Kirkwood, Calif.

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Published April 1999. This article does not reflect any lift upgrades or terrain expansions since then.

Terrain Ability












Kirkwood's terrain is sharply defined between a moderately sloped lower half and a consistently steep upper half. Kirkwood is also distinctive for several long twisting gullies which form natural halfpipes. It is most popular with expert skiers for whom powder and low skier density are top priorities. Despite the Alta-like ambience, management is in the process of upgrading the base area facilities to appeal to a broader range of skiers.

Lift Serviced











High Mths

Low Mths


Direction of Exposure





GE 90 in.

LT 30 in.

Base Depth





Kirkwood (Carson Pass), Calif. 8,526











Kirkwood has the conspicuously best conditions in Northern California most of the time. It is located just west of Carson Pass at an elevation range of 7,800 to 9,800 feet. The 461 inch average is representative of the entire area, and the altitude makes rain a rarity and spring conditions slower to develop. Wall and Sunrise chair can close for wind or avalanche, but there are some trees near the top of Cornice chair to keep it open during most storms. The only time conditions will be poor is when California's high volatility of snowfall results in a dry early season. There is no snowmaking, but given Kirkwood's terrain and weather patterns, it would rarely make a significant difference.

Terrain Type:

Cruising: Kirkwood’s lower mountain is well groomed and most of these runs are blue. There are a couple of short red pitches to the skier’s right off the Reut chair. Higher up, one of the runs near Cornice chair, such as Monty Wolf, will be groomed, but it is steep enough to grow moguls within a day. For a smoother steep cruise, traverse west from Cornice chair to Sentinel Bowl. The backside Sunrise chair has good cruising runs on its upper half with a long runout at the bottom.

Moguls: The ungroomed runs on the upper half of Cornice will usually have the best moguls, along with the middle of Wagon Wheel Bowl.

Steeps: Kirkwood rivals Mammoth and Crystal and is exceeded only by Squaw Valley for steeps in the Pacific States. Traverse west from the Wall chair or east from Cornice chair and nearly every entrance is in the yellow class of steepness. Start down near one of the lifts before spreading out for a less hair-raising beginning. The "spokes" of Wagon Wheel Bowl are several steep chutes between the Bowl and the Drain, the largest lower mountain gully. For experts skiing Sunrise, traverse west to Larry’s Lip and return to the main base area via one of the short but very steep chutes overlooking the Caples Crest area.

Wide Open Spaces: Kirkwood’s upper mountain east of the Cornice chair is mostly treeless. The Sunrise area is the only open area which is comfortable for most intermediates, so get there early on a busy day, particularly since some of it faces east.

Trees: The best trees for advanced skiers are beyond Sentinel Bowl at the western edge of the ski area. The trees between the runs of the low intermediate (500 vertical) Hole in the Wall chair are well spaced and are ideal for learning powder.

Powder: Kirkwood is the best major area in California for powder primarily for its snowfall (matched only by Sugar Bowl) and altitude (exceeded only by Mammoth) advantages. The somewhat remote location means less competition, especially when the roads are snow covered. The powder is also not tracked out as quickly because lift capacity is lower and long traverses from the upper lifts are needed to reach some areas.

Hiking and Backcountry: Some die-hards climb Thimble Peak, a few hundred feet above the Wall or Sunrise chairs. A new lift may go up there in a few years.

Crowds: Kirkwood has no high speed lifts and it can be tedious working your way over to Sunrise. Sunrise and the longer chairs on the lower mountain can be busy on the weekends. Sunrise is being converted to a fixed quad, which will reduce lift lines but not the slow and sometimes windy ride. Advanced skiers who stick to the Wall and Cornice chairs usually won’t wait too long. Skier density is very low on the upper mountain if you spread out some from the lifts.

Intermediates: The sharp change in pitch from lower to upper mountain creates an ability gap at the upper intermediate level. This is less of a problem midweek, when lower mountain lift lines will be short and upper mountain groomed runs will grow moguls more gradually.

Novices: Snowkirk and Bunny / Hole in the Wall are very good learning areas for beginners. The altitude makes the snow conditions much better than at the base of the other Tahoe areas.

Children: Kirkwood is attractive to families with its $5 children’s lift ticket. Except for Sunrise, all runs lead back to a relatively compact base area.

Kirkwood is 45 minutes from South Lake Tahoe and an hour and a half from the North Shore. Chains or 4 wheel drive are a necessity for the commute during storms, but powderhounds will be well rewarded. There are condos at Kirkwood and an attractive and convenient base village is being developed. However, the vast majority of Tahoe visitors will prefer to be based near the casinos and apres ski activities of Stateline and continue to commute to ski Kirkwood.