Kirkwood Review

Kirkwood, California

Kirkwood is our favorite resort on a powder day, only 30-minutes from our house in South Lake Tahoe.  After Heavenly and Sierra at Tahoe, we ski Kirkwood more than any other place.  Since it became a Vail resort it’s now available on our Tahoe Local season passes.  This review is based on more than 100 visits over 25+ years under every type of condition.

Kirkwood base area, March 2007

Kirkwood base area, March 2007

Stats and Rating

Real Vertical ? 1,630′, Rank: 95
Size 2,300 Acres, Rank: 34
Annual Snowfall ? 600″ claimed / 459″ actual, Rank: 7
Lift Pods ? 10, Rank: 20
Distinct Trails ? 65, Rank: 67
Review Date  (multiple visits from 1994-present)
Number of visits 100+
Our Rating ★★★★
Resort website


Kirkwood Review

Kirkwood is our “Other” home resort in South Lake Tahoe. It is really special having the 7th most average snowfall in North America. Even in a bad snow year Kirkwood is often 100% open when other resorts are relying on snowmaking.  Locals call it the “K-factor” when Kirkwood gets twice as much snow as other Tahoe resorts in the morning snow report.

The front side

We typically start on chair 6, which is one of only 2 high-speed chairs at Kirkwood.  That chair has the best high-angle grooming on the mountain and we like to get those when they are smooth.  On a powder day it’s possible to just spend the whole day there using the traverse over to Palisades bowl (see the Don’t Miss section below).

The 3 chairs that access the top of the ridges at Kirkwood all have steep runs, and Chair 6 has plenty of them.  The traverse over to Wagon Wheel bowl is fun with a small cornice to navigate at the lip. After 6 we usually head over chair 11 for some of the nicest groomed blue runs.

The backside

When its open, we go to the backside via top of chair 11 or riding chair 2.  Chair 4 is the main chair serving the back side, and a very slow, long fixed-grip quad. So it takes quite a while to rack up 3 or 4 runs there.

Getting back to the front side is fun because we ski directly over via Thunder Saddle down Two Man Chute.  This is one of the best runs on the mountain because it gets less traffic and is more shaded.

The Wall

If we have anything left, chair 10 has some great chutes like Notch Chute down to The Drain. These face due north and are in shade most of the winter, keeping the snow excellent.

The Vibe

Kirkwood has a great vibe with more of a local flavor since destination tourists tend to stick more to resorts like Heavenly and Northstar.  There are plenty of services, but the facilities aren’t quite up to the quality level of those other resorts.  The village is very small with limited apre-ski options, so most people just head back to South Lake after skiing.

Ski school

One notable and surprising feature is the ski school.  Whenever people we know ask about lessons we point them to Kirkwood because they have the best beginner terrain, and the lessons are cheaper comparing to Heavenly, and you are more likely to get a small class size.

Palasades, January 2010

Palisades, January 2010

The Good

  • Snowfall
  • Interesting terrain
  • High-angle grooming
  • Views
  • Robust ski culture

The bad

  • Chair #4 on the backside is a long, slow quad chair that develops long lines on weekends.  Hopefully Vail Resorts will be replacing it with a high-speed quad or six-pack soon.
  • Although Kirkwood gets a ton of snow, it has a higher moisture content than Heavenly so it seems to ice up earlier.
  • Since Vail took over prices have gone up to the point where buying food at the resort is no longer a good option.
  • Although Kirkwood is at a higher than average elevation for Tahoe, the vertical drop is still pretty limited at 1630′.

Don’t Miss

The Sentinels traverse from the top of chair 6 past Sentinel bowl leads to the Palisades bowl area.  There are actually many different lines in the Palisades that offer untracked powder all day on a powder day.  If you take the high traverse which requires a 10-minute uphill hike, you will find more untouched snow.  The traverse is a bit sketchy, and very difficult for snowboarders, so very few people make it over there making it almost like your own private powder stash.

Our best experience

When we think of Kirkwood, we think of huge powder days and there have been a lot of them.  Memories of blower powder in the Palisades top the list of best memories from Kirkwood.

Saddle chute, February 2009

Saddle chute, February 2009

4 thoughts on “Kirkwood Review

  1. Bryan

    On snowy days, getting here from either direction can be quite a chore, with lots of high elevation driving, road closures, and wind can close the best advanced lifts. It does get the most snow in the Sierra, though.

    1. Ron Thompson Post author

      Getting there from the West on 88 is worse than from our house in South Lake, but yes it can be exciting (in a bad way). In our experience it’s usually not as bad as you think it’s going to be, but on the days when more than 18″ falls, we won’t even try and instead ski Sierra at Tahoe or Heavenly.

  2. Scott

    Kirkwood does not have the third most snow. Brighton and Snowbird both average around 500 inches of true snow. Targhee is also a hair above Kirkwood.

    1. Ron Thompson Post author

      Thanks for pointing that out. My own snowfall ranking page has it at 7th behind all those you mentioned so no excuses accepted.

      Also, I’m not sure what happened but someone needs to tell Vail’s web content people that they screwed up big time. For some reason they published 354″ for Kirkwood and 251″ for Heavenly. That would be a bad year at both of them and is far below the “real” numbers.


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