Forty-five minutes from any town, Kirkwood Ski Resort holds secrets of the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range, getting comparatively more snowfall in the Lake Tahoe Region than other mountains in the Lake Tahoe Region. The powder days are abundant at Kirkwood, measuring snowfall in feet, not inches.
This resort seems to be only for gnarly senders, as 88% of the runs are for advanced riders. But, regardless of the limited beginner terrain, Kirkwood’s Ski School is recognized as a top ski school in North America.
At Kirkwood, no one is in a hurry, and everyone wants you happy. Slowly but surely, the facilities are continuing to be upgraded. Meanwhile, there are reasonable lodging options, satisfying restaurants & bars, spas & hot tubs, and public lunch-room spaces and bathrooms.
Kirkwood is a part of the Epic Pass, which provides savings on lift tickets when skiing more than one day. Otherwise, a single day pass will cost an adult a little more than $100.
Where to Book:
- Chairlifts: 15 (2 high-speed quads, 1 fixed-grip quad, 6 fixed-grip triple chairs, 1 fixed-grip double chair, 1 surface lift, 2 magic carpets)
- Vertical: 2,000ft
- Avg. Snowfall: 400+
- Season: December-May
- Runs: 65
- Beginner: 12%
- Intermediate: 30%
- Expert: 58%
- Kids Ski School: Yes
- Accommodations: Yes
- Daycare: No
With an astounding 400in+ average snowfall, Kirkwood gets dumped on when everything surrounding seems not to receive snow. Known as the “K-Factor,” Kirkwood’s positioning allows for West Coast precipitation to funnel through a tight canyon and dump buckets on the resort. Road closures can occur at Carson Pass during snow days, blocking off San Francisco traffic. Maybe you will be one of the lucky patrons trapped on the mountain, free to ski the overwhelming amount of powder with no crowds, while everyone else can wait up to days to get in.
The sun shines 300+ days a year here, so wear thin layers and apply sunscreen frequently. Early in the season, snow conditions can be icy due to melting in the sun and then freezing at night. Later in the season, slush forms from the above-freezing temperatures; be sure to wax your skis on these warm days.
Only two of the fifteen lifts at Kirkwood are high-speed, but your legs will be burning so much from the sheer vertical descents you will not mind. The high-speed lift, Cornice Express- Chair 6, offers service to the peaks, so enjoy the hot laps. Try and beat my 20 Chair 6 laps in 3 hours.
Unique to “The Wood,” a nickname for the resort, is the mountain’s two-mile ridgeline, which contains cliff drops, cornices, chutes, and five peaks. The gnarly terrain supersedes experts’ dreams.
If the front of the mountain does not look good enough for you, check out the backside, offering stellar views of the Sierra Nevada range and steep well-groomed terrain. The Sunrise Lift- Chair 4, has got your back on the backside.
Overlooking the mountain village, “The Wall” is the most nerve-racking infamous in-bounds run at Kirkwood, containing 20ft cliff drops, shoulder-tight chutes, and giant moguls. The double-black run has a skull&crossbones sign to warn riders of the extreme difficulty. An occasional rider will be seen going down the chair lift because they chickened out; potentially, the slow lift ride gave the skier time to reconsider their abilities.
If “The Wall” does not satisfy your adrenaline quiver, the backcountry skiing offered in the region is unmatched. Conveniently, Kirkwood’s backcountry terrain is accessible via lifts. It is so popular at “the Wood” that a special program called Expedition Kirkwood offers private backcountry tours to unmarked spots, signature programs for extreme riding, women’s groups, and avalanche training.
Kirkwood is known as a Class-A avalanche zone; this has allowed Expedition Kirkwood to become one of the largest West Coast avalanche education providers. One can hear the avalanche explosives firing off in the mornings after a snowfall, making the runs safe for the visitors.
When looking at the Kirkwood Ski Map, it is difficult to ignore the giant red blocked-off zone at the top center of the mountain, labeled “The Cirque Permanently Closed.” When riding up The Wall, Chair 10, one can see glimpses of the permanently closed area. Rigid, sharp jutting rocks creating chutes and cliff drops for a maniac are found here. Do not get your hopes up, as it is illegal to ski here unless you are competing in the National Freeskiing Championships.
Local Kirkwood instructors compete in this competition, raising their skill level every year and encouraging the staff to raise theirs, making the Ski School and Expedition Kirkwood that much better.
The best ski resort you have never heard of stays relatively uncrowded on the weekdays, but it seems the people three hours away in San Francisco have heard about the two-mile shreddable ridgeline. The weekends can be jam-packed with slow-moving lift lines after snow
This resort seems to stay a secret from the ski masses that believe only Vail and Aspen exist because of its difficult geographical positioning. It’s 2 hours West of Sacramento, but the closest airport is the Reno-Tahoe International Airport, located 1.5 hours away.
The most convenient option to travel to Kirkwood once landing at the airport would be to rent a car with four-wheel-drive. This option allows you to drive to Kirkwood at your leisure and into the city of South Lake Tahoe for a night out at the casinos.
It is possible to arrange a car, taxi, or private shuttle to deliver you from the airport to Kirkwood. The most cost-efficient way would be to take a public shuttle or the City Bus to South Lake Tahoe from Reno. Once in South Lake, a shuttle can transport visitors to Kirkwood. Uber also services this area with about a 100$ one-way option. If your shuttle from the Reno airport dropped you off at a hotel, you could take a taxi, but snow conditions will determine if the taxi could make the journey.
Once at Kirkwood, take advantage of the free parking!
The accommodations at the Wood are not luxurious but will keep you warm and comfortable. Kirkwood Mountain Resort offers hotels, condominiums, Airbnb, and on-mountain Shuttles. The Wood makes it easy by providing information about its lodging options online.
The Mountain Club would be my lodging recommendation due to the hot tub, gym, steam room, dry sauna, near proximity to the restaurants, and slopeside access. Nothing could be more convenient and cozy. Kirkwood’s condominium and vacation home rental options are plentiful and affordable if you are looking for something more private and low-key.
Kirkwood has two base areas, the Mountain Village and the Timber Creek base area. The Shuttle system runs between the two bases. The shuttle makes stops at the general store, lodging, and even South Lake Tahoe. Most of the lodging options are grouped around The Mountain Village base area. A few streets with houses and vacation rental properties are hidden within Kirkwood’s mountain resort.
The facilities at Kirkwood are not fancy. However, since Vail Resorts purchased Kirkwood, improvements are slowly being made. Thankfully, if spas and training centers are a must for you, there is one good option. You can access The Mountain Club’s gym, hot tub, and spa through a day pass or lodging with them. This facility is nice and clean but not very boujee.
There is also the possibility of reserving a condo or vacation rental home that has a jacuzzi. Just be sure to read the details on the booking information to verify the facilities offered. The Sentinels complex is a good example of a condo with a hot tub! If you call the Kirkwood Mountain Resort, they will be more than happy to direct you to a lodging option perfect for you.
The Apres-Ski scene at Kirkwood is charmingly limited. During the ski day, the Mountain Village base area offers a cafeteria-style eatery, an occasionally open pizza restaurant called The Cornice, the 7800 Bar&Grill, and The Wall Bar&Grill.
Pro Tip: I highly recommend the chicken sliders served at The Wall Bar&Grill for your lunch during your epic ski day. Alcohol is served at The Wall Bar, and the patio stays sunny until the sun sets behind the ridgeline, with a view of the double black run “The Wall.”
After your snow day, the only open place will be the 7800 Bar&Grill. The 7800 has a classic mountain vibe that seems stuck in the 1970s. The only heater is the fireplace, which warms the bar, but the smiles and laughs of your fellows will warm your heart. Be sure to stop here for a cheap beer and an American dish after your rewarding ski day. On some weekends, live music will be featured at this venue.
There are two mountain gear shopping options; I know, overwhelming, right? But the Kirkwood Mountain Sports shop in the Mountain Village will have your back regarding all things snow gear. They carry a surprisingly good selection of high-quality ski clothes, skis and snowboards, boots, and accessories. If you visit the sports shop at the end of the season, there will be discounted mountain gear.
The other option is the rental shop in the Timber Creek base area. Here, someone can find a small selection of hats, gloves, ski goggles, and neck gators. This location sells items primarily for people who forget their own “whatever it is” at home.
For Families/skiing with kids:
Families are welcome at Kirkwood, as many ski families can be spotted shredding the mountain. If your family is not the family that has three mini-rippers in tight racing uniforms slicing down the slalom race track off Solitude Express- Chair 11, it’s fine.
Kirkwood’s ski school is ranked among the top ski schools in North America, ready to help make your family vacation as seamless as possible. The instructors and staff at the ski school will not let you down as they wear their festive helmets and goofy smiles. Make reservations if you are planning on visiting on a weekend; weekdays stay pretty open.
The ski school in Timber Creek offers half-day or full-day group lessons for kids and adults. Two snacks and lunch are provided for children’s full-day group lessons, so your kids will be taken care of all day without you needing to come check on them. The ski school prefers you not to come around anyways as it can distract the younglings from their learning experience and makes them focused on their mommy attachments instead.
The kid’s learning zone at Kirkwood blocks off external traffic and provides access to a private magic carpet. The kid-specific magic carpet is festive with monster plush dolls, cones, and spinning objects, making the atmosphere electric. A speaker will occasionally bump kid-friendly music, getting everyone in a spunky mood, as tears are not allowed.
Private lessons for 1 hour, half-day, or full-day are available for all ages. Your family will be catered to, as it is possible to reserve a private lesson for the whole family. The rental process at Kirkwood is also easy and included in the lesson package.
There is no daycare option at Kirkwood. The youngest chickens the ski school allows are three-year-olds, who must ski or snowboard. However, the instructors are patient and have a particular mini shredder program that helps acclimate the toddlers to the new snowy environment. But if your child is under three, it looks like some adults will need to sit out from the fun or make other arrangements. If you are looking for a babysitter, I am sure you can ask the ski school for an on-mountain recommendation.
Beginners, you can relax; the rest of the mountain’s shredders will not see you make a fool of yourself, as the beginner area is separate from the expert runs. Timber Creek base area is for novice skiers. The mountain contains nine green beginner runs and twenty-five blue intermediate runs.
The novice runs are groomed nicely at Kirkwood, but not as wide as some other greens at other resorts. Chair 9- The Bunny Lift, located in the Timber Creek Base area, will provide access to most of the beginner terrain. This is also where the ski school is located.
Kirkwood’s beginner terrain is limited but diverse. Many beginners have the time of their lives sliding down “Funny Bunny” run into “Gold Rush,” a run containing cute ski humps. And if you take a lesson, a private ‘Ski School Run” with ski hills, berms, and a quarter pipe is made available to you.
If you are not ready for the lift, there is a fenced-off public magic carpet near Chair 9. The Ski School has a private magic carpet for kids’ lessons. The magic carpet is easier to load and unload for a beginner, as the ramp exit of a lift can be intimidating. The lifts servicing the beginner terrain are “fixed grip” lifts, meaning they do not slow down much as you enter and exit the chair.
Snowkirk, Chair 1, will be the move for beginners if you want to stay in the Mountain Village base area. This lift provides some pretty incredible views, high valley passes, and groomed greens. Be careful, as some of the green groomers are sloped off-camber.
The Kirkwood Ski School is a must-invest-in opportunity if it is within your budget. It is apparent when you see the instructors dancing and stretching with one another during morning meetings that they might be more stoked to be teaching you than you are to learn a new snow sport. The lesson packages include lift tickets and rental gear, so your initial investment continues to reward you.
On most weekends, reservations for the ski school are necessary. During the weekdays, drop-in ski lessons should be available.
For Routine Skiers
Note: Kirkwoodians call the chairs by their number, not their name.
Routine skiers love Kirkwood and are slightly annoyed people have found out about this ski gem. But the locals cannot help but be friendly and welcoming to the newcomers. The routine skier can find zero crowds Monday through Thursday. Weekenders are starting to make crowds here, but it seems there is never really a line for Chair 10, The Wall.
If it is busy, I would recommend skiing the trees. The best way to find fresh powder and no crowds is by taking Cornice Express- Chair 6 and traversing skiers left to Palisades bowl. This traverse can get really steep and interesting quickly. The tree runs here are stoke worthy.
One step further, and you can find yourself at Reuter Bowl. It is somewhere in this area where you can find caves with icicles.
Chair 6 is a high-speed lift, and a routine skier will find satisfying ski challenges throughout the ridgeline accessible by this lift.
Ski Kirkwood Like a Local
Routine skiers will get the most out of this resort by using cat tracks and skier-made traverses to access different runs scattered along the ridgeline. Utilize both the backside and front side of the mountain.
The backside, offering lift service to the peak by Sunset Lift- Chair 4, is something everyone must venture over to while at Kirkwood. The views and runs in this area of the mountain are superb. It is possible to spend an entire ski day just taking high-speed Chair 4 laps.
Excitingly, the ridgeline near the backside offers a lift shaped like a T that you put behind your booty, and it pushes you up the hill. The Vista T-Bar is for experts only and grants access to short rock-ridden double black runs off the back or front side of the ridgeline.
PRO SECRET: If you take Solitude, Chair 5, and traverse towards the black diamond run “The Drain,” a swing can be found in the trees. It might take a few tries to find it, but you will. Do not tell anyone I told you about it!
Favorite run: If you want to feel the G-force, the “Snowsnake” run will surely be your favorite run. This run is a natural half-pipe accessible by Chair 10 or 11. Scream “WEEEEEE!” the whole ride down; it makes it more fun.
The backcountry skiing at Kirkwood is what puts it on the map. Kirkwood Expedition will help get you started and rent your gear if you want to up your adventure level and off-piste ski. Even if you have your equipment but are new to the area, the Kirkwood Expedition team would love to talk to you about different peaks to summit.
A famous peak to skin up near Kirkwood is Roundtop. A mile East of Kirkwood Ski Area, Roundtop is a class 2 rock with a notorious drop, “Crescent Moon Couloir,” for those with a missing screw. The hike to the peak is a few miles and can be done in a few hours.
Kirkwood has some steezy riders that expect quality terrain parks, and Kirkwood’s park crew meets their expectations. Snowboarding is allowed at the Wood. Keep an eye out, as the 360 seems to be everyone’s favorite trick here. Even the cones in the parking lot say, “Did you 360?”
The Bandit Terrain Park is located in the Timber Creek base area under Chair 7. This park offers small, medium, and large features, including jumps, rails, and boxes. The rad tricks you have been getting ready to send will be made possible in this park. The park crew changes up the features pretty regularly.
Suppose you are just learning terrain park. The Buckaroo Park is located in the Timber Creek base area at the bottom of Chair 9 or 7. This park contains x-small and small jumps and boxes. The last jump at this park has a perfect lip for practicing 360s, your new favorite trick that everyone pressured you into here at Kirkwood.
There is no halfpipe at Kirkwood.
World Record Cliff Senders at Kirkwood; A Heartbreaking Story
On arrival to the Wood, your goosebumps will start forming as you look upon the mountain’s overhead looming ridgelines that hold endless possibilities. Now you understand how the first “official” cliff-jumping world record was set here.
In 1989, two daredevils, Paul Ruff and John Tremann went to Kirkwood to establish the first official cliff jumping world record. Tremann set the first record with a 105ft drop; moments later, Ruff surpassed his rival’s bomb-hole landing by 7ft more. This event started one of the most iconic ski rivalries. Warren Miller, a pioneer in ski videography, captured Ruff and Tremann’s legendary sends at Kirkwood. Miller released the film featuring Kirkwood called Extreme Winter.
A few years later, in 1993, Paul Ruff, a.k.a Captain Kirkwood, buckled up his ski boots and clipped into his skis for the last time. Ruff knew this would be his last big jump, as he told his fiancée the half a million sponsorship money could set them up for a business lifestyle. But he did not know it would be his last day.
Captain Kirkwood hiked up Kirkwood’s backside of Thimble Peak, gearing up to leap the 150ft cliff jump to surpass Tremann’s latest record-breaking 140ft drop. As Ruff hiked the blind jump, his friends shouted, “Higher! Go Higher!”
The adrenaline cliff sender needs to take off from a calculated trajectory point allowing him to gain enough speed to fly over the 30ft of rocks jutting out before the fresh powder landing spot. The problem is Ruff cannot get his belay rope close enough to see over the edge. The basic cliff jumping technique that requires a clear line of vision from launch to touchdown was out of sight
Everyone at the base is anxiously waiting as the Captain scoops up a handful of snow, makes a snowball, and chunks it into the abyss below. The crowd shouts, “More to the right!” Two weeks before, Ruff thought this spot in Thunder Bowl on the backside of Kirkwood’s resort would be ideal for “monster air.”
Ruff chunks another snowball, “That’s better, man, but you gotta chuck it farther out!” calls out a buddy. It became clear that accurately predicting the landing of this jump was impossible. The hired photographers and crew were starting to sweat, feeling things were not going well. However, no one called Ruff down.
Unwritten protocol in cliff jumping is never to psych the skier out; once a jumper is in place, it is no one else’s call but their own. Nate, the skier’s brother, asks a cameraman, “Is there anything we can do to stop this,” receiving a shake of the head. The Captain made the call; as he speeds down the impossible vertical, he veers right, making a line adjustment. It becomes quickly clear to the spectators that Ruff would not have enough speed to clear the rocks.
Photographers lost sight of him in their lenses, but the cameras captured 16 frames of his plummet. In the first five, he was in perfect free-falling form; by the sixth, his arms began to flail, beginning to fall back first. In the twelfth frame, he slammed into the exposed rocks and bounced 30ft in the air. The momentum carried him down head-first for the rest of the hill, about 100ft.
When his friends reach him, Ruff says, “Let me get up, I’m okay.” But in moments, his internal bleeding swallowed his consciousness forever. The legacy of Paul Ruff lives on, and his death reminds us to be absolutely sure of our sends based on accurate calculations. We are not invincible, no matter how much skiing makes us believe it.
Interesting History of the Wood
Zachary Kirkwood purchased a 160-acre ranch at the base of a horseshoe-shaped mountain ridge line in the 1860s. This purchase was able to be made due to previous explorers. In 1844, Kit Carson scouted for the successful exploration party led by Captain John C. Fremont through the Sierra Nevadas.
This expedition led to paths being carved out through the granite to allow access to Mr. Kirkwood’s future ranch hidden in the mountain range. After blasting out the face of the cliffs at Carson Spur in 1863, the route was more easily accessible, and it was then that Mr. Kirkwood made the purchase.
Kirkwood opened a way station called Kirkwood Station, which served as a hostelry, post office, and stagecoach depot. Before 1971 it was necessary to use snowshoes or snow vehicles to traverse the mountains surrounding Kirkwood’s ranch, but then California State Highway 88 bulldozed the route from the Bay Area to Kirkwood, allowing for ease of travel.
Today, it is named Carson Pass, the highest pass in the Sierra Nevadas at 8,573ft. Although traveling to Kirkwood has been modernized, during winter months, it is necessary to have a properly prepared vehicle with all-wheel drive and snow chains to handle the remote snow-covered roads. Be sure to have a full tank of gas when you are headed to Kirkwood.
A century later, Kirkwood Ski Resort opened in 1972 with four chair lifts. The Kirkwood Station is now called the Kirkwood Inn. The Inn is located at the entrance of the mountain resort. There is a single gas pump, a grab-and-go snack shop, and burgers and BBQ at the alcohol-serving saloon in the Inn. The Inn also offers lodgings.
The resort has not seemed to have changed much since its opening date. But it was made purposely for the snow sports patrons, so they have everything a skier could want here at Kirkwood Ski Resort.
The Must-Hit California Ski Mountain
If you are having doubts about this vacation spot, do not. It will be one of your most memorable ski trip experiences. No ski resort in the world gives off the same energy as this neck of the backwoods. No matter your level, know that visiting Kirkwood means raising your game; it seems to be in the air– skill improvements are contagious here.
Come prepared with gas, groceries, and a stoking attitude. Kirkwood Ski Resort will exceed your expectations, and I am sure you will want to return again after unlocking new ski skills here. The powder days will help advance your riding, as it allows you to take runs you normally would struggle with.
Visit Kirkwood. After skiing across North America, this resort continues to stay in the back of my mind and has a special place in my heart. I look forward to my return, which says something because I hardly go to the same place twice.