Ski Epic Kirkwood Tahoe’s little big mountain

Kirkwood is not the biggest mountain in America. It’s not not even one of the largest around Lake Tahoe.

Not the biggest resort base either. But holy guacamole as the caped crusader’s little sidekick used to say, it sure does ski and ride big!

Big and ballsy enough to put a few more spots on Robin’s pants if the dynamic duo ever made it up there in fact. Kirkwood is big mountain riding with small town attitude that packs plenty of punch.

No wonder it’s the local’s favourite.

Skier dropping into chute at Kirkwood Ski Area
Chute shot © Tidwell / Vail Resorts

South Tahoe’s Mike Frye was Director of Skiing/Skier Services at Kirkwood until 2007, and it’s still his go to of all the Tahoe areas.

“During big storms, God and science collaborate to dump up to 5 meters of snow in the passing of one week at Kirkwood, nirvana for the skilled” enthuses Mike.

“Kirkwood provides challenging steep and deep for rippers and an ‘educational opportunity’ for punters” is his succinct terrain appraisal, and it sums up exactly how it is.

Rider sending it off a boulder at Kirkwood
Plenty of sendy spots © Tomas Cohen / Vail Resorts

So come on up and further your education.

If you have an Epic Oz Pass in your jacket sleeve it’s effectively free to ski all season in 2021-22 (except for a handful of holiday dates).

They get plenty of snow, 354 inches / 9m that’s modestly claimed as “the lightest, the driest, and the most plentiful snow in the Tahoe region”. Kirkwood sits on top of the Sierra Crest, 35 miles / 56 km southwest of South Lake Tahoe. Tucked in here they pick up good snow from storms funneling in either from the north or south.

Kirkwood Trail Map

The skiing at Kirkwood

Five peaks back the sprawling 2,300 acre layout with mostly black and double black chute and bowl options off them. A little hiking adds to the equation, accessing big bowls and glades through US Forest Service avi gates. The vertical tops out at 2000′ / 609m, and you can get most of that in a clean line.

Covered Wagon Peak on the far side off Chair 4 in the backside bowl has some mellower pow lines skier’s right of the lift for that educational opportunity.

Hike skier’s left off Chair 4 to Thimble Peak, Kirkwood’s highest, for some expert steeps. Stay out of the permanently closed Cirque zone.

Back on the main ridgeline, off the infamous Wall triple chair a series of double black chutes either side of The Sisters peak are best left to the already educated. Know your shit before you drop in here.

Plenty of mellower bowl and glade lines below the peaks © Tomas Cohen / Vail Resorts

Or try further along off the Cornice Express quad, where there are some long advanced lines. Scoot out the Forest Service gate skier’s left off the lift towards Glove Rock and Martin Point peaks and it gets more challenging again. Three successive bowls, Sentinel, Palisades and Reuter, offer some great glades. Out the gate the side country beckons.

Negotiate the steeper ridgelines and open bowls and glades spread out for the taking.

The lower lifts out of the Timber Creek and Mountain Village base areas access the good, but pretty limited intermediate and beginner ski options at Kirkwood. For families looking for easy long cruisers Heavenly is a better Tahoe Epic Pass bet, or Northstar for its ski in/ski out village convenience.

‘The Wood’ is really a mecca for core skiers and riders. They will not be bored, or disappointed. For a longer mission getting a place in South Lake Tahoe for a couple of weeks is a great way to drive your Epic Oz Pass further.

On the downside there are only two fast lifts, so it’s old school slower compared to most Epic options in America.

Pow days in California, well, it’s the World’s 5th biggest economy – they overtook the UK – so expect competition for lines.

Midweeks you can find plenty of space © Vail Resorts

Travel to Kirkwood

Kirkwood is less than 180 miles / 290 km from San Francisco. The main roads in – either Hwy 88 or combo of Hwy 50 / 89 / 88 – do get shut for avi danger and snow clearing in big storms. Forum debates favour the idea that from the west on Hwy 88 is a bit more prone to closures than from the east, which overlaps the route from South Lake Tahoe too, 35 miles / 56 km away. Follow the Caltrans twitter for updates. You cross some serious mountain passes, so rent a decent 4WD with winter tyres.

Trenching it at Kirkwood © Tomas Cohen / Vail Resorts

Where to stay at Kirkwood

There’s not much of a base village so accommodation is at a premium for what it is. Still on pow days it sure is where you want to be – if not, get up and scoot up early. Condos are the best option, there are several complexes headed by the Mountain Club. Stock up at a big supermarket on the way up from wherever, there’s not much at the base.

Plenty of choice for all budgets at South Lake Tahoe, which also boasts way more to do at night including casino options and shows over the stateline in Nevada. Epic Pass holders staying here have the easy fallback of Heavenly if the road is bad up to Kirkwood. Shuttles operate a couple of days a week, but you really need your own vehicle.

It’s more about the days than the nights at Kirkwood © Vail Resorts

Kirkwood mountain stats

Skiable Acres: 2,300 / 930 ha 
Average Snowfall: 354 inches / 9m
Trails: 86
Lifts: 15
Longest Trail: 2.5 miles / 4 km
Base Elevation: 7,800 feet / 2,377m
Summit Elevation: 9,800 feet / 2988m
Terrain:  12% beginner, 30% intermediate, 38% advanced, 20% expert 

Opening day 2019 © Vail Resorts