Tahoe is well known as a world-class ski and snowboard destination, but with nine resorts in the area it can be hard to know where to spend your time. Here’s a tip: If you’re a true powderhound, head straight to Kirkwood Mountain, a hidden gem tucked into the Eldorado National Forest 35 miles southwest of South Lake Tahoe.
You won’t find the dreaded “Sierra cement” here thanks to the phenomenon locals call the “K-factor,” the geographic ingredients that predispose storms to accumulate right over Kirkwood. The resort gets the most snow in the area, and due to its high base elevation, it’s also the lightest and driest. In fact, receiving an average of 300 to 600 inches of snow each winter, Kirkwood often has some of the deepest powder in North America. It’s a low-key resort without the glitz and glam, meaning it doesn’t have the best options available in Tahoe for shopping or partying. If your focus is on getting the most out of your day on the slopes, Kirkwood is the place for you.
From the nomadic Washoe Tribe, whose history in the area spans more than 9,000 years, to the gold-seekers and Mormon pioneers of the early to mid-1800s, people have used the land surrounding Kirkwood Mountain Resort for centuries. The resort is named after Zachary Kirkwood, an explorer who traveled from Ohio to California in the early 1860s in search of land to homestead. He couldn’t have picked a more picturesque locale: 160 acres in the valley surrounded by the soaring peaks of the Sierra Nevada. His ambitions soon grew well beyond having a parcel of land to graze his sheep and cattle. In 1864 he set up the Kirkwood Station, which served as a hostel, post office, and stage depot. It was a bar as well, but according to local legend during Prohibition it was on wheels, so it could be rolled away in case of a visit from the sheriff.
More than 150 years later, the Kirkwood Station is still standing. These days, however, it’s known as the Kirkwood Inn—an establishment owned by the Kirkwood Mountain Resort. A project led by businessman and ski enthusiast Bud Klein, the resort opened its doors in 1971. Vail Resorts bought Kirkwood Mountain Resort in 2012, and it is still going strong today.
Over the past couple of decades, Kirkwood saw some fairly major development, including the Kirkwood Mountain Village, which has a lodge, a sporting goods store, and condo units. These additions mean that Kirkwood now truly offers the best of both worlds: the comforts of a destination resort without sacrificing the laid-back atmosphere—and without the long lift lines.
Skiing and Riding
The ski and snowboard area encompasses more than 2,300 acres with 2,000 feet of vertical drop (the base elevation is 7,800 feet, and the summit is at 9,800 feet). There are 86 marked trails serviced by 15 lifts: 12 percent of the runs are beginner, 20 percent intermediate, 38 percent advanced, and 30 percent expert. There are plenty of groomers and also tons of potential for off-piste exploration, including trees, cornices, and rock features to navigate or jump if you like to get your adrenaline pumping.
The mountain gets steeper with elevation, so if you’re a beginner make sure you get your bearings straight on the bunny hills at the bottom (or sign up for a class with Kirkwood’s Ski School). If you are an intermediate skier and boarder, head to the backside or mid-mountain, while experts should head straight to the top. The two-mile long ridgeline on the summit provides ample opportunity for fun. Head to the Eagle Bowl for the best powder, and if you’re looking for a thrill don’t miss “The Wall,” an infamous, hair-raising double-black diamond run that features steep chutes, gullies, and cliff drops.
Apres and Dining
While Kirkwood doesn’t have the raucous après scene available at some other resorts in the area, there are still some great options for grabbing a bite and a brew. The historic Kirkwood Inn has tons of character and a good dinner selection. The 7800 Bar & Grill, located next to Chair #1, is a good spot for burgers and dancing. It’s a great place to fuel up, wind down, and get ready for another spectacular day on the mountain.