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Gnarly, steep, scary. Go after it–and you won't be sorry.
posted: 11/29/2012

When a hometown boy won the World Freeskiing Championships last winter at Kirkwood, the victory confirmed what Tahoe locals have always known: Kirkwood is a world-class playground for steep-and-deep extreme skiing. “There is a long tradition of hard-charging skiers flocking to Kirkwood,” says Kirkwood skier and Outside Television personality Todd Offenbacher. Kirkwood has always enjoyed a cult following among California skiers.
Now, thanks to its recent acquisition by Vail Resorts, the ’Wood is poised for greater fame. Kirkwood is a skier’s dream. Don’t expect rollicking nightlife, upscale lodgings, or high-speed lifts. It offers great beginner and intermediate terrain (the Timber Creek area and the back side, respectively), but like Crested Butte, Jackson Hole, and Squaw Valley, Kirkwood is defined by its steeps. Frontside lifts whisk skiers 1,600 feet up to a ridgeline that drops into double-black chutes and bowls. To skier’s right is The Cirque—guided-only, no-fall terrain. “It’s like the wild West,” says Cat Keenan, who moved to South Lake Tahoe seven years ago to ski Kirkwood. “Lots of open spaces, lots of drops and features. There are days when it is 2 p.m., it’s dumping, and the only tracks you see are your own.”

Photo: Rachid Dahnoun/Aurora Photos

Tucked into a horseshoe-shaped valley at 7,700 feet in the High Sierra, Kirkwood is a perennial contender for snowiest resort in North America. Locals call it The K Factor: a disposition for gargantuan maritime storms that pile up to four inches an hour and can drop 10 feet over two days. Many locals have stories of being snowed in overnight, waiting for plows to clear roads and patrollers to open the mountain. When the avy danger is past, it’s go time. Kirkwood opens sequentially on powder days, starting with Chair 6 and Chair 10 and then the back side. Skiers who are tuned in and willing to bypass lightly skied terrain can get phenomenal lines. Bay Area venture capitalist Todd Francis recalls a mid-March storm last winter: “We hit first tracks all day long, working the ridge, Eagle Bowl, Vista, the Palisades. The sun was shining; the snow was cold and flowing over our shoulders. It was one of those times when we said, ‘This is as good as B.C.’” But Kirkwood’s greatest assets—its deep snowpack and out-there location (35 miles and two mountain passes from the lake)—are its greatest challenges. When the skiing’s best, the drive is scariest. Kirkwood is also off the grid, powered entirely by generators. “Kirkwood is an outpost, a base camp,” says Offenbacher. “You have to want it.” But a word to the wise: “Be careful whose tracks you follow,” Offenbacher says. “Otherwise you can get yourself into a world of trouble.”

SLEPP » Mountain Club condos provide slopeside convenience and hot tubs for après soaking.

EAT » The historic Kirkwood Inn & Saloon (built in 1864) combines cozy atmosphere and fine dining.
Try the Campfire Ribeye with red wine and mushroom demi-glace.

DRINK » Off the Wall Bar inside the main lodge serves California wines and microbrews with views of Kirkwood’s ridgeline and the peaks beyond. 

reviews of KIRKWOOD, CALIF.
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