The most distant¿and arguably the most extreme¿of Tahoe resorts, Kirkwood is located 35 miles from South Lake Tahoe on Highway 88. With a base elevation of nearly 8,000 feet and over 2,000 feet of vertical, Kirkwood averages not only the deepest base in the United States, but some of the lightest snow west of Utah.
Though a little remote and at times difficult to get to because of avalanches closing the road, Kirkwood is an area riders of the steep and deep dream about. With only about fifteen percent beginner runs, the bulk of the trails are intermediate-advanced level and offer many more lines within hiking distance. Kirkwood has a well-deserved reputation as an extreme mountain¿just ask Shaun Palmer.
The resort has over 65 runs on 2,300 acres serviced by twelve lifts. If you’ve never been there before, prepare to swallow your heart as you stare at the barren, rocky peaks that seem to reach forever into the sky, with sides so steep the snow appears painted on. That big rocky peak in front is Thimble Peak Rock. And the imposing looking rock band with the impossible wall of snow? That’s the Sisters and Wagon Wheel Bowl. The Wall is aptly named, and if you want some of the best snow, breathtaking views, and steepest lines you’ve ever ridden, go up there.
Beginners may want to start off at Hole in the Wall and appropriately named Bunny Lifts. If you’re feeling confident, hop on to Lower Zachary chair and get a taste of the blues¿they’re called blue runs, but they’re more like well-behaved black diamonds.
For the more adventurous, an opener on Sunrise followed by the sphincter-tightening ride up Wagon Wheel are first. Make sure to grab last chair up Cornice or Wagon Wheel, hike out as far as you can, and drop into some of the steepest and most uncrowded runs anywhere in the world.
Kirkwood is in the middle of an enormous expansion project that includes a “Colorado-style” base area, condos, townhouses, timeshare apartments, private homes, more lifts, and year-round access.
Try to hit Kirkwood in early December just before the crowds arrive, or after January when the only thing packing up the place is more snow. Be on the lookout for serious late-season dumps in March and April as well.
If you go during peak season, make sure to work out accommodations well in advance, as they are limited at the mountain. The nearest place outside of Kirkwood for restaurants and lodging is the chintzy glitz of South Lake Tahoe. Since half the city is located in Nevada, you can take free drinks from one nickel slot to another. Don’t feel like driving the long and winding road between Kirkwood and Tahoe? No problem, the resort now offers shuttles. Starting this season there will also be direct commuter flights into South Lake Tahoe airport.
Kirkwood is great for its consistent verticality (no screwed-up flats and calf-killing traverses), fantastic snow, Euro-style setting, steeps, drops, and few tourists. It’s definitely a local’s mountain. ¿Chris Salisbury