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Sun Valley is best known for its ski resort, celebrity sightings, and a lifestyle centered on the art of being outside. Residents boast a perennial tan, an effortless sense of eternal youth, and own enough seasonal sports gear to fill a commercial airplane hangar. It makes sense to spend most of your time outdoors in an area nestled between five mountain ranges and home to more than 40 miles of trails.

The town’s quirky, iconic sense of self is evident in the little things: it’s home to the world’s first chairlift, designed by Union Pacific engineer Jim Curran in 1939 to grace the slopes of Sun Valley’s Bald Mountain in order to lure luxury travelers away from the warmth of tropical beaches during the winter months to the cold, snowy mountains of Sun Valley; celebrities made it their “see-and-be-seen” hotspot in the heyday of the early years, hosting the likes of Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, Clint Eastwood, and Ernest Hemingway, to name a few.

Sheep gather on the hillside before the downtown parade.
Sheep gather on the hillside before the downtown parade. Photo credit: Carol Waller

But the real stars of Sun Valley are sheep. Yes, sheep. The woolly creatures take center stage each fall at the Trailing of the Sheep Festival, an event celebrating the Valley’s rich history of sheep farming and ranching in a four-day, family-friendly fest that’s made the list of Top 10 Fall Festivals in the World by USA Today and The Huffington Post.

The Oinkari Basque Dancers perform during the four-day festival
The Oinkari Basque Dancers perform during the four-day festival. Photo credit: Carol Waller

For more than 150 years, sheep farming has been an integral part of Sun Valley’s identity. Its history traces back to the town’s founder, John Hailey, an early pioneer of the Northwest who took part in the Boise Basin Gold Rush of 1862 and settled in the area, bringing with him a small sheep herd. At first, only 14,000 breeding sheep were recorded in Idaho, but those numbers continued to grow as the town’s ore mining industry dwindled and sheep ranching became a major source of revenue. By 1890, the number of sheep grew to 614,000; by 1918, the population boomed to 2.6 million, making Idaho more densely populated with sheep than humans. The town of Hailey had made its mark as a worldwide sheep ranching center, second only to Sydney, Australia.

Today, those numbers have died back down again, with very few sheep farmers actively working in the area, but the sheep still make their seasonal pilgrimage up and down the mountain regardless. In the spring, a herd of 1,500 sheep migrate north from the lower elevations of southern Idaho’s Snake River Valley through the Wood River Valley to the high country of the mountains for summer pasture. Their route wends a course of 1,000 miles in total, tracing a route through the residential towns of Hailey and Ketchum up Highway 75, on to nearby Galena and into the scenic Sawtooth Mountains.

Sheep Dog Trials.
A sheep dog at work during the sheepdog trials. Photo credit: Carol Waller

In the fall, the sheep retrace their steps back down the mountain over the course of five days to the valley, where they will settle in for the winter months; their return is celebrated on the last day of the festival when hundreds of sheep fill the main street of Ketchum in a “Running of the Bulls” style party, a moving, jumping “wall of wool” cheered on by locals and visitors. But before the sheep parade, festival goers are entertained by all things sheep, including cooking demonstrations and tastings, sheep dog trials, folklife and fiber fairs, cultural performances and educational presentations. The Trailing of the Sheep Festival is held the second weekend in October in the Ketchum/Hailey area.

Gayle J. McCarthy is a freelance writer specializing in outdoor adventure travel. Her work has appeared in many print and online publications including Northwest Travel Magazine, Hipstertravelguide, and Global Writes. Follow her on twitter @gaylejmccarthy.

Ms. McCarthy enjoyed complimentary lodging and services during her visit to Idaho.

Portions of this article first appeared in SportsGuideMagazine.com on June 16, 2015.

Feature image credit: Carol Waller


Published on October 8, 2015