Ever wonder what Vail looked like before it became Vail? Head to Tamarack, Idaho, a megaresort in the making.
From the top of the 7,700-foot peak of Tamarack Mountain, it’s clear just how wild this corner of Idaho really is—and why logging, not recreation, was until recently the area’s major draw. The 2.4–million–acre Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness—the largest contiguous wilderness area in the Lower 48—pours east, while 21–mile–long Lake Cascade, capped by a thick slab of ice, jags across the valley floor nearly 3,000 vertical feet below. The former logging town of Donnelly, where the population count on the town’s welcome sign reads a whopping 138, barely registers a blip on the landscape.
“The terrain is what brought me here,” says Dave Williams, a Lewiston, Idaho, native and Tamarack Resort’s lead ski guide, before we catch the Summit Express Quad to the peak. It’s hard to imagine, surrounded by so much untrammeled beauty, that condos and chalets will populate the valley below, but Williams demonstrates just how easy it will be to escape all that by nonchalantly pointing his skis toward a sign that reads, You Are Now Leaving Tamarack Ski Area: This Is Your Decision Point . Soon, we are blasting S-turns into untracked powder bounded only by groves of lodgepoles and thickets of alder brush.
On a sunny Wednesday in December 2004, Tamarack Resort, located 90 miles north of Boise, became the country’s first new, four-season golf-and-ski resort to open in more than 20 years. It was what people in the hospitality industry call a “soft opening.” In lieu of a base lodge, which had yet to be constructed, resort staff erected a canvas party tent, and the 750-odd skiers who showed up had but 18 runs to choose from. Explaining the lack of amenities (and walls) to the New York Times reporter covering the event, one of the resort’s principal investors quipped, “Rome wasn’t built in day.”
Eucalyptus-infused saunas now ease slope-sore muscles.
When applied to Tamarack, the saying seems particularly apt, for if all goes according to plan, what will rise here in central Idaho’s Council Mountain Range is a $1.5 billion mini-empire of vacation bliss. A six-building village, now under construction, will house a mix of some 25 boutiques, galleries and restaurants, while a Fairmont Hotel, financially backed in part by tennis royalty Steffi Graf and Andre Agassi, is scheduled to break ground this August. Sales of new and yet-to-be-built chalets and condos have gone through the roof: The average home price in the Donnelly area has spiked from $130,000 in 2003 to $425,000 today.
Two years on, the soft opening has given way to hard hats, and the grunts and beeps of construction equipment still reverberate off the slopes, but Tamarack at last boasts enough infrastructure to woo skiers for more extended stays. Although the two on-mountain restaurants remain housed in what Tamarack employees refer to as “contemporary dome structures” (read: high-end yurts), at Morels, located in the year-old Lodge at Osprey Meadows, diners tuck into Kobe beef rib eyes served with bleu cheese mashed potatoes and a peppercorn cabernet reduction while surrounded by glossy walls of hickory and alder. Guests can retire to one of the lodge’s rustic-chic hotel rooms or condos, which feature Restoration Hardware-meets-Cabela’s décor with chocolate-colored leather sofas, gas fireplaces, granite countertops and jetted tubs. Eucalyptus-infused sauna rooms (down the hall from the Santé Spa) ease slope-sore muscles.
Tamarack’s skiable terrain has undergone similar expansion since its public debut. Some 28 miles of Nordic and snowshoe trails snake over the Robert Trent Jones Jr signature golf course, and 39 mostly intermediate runs currently peel down the mountain’s slopes (the goal is 60). A 450-foot-long superpipe—50 feet longer than Mount Bachelor’s, and the biggest in Idaho—has been created at the base for snowboarders to dial in their alley-oops. But the draw for expert skiers is what lies beyond the 1,100-acre ski area’s borders: Last August, the U.S. Forest Service granted Tamarack a special-use permit, giving expert skiers and resort guides access to a whopping 5,000 acres of off-piste terrain.
Back at the base, gravel-dusted roads bustle with trucks delivering materials for the resort’s 36,000-square-foot Village Plaza. Just a few miles east, on Roseberry Road—a dirt avenue leading to the resort’s European-style roundabouts—sits Pro Peak Sports, a newly opened ski outfitter whose owners, fresh in from Angel Fire, NM, are ready to do a brisk rental business. “This is the next, last, great winter frontier,” says the shop’s 32-year-old co-owner Wolfe Ashcraft. “The opportunity to open up a new ski shop at a new ski area never happens—ever.”
Not far from the store’s front door stands a black limousine, a homemade “for hire” sign tucked in the window. It’s another scrap of evidence, perhaps, that reflects what both Donnelly’s businesses and Tamarack investors believe: If you build it, the people will come.