Firsthand Report: Kirkwood, California - Off the Beaten Track
Author thumbnail By Jim Kenney, DCSki Columnist

I made an outstanding visit to Kirkwood ski area near South Lake Tahoe, California during the second week of January, 2013. Trail conditions were very good with well preserved packed powder surfaces from a 5-6 foot snow storm two weeks prior. Kirkwood received an additional five inches of snow the day before we arrived, but otherwise the weather was mostly clear and seasonable during our visit.

I was accompanied by my wife, daughter and son and our stay at Kirkwood was enhanced by three ideal factors: we were lodging in a slopeside condo, the slopes were empty, and we had enough time (three weekdays) to better explore an awesome mountain. This was pure luxury after spending the prior week on a hardball ski safari separately with my son traveling about 1,200 miles to five different ski areas in seven days.

Kirkwood is a little off the beaten track about 45 minutes south of Lake Tahoe, but once you’re there it’s definitely worth staying a while. On my first morning at Kirkwood I set out solo to explore the mountain while family members slept in. I had visited Kirkwood for a few days eight years before and had a great time, but on that trip I was alone much of the time with two intermediate level daughters and did not see as much of Kirkwood’s renowned advanced terrain as I would have liked. This time was different.

Foreground - Happiness Is, background - Fawn Ridge. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

As my hair has grayed I’ve shed my bashfulness and within a few chairlift rides I befriended a fellow named Phil from Modesto, CA. Phil used to be an instructor at Kirkwood back in the 1990’s and knew the mountain well. He spoke of exploring a glade on the far southeastern border of the ski area called Fawn Ridge where the deep old snow from two weeks before might still be soft and fun. He invited me to tag along.

Leaving the Mountain Village at the main base area we took chairs 1 and 2 over a mellow hillside of intermediate runs called Caples Crest. Then we rode the long chair 4 to the top of what I called the “backside” of the ski area just a little southeast of Thimble Peak (9876’). From there we made a quick schuss looker’s left to catch the Covered Wagon surface (platter) lift. It was a new addition since my last visit and provided easier access to the ungroomed sidecountry of Fawn Ridge. Phil led me on a scenic traverse to a bluff overlooking beautiful, little Emigrant Lake. Then we backtracked a short distance and headed down Fawn Ridge. Sure enough, it was loaded with pockets of great fluffy snow sheltered by nicely spaced trees in a rolling descent back to the base of chair 4. This was a spot I never would have found on my own and I let out a few whoops in boot-top powder to show Phil my sincere appreciation.

We hopped on chair 4 again and this time headed looker’s right down a single black diamond bowl called Thunder Saddle. It runs beneath a huge, rocky face called The Cirque, well known in the Tahoe area as a venue for extreme freeskiing pro tour competitions. Phil was expert at skipping around the mountain quickly and before I knew it we were back on the main side of the mountain skating in the northwest direction on a high traverse atop the Cornice Express Quad Chair. We crossed above Sentinel Bowl and kept going to an area where all grooming ended.

View from Palisades Bowl. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

Still we traversed more. Finally, Phil said we had arrived in Palisades Bowl at the far northwest boundary of the ski area. There was not another soul around when we headed down approximately 1500 vertical feet of beautiful, mixed terrain consisting of an open bowl up high, then a lightly treed area, and finally on an easy groomed run to the base of Kirkwood’s Timber Creek beginner trail pod. At that point we parted ways as I needed to check-in with my family. In the span of one morning, however, 71 year old Phil from Modesto had hustled me from one end of Kirkwood’s 2300 acres to the other, primarily on ungroomed, black diamond terrain. Old guys rule.

I devoted the afternoon to skiing groomers with a young person, my 20 year old daughter Suzy. We had a great few hours together. By this point in the middle of the second week of January it was fully post holiday and even the groomed intermediate trails were totally ours. Suzy only gets about five ski days a year, but has done so since the age of five. Although known for advanced terrain, a solid intermediate like Suzy has a lot to ski at Kirkwood. I took her over to scenic chair 4 on the backside of the mountain where I’d skied in the morning and we had a blast on w-i-d-e blue square groomers like Happiness Is, Elevator Shaft, and Lower Devils Drop. The latter two are not as fearsome as they sound.

Back on the frontside of the mountain we enjoyed Lower Zachery and Lower Monte Wolfe off chair 5. I even snuck her onto a groomed back diamond run called Shotgun beside chair 11. It wasn’t until we were near the bottom that she noted it was steeper than the other trails we’d been skiing. The upper mountain ridges at Kirkwood are where most of the really steep headwalls and cornices are found. It’s pretty intuitive for a novice to avoid the lifts committed to those areas.

On our second day I focused on exploring Wagon Wheel Bowl. This is essentially a huge cirque perhaps two-three miles wide encompassing most of the area between the two key lifts (chairs 6 and 10) that serve some of Kirkwood’s most renowned terrain. Wagon Wheel Bowl consists of many smaller bowls draining down a fall line that is consistently steep for much of Kirkwood’s 2000’ vertical drop. Within Wagon Wheel Bowl there is an expert’s playground of features; for example, cliffs (The Sisters), slots (Waterfall), chutes (Notch), gullies (The Drain) and steep open faces (The Wall). You name it; this awesome mountain’s got it.

Wagon Wheel Bowl and The Notch. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

My 22 year old son Vince and I skied a classic run through the heart of Wagon Wheel Bowl known as The Notch and Notch Chute. In the kind of good snow conditions we experienced this is a fun run that can be enjoyed by a low level expert recreational skier. To get there you ride chair 10 (Wagon Wheel) to the highest point of Kirkwood’s terrain near 9876’ Thimble Peak. Then you ski/skate north on a high traverse above The Wall Cornice for about 1/4 mile to the entrance cutting through a gap in the huge Sisters rock formation. Along the way you’ll pass a big rock with a plaque dedicated to Dick Reuter, legendary mountain manager at Kirkwood.

At the entrance to The Notch there are cliffs on either side where hotshots sometimes go for big air off 50-100’ drops. I wasn’t too proud to take off my skis and step down the tightest ten feet entering the Notch. Once through the choke point the slope opens to a steep, wide face for a few hundred yards. Continuing directly ahead it feeds into a more narrow drain called, naturally, Notch Chute. We skied much of this route alongside a fabulous lady telemarker tearing-up the excellent soft snow for nearly 2000 vertical feet to Kirkwood’s base village.

Lady Freeheeler in Notch Chute. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

On our last ski day at Kirkwood we awoke to a stiff breeze, especially on the highest ridgelines of the trail layout. Management closed the backside of the ski area including the exposed chair 4. We consigned ourselves to the world class terrain of Wagon Wheel, Sentinel and Palisades Bowls. Below the highest points the wind was pretty much a non-factor and we got in some great last licks. We made runs through new areas we hadn’t skied before like False Peak Chute on the skier’s left of Wagon Wheel Bowl and the lonely Eagle Bowl. Eagle Bowl was a wild, ungroomed face to the looker’s left just below Thimble Peak that never seemed to get much traffic.

Mountain Village from False Peak Chute. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

Even after three days there were plenty of discoveries at Kirkwood. Later I took a run down The Wall beside chair 10. I veered to the skier’s left and came across a really cool slot in the rocks halfway down the mountain. I think it’s called Waterfall. I remembered it from a spring visit to Kirkwood eight years before, but this time in early season it held less snow and was a 75’ gauntlet that you needed to straight-line to get through with style. I chickened-out and side stepped through the thinnest part that was barely wider than the length of my skis. It was classic Kirkwood, a little off the beaten track and the kind of terrain you don’t readily stumble upon inbounds back East.

Waterfall Slot. Photo provided by Jim Kenney.

Kirkwood skis big, but has a slopeside bed base of only about 2000. It was acquired by Vail Resorts in 2012. At this time it retains an intimate feel, especially on weekdays, and is still one of the most affordable resorts in the Vail family for lifts and lodging. Kirkwood draws a mix of day skiers and weekenders from the San Francisco Bay area. Ski-weekers are definitely a minority and we felt we had our own private ski reserve midweek in January. There is frequent free shuttle bus service between most condos and the ski lifts.

The Mountain Village is anchored by the slopeside Mountain Club Hotel/Condominiums with an outdoor ice rink and a sprinkling of stores, dining spots, and other guest services. We ate most of our meals in our condo, but one night we dined at the historic Kirkwood Inn a couple miles from the ski area. It’s a converted stagecoach/pony express stop located on a mountain pass at about 8000’ on what is now California State Route 88. Built in 1864 by local cattleman Zachary Kirkwood, the Inn still serves some good beef. But now nearly 150 years gone, Mr. Kirkwood’s a whole lot better known for GNAR.

Fast Kirkwood Facts:

About Jim Kenney

Husband, father and retired civilian employee of the Department of Navy, Jim Kenney is a D.C. area native and has been skiing recreationally since 1967. Jim's ski reporting garnered the 2009 West Virginia Division of Tourism's Stars of the Industry Award for Best Web/Internet/E-Magazine Article.

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