SUN VALLEY • It’s no surprise that Ketchum photographer James Bourret feels his heart thumping a little faster as the aspens turn to gold and the shrubs to red on the mountain slopes surrounding Sun Valley.
Bourret, who owns Mountain Images Gallery, has taken some of his finest photographs in fall. To wit: a 76-inch-tall, 17-foot-wide shot of aspens set on six glass panels in the Glamour Room of the Ketchum Sun Valley Visitor Center.
The image celebrates the late Ketchum resident Ernest Hemingway, who wrote, “Best of all, he loved the fall, the leaves yellow on cottonwoods …”
Bourret won’t divulge his favorite spot of color — it would be like telling someone his secret fishing hole. But a close second, he said, is Fishhook Creek near Redfish Lake in the Sawtooth Mountains.
“It’s an easy, meandering trail with nice stands of aspen trees. Yet it’s open enough that you can see aspen on the nearby mountainsides and the peaks in the distance,” he said.
The East gets all the hype when it comes to fall colors. But fall in Sun Valley is golden.
Yellow cottonwood leaves drift onto the creek that runs past the Hemingway Memorial on Trail Creek Road. Orange and red aspen leaves contrast with the high, blue, windless skies above. And the yellow shimmering on the clear Big Wood River is enough to give fishermen wearing plaid flannel shirts and waders fall-blindness.
“This whole area is like eye candy when it comes to fall color,” said Ketchum resident Jim Coyle, who came to Sun Valley from Tiburon, Calif., 40 years ago.
A few aspen leaves began to don their fall look just after Labor Day when the Wagon Days parade rolled through town. Last weekend, the gooseberry bushes along the bike path turned pumpkin colored overnight.
The metamorphosis will continue through the next few weeks, peaking probably in the first and second weeks of October.
As it does, it will offer a spectacular backdrop to sheep herded down Ketchum’s Main Street during the Oct. 10-12 Trailing of the Sheep Festival. It will provide plenty of photo ops for those who come from as far away as Florida for the Sun Valley Jazz Festival, Oct. 14-19.
Experts say the best weather for brilliant fall foliage is ample moisture followed by a dry, cool, sunny autumn with warm days and cool nights. While the Sun Valley area didn’t get the record-breaking rain that the Magic Valley did during August, it got plenty. That, coupled with Sun Valley’s traditional cool nights with bright, unclouded days, has prompted leaf watchers such as Ketchum’s Linda Cooper to pin their hopes on brilliant foliage.
In the past week, the nights turned decidedly cooler. Stands of aspen along Long Gulch near Sun Valley have turned brilliant yellow, offering a colorful backdrop to a sheepherder making his way down the mountain with his horse and dogs.
Everyone, it seems, has a favorite place. Cooper likes Proctor Mountain as somewhere close to Sun Valley. When she’s in the mood for a Sunday drive, she heads to Alice Lake south of Redfish Lake.
“You wander along looking at the leaves and the lakes. … The view — it just brings me in,” she said.
Here are four places to see fall’s bounty of color in the Sun Valley area:
This trail goes all the way to Pioneer Cabin, a ski hut built in 1937 for skiers willing to climb uphill with their skis. Or you can stop short of the cabin, doing an out-and-back.
From Ketchum, drive east on Sun Valley/Trail Creek Road five miles to Corral Creek Road. Turn right and follow the dirt road another 3.5 miles to a parking lot. Long Gulch trail heads off to the left.
The trail climbs, crossing Long Gulch Creek and heading through an aspen grove. Take in the autumn beauty from anywhere along the trail; head into the basins above, if you like, following sketchy sheep and wildlife trails.
Or, if you prefer, look for a cairn two miles in that marks the trail to Pioneer Cabin. The cabin lies nearly three more miles along a path that descends into Long Gulch, over Corral Creek and up a fairly steep climb. You’ll see more color in the amphitheater of mountains partially circling the cabin. And you can follow the regular Pioneer Cabin/Corral Creek trail nearly four miles back to your car if you wish to make a loop.
Proctor Mountain Trail
Drive east of Ketchum on Sun Valley/Trail Creek Road for nearly three miles. Park at the parking lot for the Hemingway Memorial just before the turnoff for Trail Creek Cabin. Follow the trail downhill, skirting the Sun Valley Golf Course (don’t forget to breathe in all the colors dotting the golf course).
Follow the trail through willows. Climb a hill beside an old rest stop. Once up this hill, you can follow a road to the left that runs by Trail Creek Cabin wedding grounds to the turnoff for the Proctor Mountain loop. This switchbacks up the hill to a ridge. A couple of foot trails jutting off to the right offer shortcuts back to your starting point. Or you can continue up the path along the ridge to the top where you will have magnificent views of Bald Mountain and other peaks along with more fall foliage views. You can continue on this trail to descend a path near the chairlift on Ruud Mountain that was one of Sun Valley’s first lifts, if you like. The entire loop is about six miles.
This hike is near Redfish Lake, 55 miles north of Ketchum off Idaho 75. Follow Redfish Lake Road to the backpacker’s parking lot. Walk west out of the parking lot to the trailhead sign.
The trail to Fishhook Creek extends for about three miles but gains only 380 feet in elevation, making it a wonderful hike for families with small children. A meadow marks trail’s end.
Hyndman Peak Trail
This trail offers gorgeous color from the get-go. Drive south from Ketchum on Idaho 75 for 5.5 miles, and turn left onto East Fork Road. Drive for another seven miles, turning left onto Hyndman Creek Road. Follow this five more miles to the end of the road.
From the parking lot, cross the creek on a footbridge and follow the trail through open meadows and aspen groves. Many people end their hikes three miles in when the trail meets the creek. By that time, you will have gorged on plenty of color.
Those who wish to go farther can follow the trail another three miles up a steep, sagebrush-covered hill through a meadow to a rock-strewn landscape where they can pick their way through boulders to the 10,800-foot saddle that sits between the 12,009-foot Hyndman Peak to the left and Old Hyndman Peak to the right.