Insider’s Guide: Kirkwood Mountain
Though less than an hour from the glitz and glamor of South Lake Tahoe, Kirkwood Mountain Resort couldn’t be more different.
Stuffed up at the head of a box canyon in the Sierra, the mountain known as “The Wood” retains an old-school, bare-bones flavor that, despite ownership by Vail, emphasizes good skiing and riding over amenities (i.e., cell service is iffy).
Surprisingly large at 2,300 acres in bounds and 2,000 vertical feet, the Epic Pass resort tops out at 9,800 feet elevation. Ten chairs carry skiers and riders to a myriad of trails and two terrain parks beneath four peaks of the cirque.
From South Lake Tahoe, head south. Or come in from Sacramento. But know that when you get into Eldorado National Forest, there’s not much until the ski resort. Fly into Sacramento, Reno or South Lake Tahoe airports, then search out the bus, shuttle or rental car. From Sacramento, take a three-hour Amtrak ride to mountain turnoff. The Bay Area Ski Bus runs from the San Francisco area. North American Charter Ski routes out of S.F. and Sacramento.
Lodging options center on condos around the base, mostly privately rented out. The town of Kirkwood is tiny. Plenty of options in South Lake Tahoe with a morning drive under an hour to the slopes.
You won’t find much exotic cuisine in Kirkwood. Its two base areas serve up standard mountain fare, with The Wall Bar & Grill stepping it up a bit. The lone on-hill eatery is lunch-only Sunrise Grill at base of Sunrise lift. Aprés-ski centers on The Wall and The Cornice, the outdoor K-Bar or venerable Kirkwood Inn. Condo dwellers should shop down below, as the general store is limited. More culinary options can be found down below in town of Kirkwood and along Rte. 88.
Kirkwood sits in a large cirque that gets steeper the closer you get to the 9,800-foot summit – one of the highest in the Tahoe area with the driest snow. Nearly 70 percent of the trails are rated at least advanced. The beginner trails pack around the Snowkirk and Bunny chairs at the Timber Creek base. Blue runs scatter about, with a half-dozen or so starting on the ridge. But it’s the extreme steeps that set The Wood apart -- be it the wide plunges into Sentinel Bowl, the nasty chutes and trees off Wagon Wheel Bowl, the cliffy chutes into Devil’s Corral, or the deep tracks on The Wall -- gnarly enough to host national and international freeride competitions. The long ridge line develops cornices for leaping into the powder. Or, work your way into the Sunrise area on the southernmost side to get plenty of room for long, long powder turns. Liftlines are rare, especially once you get out of the base areas. New to the mountain? Join the Expedition: Kirkwood to get into the most extreme, remote areas.
Lean into the Banked Slalom course in Snow Snake Gully, or go huck in two terrain parks. For non-downhillers, hop on the skinny skis for a loop or two on Kirkwood Meadow’s prepared X-C trails at the base. Stop by Red Cliff Day Lodge to check out new children’s game center. Or join the Kirkwood Community Association to get into the community center with workout, game room, tennis and socializing. And, of course, South Lake Tahoe casinos are 35 miles away.