My Mountain: Kirkwood

Former ski racer Jim Reilly grew up carving the slopes of New York’s Catskills at a mountain with 800 feet of vertical. 

Lisa and Jim Reilly

The conditions were challenging, he says; but mostly he remembers the close-knit community and camaraderie—the fact that Ski Patrol knew him by name.

And that’s exactly what he loves about Kirkwood Mountain in California, just south of Lake Tahoe, where he and his wife have raised their own family of ski racers.

“When I saw Kirkwood, I saw the same thing,” Reilly says, noting the number of Kirkwood locals who know his daughters by name and face. 

“This is a great place for kids to grow up.”

It’s got a small-mountain vibe with big-mountain terrain, and Reilly, a general contractor/developer who resides in the Santa Cruz area of Monterey Bay, California, knows exactly when the snow is coming at Kirkwood. 

He can watch a storm blow in over his house and drop inches of rain on the coast—which usually means feet of snow at Kirkwood.

Not that he needs any encouragement to beeline from his coastal home to the rugged pitches of the Sierra. 

As the program director of Kirkwood’s ski team, which he’s grown from 11 to 60 kids since 2009, Reilly knows first-hand what a special place the mountain is. 

Whether it’s the top-notch ski instruction both his daughters have received or the quirky, no-frills charm that brings visitors back to a time before plush chain hotels dominated the base of the slopes, Kirkwood, he says, is about character.

“There’s a certain mystique about Kirkwood,” Reilly says. 

“Being part of that is unique and it’s fun. 

I can say I’ve been part of a storm where it snowed 11 feet. 

And when you’re snowed in, you can throw your snowshoes on to get to the general store.” 

Because, yes, there’s an actual old-school general store.

When Reilly left the east coast to train as a ski racer, he did stints in Colorado and Utah before eventually ending up in California for work. 

It was two years before he clicked into his bindings at Kirkwood, but he was immediately hooked. 

As a racer, he’d never had time for true all-mountain skiing. 

“The first time we went to Kirkwood,” Reilly says, “I really took advantage of that. 

We skied the whole mountain, and I fell in love with it.”

Two condos and many commutes later, the Reillys built a house at Kirkwood where they spend their winter weekends.

He loves that they don’t contend with crowds and lift lines, and he definitely doesn’t miss the glitz-factor you find at other ski areas.  

“It’s this untapped, little out-of-the-way area,” Reilly says. 

“People go here to ski. 

It’s a skier’s mountain.”

Even if you’re staying in South Lake Tahoe for a Heavenly vacation, Kirkwood is worth the 45-minute drive, Reilly says. 

It’s a must if you love the tradition and the camaraderie of skiing and snowboarding. 

“You can be a first-time skier and take lessons; there’s plenty of terrain for that ability level,” he says. 

“Or you can take the best all-mountain skiers you can think of, and they would be challenged. 

There are no limits at Kirkwood.”

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