Ski Critics Ranking #2 Ski Resort in Lake Tahoe
Kirkwood aka “The Wood” is a true skiers mountain with rugged and extreme terrain, a huge variety of advanced to expert terrain, smaller crowds, deep snowpack, and unusually dry light snow by Sierra standards. Due to the high altitude and storm funneling location collectively known as “The K Factor” Kirkwood has become well known as the best “Powder Mountain” in the Sierra’s. Although we rank Kirkwood the #2 resort in Tahoe it is my personal favorite ski mountain in the region. Kirkwood is not a “World Class Resort” by any stretch as it lacks many of the frills you would expect from a premier Vail Resort Co. run mountain. However, if you’re not seeking a well rounded destination type experience with amazing dining, shopping, or nightlife and prefer to get out into nature to enjoy the true elements of skiing; Kirkwood should be on your bucket list for North America skiing.
Kirkwood offers 2,300 skiable acres accessed by 10 major lifts. If you’re adventurous and enjoy skiing off piste runs, the resort skis much larger than some of the mega-resorts due to immense amount of open bowls, and glades vs. tree cut runs. There are some great groomed runs throughout the resorts lift system, but you don’t get the variety compared to Heavenly Valley, Breckenridge, Park City, or Sun Valley.
It’s all about the snow for those who love Kirkwood. With a high base elevation of 7,800 ft Kirkwood tends to offer the best snow conditions top to bottom, compared to “lake level” resorts like Heavenly, Squaw, and Homewood.
Kirkwood mountain terrain is broken out by 2 main base areas, the frontside, the backside, as well as a wide array of bowls and open terrain. It pays to be adventurous at Kirkwood and many people visiting for a first time don’t get the full experience of all the amazing range of terrain and conditions. Some of the best powder skiing, glades and open bowl runs are not under or near the lifts. At Kirkwood to get the most of the mountain you’ll need to traverse left and right from the lift, sometimes up to a mile or so. Trust me…you will be rewarded!
Main Lodge – Frontside: This is where all the action happens at the resort. Expert Skiers can access wide open bowls resembling the back country. Head straight up from the lodge via Chairs 6 & 10 offering huge overhanging cornices, open bowls, glades, and knee knocker steep chutes. You might even catch a glance to see an extreme skier ripping up “Once is Enough”, The Heart, The Fingers, Expert Cutes, Norms, Waterfall, and All The Way as you head up the lifts. Powder skiers will be delighted with a bit of traversing out to the Palisades, Expert Chutes, and Eagle Bowl – or just drop into the main bowl at The Wall. Advanced skiers can quickly access amazing high angle groomed runs off Chairs 6 & 11 which also get early coverage with descent snowmaking. Check out Zach’s, Lookout, Sentinel Bowl, and Conestoga as they usually offer the best high angle groomed snow on the mountain. Intermediate’s will love the wide open runs off Chairs 2, 5 & 11. Buckboard is always a favorite!
Most all of the rental condo’s and the check in area is based at the Main Lodge. This makes for a great ski-in, ski-out experience, and allows overnight guests the luxury of taking the day at their own pace. When the kids get tired, parents can quickly whisk up the lifts which are literally a few steps out the door. There are a couple of places to grab some not so good eats. If you’re ok with a basic burger and bag of chips all’s good. However, there is a nice sun deck and if you pack your lunch it’s a great vista looking up at Monte’s and Thimble Peak.
Timber Creek Lodge – Frontside: Kids and New Skiers will love the sequestered skiing coming out of the Timber Creek Lodge area. Chairs 7 & 9 offer wide open and very approachable learn to ski terrain. There are a host of ski instructors on the ready plus their famous Might Mountain kids camp. Parents can easily drop off the kids at Mighty Mountain, zoom up a short high speed quad Chair 7, and get to the Main Lodge in a few minutes. There is a small parking lot next to Mighty Mountain and early risers can snag an optimal (free) parking spot next to Mighty Mountain HQ. Food is limited as with the main lodge, basic burgers and the like. The lodge is a temporary tent, and amenities are few.
Sunrise Chair 4 Backside: The Sunrise Chair #4 defines Kirkwood’s backside skiing. There’s a small food / bathroom hut, some beach chairs and a fun vibe on a sunny day. The chair is wide and slow, but offers some of the most diverse terrain on the mountain. Although this area is dominated by intermediate’s due to the wide open and perfectly groomed slopes, there is some amazing Expert to Extreme skiing that is easily accessed. Experts can hit the Saddle, Vista, Fawn Ridge and Sunnyside – or breath in some 9,800 ft thin air and hike up “99 steps” to the summit for a short jaunt off the top. (It’s called 99 steps, but it’s more like 1,000 steps). Also, often overlooked on a powder day – when you return to the frontside take a short and rewarding journey to “High Whisky” to catch a few extra untracked turns.
Snowboarding: We gave Kirkwood 3 Stars on Snowboarding as there are many flat areas, and experts often need to traverse to get the goods. There are a couple of ordinary parks to keep you amused, but nothing too noteworthy on this front.
Early Season / Late Season: Kirkwood is one of the best places to ski when snow conditions in Tahoe are less than ideal. First, Kirkwood generally gets way more snow than Heavenly or other “Lake Level” resorts. Second, Tahoe also gets hit with warmer storms – so, it will often rain at most resorts, and snow bottom to top at Kirkwood. The snow stays for the spring and conditions can be great. The only downside to spring at the Wood is the lower mountain is relatively flat leaving you to slog through the slush back to the lift.
Kirkwood is located about 1 hour outside of South Lake Tahoe, 1.5 hours from Reno Airport, and 3.5 hours from San Francisco. The remote location makes Kirkwood a “day trip” for most Tahoe tourists, but they do offer some fantastic ski-in / ski-out accommodations for those who want to get out and enjoy a wilderness experience.
Lodging: In real terms Kirkwood Lodging is quite good. Most all the rentals are steps away from the lifts, and other’s like The Meadows are walkable but better to grab the shuttle. Rates have gone up substantially with COVID, but EPIC Pass holders do get a break on rates. There are several groups of condo’s available most of which are on the hill and true ski-in / ski-out. The best located condo’s are located in “The Lodge” and “The Mountain Club” where your boots hit the snow as you exit the buildings.
Nightlife: Kirkwood nightlife is quite limited but sometimes surprisingly fun. Very much hit and miss, with only 2 “fun” places to go. On the mountain check out The 7,800 Club which offers descent food and “sometimes” a lively bar scene. Most of the locals hang out here, and is considered more of a dive bar than a dining room. With a short drive back to the highway The Kirkwood Inn offers the mountain charm you would expect with a remote resort nestled high up into the Sierra’s. It’s a historic log cabin style building with a warm fireplace, rustic feel, lively crowd, and great happy hour specials. Weekend’s are your best shot at having some fun, and holiday’s are way, way too crowded to nudge a bar stool.
Ski Critics Resort Ratings for Kirkwood Ski Resort
Pros and Cons of Kirkwood Ski Resort
- Superior Snow Quantity and Quality – High Altitude and Big Dumps
- Low Crowds – Best on partial pass blackout dates or mid-week
- Incredible Expert Terrain
- Diverse mountain with something for everyone
- Good Vibe – local feel
- Great Ski-In / Ski-Out experience
- Family Oriented, wholesome environment
- Slow fixed grip and outdated lifts – exceptions with Chairs 6 & 9
- Parking – Pay to Play is Vails Stance here – otherwise you’re way out 1 mile away
- Poor Food Service and Selection
- Little to no nightlife
- Very few lockers, which compounds the parking issues
- Very limited shopping and few alternative activities
- The roads close often during and after a significant snowfall. This can be a bummer or your best friend. If you see a big storm dropping in from Alaska with 3-5 ft of snow expected, get up there ahead of the storm. You’ll likely catch some afternoon powder turns, and the next morning all roads will be closed – you’ll have your own private ski resort +200 people. Since lodging is somewhat limited, so are the powder crowds when the roads close.
- If “The Spur” between Jackson and Kirkwood on Highway 88 is closed, you can come up Highway 50 and come around the back way. Take 50 to Meyers, 89 South to 88, then back West on 88