds the Sun Valley ski resort, has an active network of rescue and avalanche dogs. During the cold months these specially-trained canines patrol the mountains looking for skiers buried in the snow. Avalanche dogs, which are usually Airedale’s, German shepherds or Labrador retrievers, are credited with saving countless lives during early winter and late spring when catastrophic snow-slides are common. But their job continues through the summer months when they’re indispensable to helping rescue lost or missing hikers.
Dogs may have their days at other resorts. But in Sun Valley, it’s a dog’s life.
Christopher Elliott is National Geographic Traveler's ombudsman and a nationally syndicated columnist who specializes in solving your travel problems. Got a trip that needs fixing? Send him a note or visit his Web site. Your question may be published in a future story.