A horse-drawn sleigh gliding through just-fallen snow is a pleasure no matter where it's going. But if the final stop is a rustic log cabin where chef-prepared food lies in wait, so much the better; and if that cabin has deep roots in Idaho history, well, that just increases the mystique of the excursion.
"It used to be Hemingway's hunting lodge," Sun Valley Resort spokeswoman Kelli Lusk said of Trail Creek Cabin, the dinner destination for the resort's coveted winter sleigh rides. "...We used to do lunch out there in the summertime, but now because it's booked so much during the summer we don't have a public restaurant out there during the summertime. It's just in the winter."
Trail Creek Cabin would be remarkable even if dinner guests didn't arrive under literal horsepower. But pulling up in front of the writer's retreat-turned-restaurant after a 30-minute moonlit trip wrapped in blankets makes it magical. The combination doesn't come cheap: Adult tickets run from $129-$179 per person, peaking in price around the holidays, and kids 12 and under (with the exception of tiny tots, who are free) ride for $79-$99.
That price includes the trip to and from the cabin, tips for the employees and, perhaps most importantly, a four-course dinner of soup, salad, an entree and dessert. Some star options include Idaho lamb shank with whipped potatoes, glazed parsnips, petite carrots and blackberry gastrique; a berry-loaded duck confit; and sticky toffee date cake with smoked maple ice cream, pop rocks and caramel. There's a separate menu for kids, too, where favorites like cheeseburgers and chicken tenders are offered alongside a petite buffalo tenderloin paired with steakhouse fries.
The sleighs, which leave from and return to the Sun Valley Inn, seat up to 14 people, and are often booked far in advance. Hot toddies at The Ram Bar preview the dinner to come, and tidbits of Idaho history passed out by the driver as the sleigh glides down trails near the Sun Valley Nordic & Snowshoe Center are just frosting on the cake. The season generally runs from mid-December to mid-February, but sleighs only go out Friday-Sunday at its tail end.
"It's absolutely beautiful, especially on those nights that it's really clear," said Lusk. "It can be really cold, but you're really warm because you have your warm blankets on."
- Matthew Edwards
Idaho Sleigh Rides, the Garden Valley equivalent to Sun Valley's swanky horse-drawn tours, also provides blankets (and free hot drinks), but the experience there is more down-home. The business is run by Darl Allred, his son and soon-to-be daughter-in-law, his granddaughters and a few hired hands, and stars sleighs pulled by the family's horses.
"They're spotted drafts, and we're one of three breeders in the Northwest right now," Allred said. As for his role in the company: "The majority of the time I drive, but there are days that I cook."
- Courtesy Idaho Sleigh Rides
ISR's 30-45-minute rides carve a loop through the forest around Garden Valley, passing through a meadow where wild elk hunker down to wait out the snow. Guests can feed the elk from the sleighs—Allred said they're there "99.9 percent of the time"—and the whole affair ends with a home-cooked dinner at Sawtooth Lodge made entirely in Dutch ovens.
"Our meal consists of a top sirloin roast, Dutch oven cheesy potatoes, homemade bread, green salad and a cobbler dessert," he said.
It's the stick-to-your-ribs fare and rustic cooking style that he and his family honed operating Sawtooth Wilderness Outfitters, an outdoor adventure company they've run in Garden Valley for 30 years.
"Being in the outfitting business, we do cook for our clients a lot, especially in the backcountry, high-mountain lakes in the Sawtooths," Allred said.
- Courtesy Idaho Sleigh Rides
The sleigh ride business has its roots in SWO, which is largely a warm-weather operation specializing in horseback riding and pack trips, fishing, pack-supported hiking excursions, wagon rides and big game hunting tours. When the family decided to diversify and add winter activities, sleigh rides came to mind.
"About eight years ago I bought a team of horses and paid too much for them, and I needed to create a job for them," Allred joked. (In fact, he'd already run sleigh rides in the past near Idaho City.)
Now that the holiday season has died down, ISR runs two groups of 12-person sleighs per night Friday-Sunday, serving separate dinners for each. The rides cost $75 for adults, with a 10 percent discount for seniors, kids under 12 and military personnel (kids under 3 ride free). If you'd rather make a day trip, the Allreds also offer $45 lunch sleigh rides that include time feeding the elk and a homemade meal: a buckaroo burger (either barbeque beef or sloppy joe) green salad, deli salad and cobbler for dessert.
Whether it's Sun Valley or Garden Valley that's beckoning this winter, be sure to go online for reservations—seats go fast, and the horses hold for no one.