Growing up just south of San Fransisco, Tahoe and the Sierra was my playground in the winter. When I was learning to ski my family would make the drive to Northstar and Squaw Valley, but as I got older, Kirkwood began to draw my attention. Out of all the mountains I grew up skiing, my eyes drew to Kirkwood more than all the others. I witnessed Kirkwood get acquired by Vail Resorts in 2012 losing some of its small-town mountain feel. Non-the-less, Kirkwood’s terrain, swarms of freeskiers, non-existent lift lines, and copious amounts of snow have never changed.
Located roughly 30 miles from South Lake Tahoe along the Carson Pass Highway, the highest year-round pass in California at 8,573 feet, Kirkwood was about a three-in-a-half-hour drive from the cities of San Jose and San Fransisco. My sister and I were lucky enough to sleep through the car ride while my parents drove.
The Kirkwood Mountain Resort first opened in 1972 with 4 chairlifts. Sitting atop the Sierra Nevada Crest, massive snow totals can easily reach over 600 inches. Kirkwood is one of the few resorts left in California without much of a base area. The valley is scattered with roughly 100 homes, a post office, a general store, and a couple of condo buildings around the base chairlifts.
There are two main chairs to the front side at Kirkwood: The Wall (Chairlift #10) and Cornice (Chairlift #6). Together they give you access to the entire front side of the mountain. From The Wall, you can access some of the most technical terrain in Tahoe including The Sisters Chutes, Norms Nose, and the Devil’s Corral. Devil’s Corral sits below Kirkwood’s most iconic face, The Cirque. While The Cirque is a permanently closed face (for good reason) when you get a good view you find it hard not to stop and study all the possible lines. While it is rare to see someone ski The Cirque, in 2013 Kirkwood hosted the Freeride World Tour on the face and the event did not disappoint. To get a true idea of The Cirque check out the FWT highlights here.
Along with Kirkwood’s seemingly never-ending advanced terrain, there are more playful areas of the mountain as well. The backside of the mountain consisting of Sunrise (Chair #4) and Iron Horse (Chair #3) has more mellow slopes. The backside of the mountain has 3 main gullies to play in. Additionally, here is where you can find some of the most fun groomers on the mountain. While you will find groomed runs at Kirkwood, by no means do they dominate.
Kirkwood is about as rugged as it can get for a bigger resort. The focus here is riding the mountain by how mother nature shapes it. Some years it takes a long time for the wind to properly fill snow into the lines; some years lines never fill in properly. Kirkwood can give and it can take forcing all who frequent to have greater respect for the mountain. There is a large portion of the mountain that is only accessible via hikes allowing powder days to be found weeks after the last storm. While some portions do not always ski well year-in-and-year-out, there will always be zones that fill in perfectly.
These days I find myself skiing Colorado Powder, but whenever I go home in the winter I make sure to get myself back to Kirkwood. Kirkwood is truly a freeskiers paradise to test and better your craft no matter the skill level.
Nearest City: South Lake Tahoe (Roughly 30 Minute Drive)
Average Snowfall: 354 Inches
Vertical: 2,000 Feet
Top Elevation: 9,800 Feet
Base Elevation: 7,800 Feet
Skiable Acres: 2,300
Trails: 86 (12% Beginner, 30% Intermediate, 38% Advanced, 20% Expert)
Lifts: 15 (1 High-Speed Detachable Quad, 1 Fixed Quad, 6 Fixed Triples, 1 Fixed Double, 3 T-Bars/Magic Carpets)
Terrain Parks: 2 (Dependent on each year)