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Kirkwood, CA - A Pictorial


Kirkwood, CA – A Pictorial


By Jim Kenney, aka JamesJ

EpicSki Travel Correspondent


Kirkwood is an outstanding ski area located in California’s High Sierra Mountains about 35 miles southwest of Lake Tahoe.  I skied it with several family members for three weekdays in early January 2013 and we had a great time.  What makes Kirkwood special is superior snow, low crowds, and bodacious ski terrain.  Also, it’s probably the least expensive major area to visit in the burgeoning Vail Resorts empire.


Kirkwood is a snow hole with a relatively high base and one of the better reputations in the Tahoe region for collecting and preserving the white stuff (reputedly 600” per winter).  The 2300 acres of ski terrain lay between elevations of approximately 7800 to 9800 feet above sea level. The mountain received 5” of new snow the day of our arrival on top of good early season packed powder conditions.  Everything was open and in great shape. 


I had been to Kirkwood once before for three days in 2005.  Between the two visits and six total ski days I still don’t feel I’ve fully explored all the nooks and crannies of its 2000 vertical feet of magnificent advanced terrain.  Crowds were very light during my post-Holiday visit in January.  The ratio of lifts (15) to acreage is low, especially considering only three major lifts serve the highest ridgelines of the layout.  With a little upper mountain traversing it’s easy to make a sweet escape to total seclusion.  During my midweek visit I started many a run peering down dozens of acres of empty mountainside.  


Please click on the photos for expanded views.  All photos are by Jim Kenney. 


Kirkwood’s trail network faces northeast across a sinuous section of the Sierra Crest.  One way to depict it is from boundary line to boundary line.  I’ll start with this view looking inbounds from the ski area boundary in Palisades Bowl at the far looker’s right or northern edge of the trail layout.  Nice skier density, eh?  Ski Patrol had the avalanche warning sign facing out of bounds and it was not in effect. 


This view of the Cornice Express Quad (~1400’ vertical) captures an example of Kirkwood’s renowned high angle grooming.  Sentinel and Palisades Bowls from the previous photo are out of view beyond the far side of the chairlift.


False Peak Chute is one of dozens of great runs in Kirkwood’s premier advanced terrain filling the wide expanse between the Cornice Express and the Wagonwheel chairlifts.  A portion of the base area can be seen to the left.


There is a fun single black diamond run through The Notch at the upper left center of this photo.  You must ride the steep Wagonwheel chair (~1800’ vertical), a Kirkwood rite of initiation, to the highest lift served point of the resort to get there.  Hotshots huck legendarily big air off some of the surrounding cliffs in the right conditions.


These folks are carefully scoping out The Wall, one of Kirkwood’s signature double black diamond terrain features.  The Wagonwheel chairlift rises in the shadowy background beneath 9876’ Thimble Peak.


Me and my shadow looking through The Notch.  It’s close to 2000 vertical feet of continuous steep from here to the base area.


About 250 vertical feet below the previous photo a graceful lady freeheeler drops into Notch Chute.


A little lower down the mountain in the same general vicinity you can test your nerve passing through steep and tight Waterfall Slot.



This huge extreme zone is known as The Cirque.  It’s normally closed except for occasional competitions by ski gods from the Freeride World Tour.  To the right mere mortals can enjoy the single black diamond Eagle Bowl accessed from the Wagonwheel chair.


The Sunrise Chairlift (~1200’ vertical) on Kirkwood’s “backside” features a ton of nice terrain for intermediates.  This view shows the Happiness Is trail in the foreground.  The snowy glades of Fawn Ridge in the background represent the ski area boundary line to the far looker’s left or southern end of the Kirkwood layout.


Kirkwood website:  http://summer.kirkwood.com/site/

Trail map:  http://winter.kirkwood.com/site/mountain/trail-map


About the Author

  • Husband, father and civilian employee of the Department of Navy, Jim Kenney is a Washington 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. To read other articles by Jim, click here

Comments (2)

I used to go to Tahoe every winter for 10 day ski trips between 1994-2002 and My best ski days were always at Kirkwood or Squaw. Got married and have kids since then, but in another year or so they will be ready to head out west and Kirkwood is at the top of my list along with Alta and Big Sky. Kirkwood always had great cover regardless of what was going on at the rest of the Tahoe resorts. Great Terrain, nice staff and it has a "non resort" feel which I really liked. One of my favorite ski resorts.
My Avitar gives you a peek of Sunnyside. That is the backside of Kirkwood. Those "in the know" Keep an eye on powder days for them to open chair two that gets you to the backside and chair four. Sunnyside just a is a small ski on hike past Larry's lip. After Sunnyside is skied up, you go past Larry's Lip and to the left into One and Two Man Shoots then farther out off the drops there to more pow. ( PS -  I'll most likely be killed for telling you this insider info...)
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