The first time I skied Kirkwood the wind blew so fiercely that the top of the mountain was closed.
In mid-January, I skied Kirkwood Ski Area again. This time the fog was so thick that while we could ski the top of the mountain, we couldn’t see it.
Riding Chair 10 to the the top of the resort was like traveling through cotton. The visibility narrowed to nothing and chairs returning from the top were coated in rime. Unable to see much of anything, I nervously recalled a sign I blew off at the lift base. It read “Hard Snow. Falls May Result in Long Slides.”
The first few turns into Wagon Wheel Bowl were icy and wind-scoured, but thankfully there were no long falls. Six turns in, we were skiing a soft combination of new snow and wind buff, finding shelter as we dropped lower on the leeward side of a chute.
Halfway down, as the double blacks transitioned to blue groomers, we were ready to go back up. While we couldn’t see it, we could ski it. And on this day, that would be have to be enough.
To be fair, Kirkwood often has good winter weather, with California sun and temperatures that don’t dip too low.
But when you’re skiing a mountain that receives an annual average of 354” of snow, the storms are going to come, and with them, the wind, the snow and sometimes, the fog.
Meet Kirkwood Mountain Resort
Kirkwood is a mountain that inspires loyalty and has an old-school “cool” factor that many resorts have lost. While it used to be a hidden gem, the resort has been part of Vail Resorts since 2012 and is on the Epic Pass, which has brought more visitors and more development at the base.
Beyond that, not much has changed. There are a handful of high-speed lifts and RF lift tickets, but the heart and soul of the skiing and snowboarding remains the same.
Known for sweet hardcore terrain, the mountain’s fans rhapsodize about Kirkwood’s cornices, cliffs and bowls. As they should. With fully 20% of the mountain rated expert and another 38% rated advanced, Kirkwood is as adventurous as you care to make it.
But Kirkwood isn’t just about stoke and steeps. Four chairlifts serving the resort’s lower reaches, as well as Chair 4 on the backside of the mountain, open up 30% intermediate terrain. And it’s here that you’ll find carefully groomed runs and low angle glades.
For beginners, Kirkwood has a magic carpet and dedicated lift at the Timber Creek Base Area.
While it’s always nice to have a secluded spot for people of all ages to learn to ski and ride, it’s even nicer to have a base area with lodges, dining and free parking just for beginners and families with young kids.
Of the mountain’s 2,300 skiable acres, just 12% is green and it’s all at Timber Creek with the exception of four beginner runs on Chair 1 at the Mountain Lodge base.
What the Locals Know
While we enjoyed skiing Kirkwood by braille, the Backside of the mountain was closed. This meant we missed out on this area’s mostly groomed intermediate runs and advanced bowl skiing, tucked below 9,805’ Thimble Peak.
Additionally, because of weather, we didn’t venture into the two of the four bowls at the resort’s summit.
Having missed so much, we turned to two locals for advice.
Snowboarder Sean Duggan grew up skiing Kirkwood. He describes the mountain this way.
“Kirkwood is a steep, wide open mountain with really unique terrain. There’s nothing else like it around Tahoe,” explains Duggan. “It sits in a weather pocket, and seems to get fresh snow all the time.”
“There’s a little somethin’ somethin’ for everyone at Kirkwood. If you’re learning, there’s a hill for practice. And If you want to get crazy, go to the top,” he advises.
Curtis Fong, aka The Guy from Tahoe, is a Carson Valley, Nevada local, media personality, and bicycle tour promoter. Fong cut his teeth in the ski industry at Kirkwood during the ski area’s early seasons, first as a photographer and later directing PR and advertising.
If anyone knows the ‘Wood (as he fondly calls it), it’s Fong.
Here are his “must ski” runs.
Groomers: Sentinel Bowl, Buckboard, Elevator Shaft
Powder: Thunder Saddle, Wagon Wheel Bowl, High Whiskey, Palisades
Bumps: Monte Wolfs, Olympic
Challenge: Oops and Poops Chute
Fun for Kids: Squirrel Ridge.
And if that doesn’t keep you busy, well, Kirkwood is made for adventure.
Explore and enjoy!
When You Go…
In addition to pointing out his favorite Kirkwood terrain, Fong shares that Kirkwood continues to have a “relaxed, no hurry vibe,” except on powder days. We understand.
Kirkwood Ski Area is about 45 minutes from Heavenly Resort and 45 minutes from Carson Valley, Nevada. If you’re looking for an uncrowded, convenient, and more affordable experience with quick access to Heavenly, staying in Carson Valley is an excellent option.
Kirkwood is on the Epic Pass, along with Heavenly Resort and Northstar California Resort, both in the Lake Tahoe area.
If you don’t have an Epic Pass, you can buy tickets online 7 days out for a slight discount.
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