Choose your Own Adventure at Kirkwood

By: KELLEY FERRO
Host, Filmmaker, Journalist
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While Kirkwood is the smallest of the Tahoe resorts in the Vail Resorts’ family, it packs one of the biggest punches.
 
With elevations from 7,800 to 9,800 feet, a vertical drop of 2000 feet, and 2-mile ridgeline—this is where you come to elevate your heart rate along with your soul. 
 
A majority of the mountain is devoted to advanced and expert trails so skilled skiers and riders can blast off cliff areas, dive into backcountry, snake through trees, and rip down chutes.
 
Adventure is literally at every turn. I think the official hashtag #SteepAndDeep sums it up well quite.
 
However, I personally didn’t do any of that extreme stuff. Does that mean that I didn’t have an adventure-filled, adrenaline-pumping weekend at this alpine oasis?
 
Certainly not!
 
Kirkwood offers way more than just phenomenal expert terrain. I proved that you don’t have to “shoot The Wall” to find adventure at this mountain resort.

 

Adventure in the journey

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The adventure begins with the journey to the mountains. I woke up in Los Angeles’ simmering 75 degrees and just a few hours later, temperatures had dropped as the elevations soared. Our car steadily rose into the Sierra Nevada mountain range, winding past evergreen-studded, stark white landscapes.
 
Frozen lakes, deer tracks, mountain homes—I certainly was not in LA anymore! How could this alpine wonderland be in the same state?
 
Located a little south of Lake Tahoe, Kirkwood is more of a destination and when we got there, I didn’t want to leave. The road into Kirkwood might be the entrance to an enormous snow globe.
 
Houses were nestled in deep blankets of snow, tunnels were made to front doors, and Kirkwood was bathed in the soft quiet that only comes from fresh powder.
 
Locals waved, the lift staff smiled, and the crisp air had a palpable, excited energy. We had all come to this magical mountain village for the same reason: to play in nature’s snowy paradise.
 
Kirkwood gives you the best of winter right at your fingertips or should I say “glovetips”...
 
The Lodge at Kirkwood was also steeped in snow, giant white banks rising on either side of the entrance to the main hotel. I stepped inside and was immediately greeted by an inviting fireplace, warm cookie, and a key to a room with a front row view of the lift. Like everything at Kirkwood, the focus is certainly pointing up.
 
The striking peaks that surround you from almost all angles are breathtaking and offer so much variety. This horseshoe shape surrounds the central village, making you feel like you are hugged by nature’s snowy giants. With the first few snowflakes falling out my window, I fell asleep hoping for fresh snow.
 
My dreams were answered.
 

Downhill adventure

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I’d say I’m a solid intermediate skier. I only get to the mountains maybe twice a season (if I’m lucky). But I am an expert in ski enjoyment.
 
I love skiing because of the quiet beauty of the trails juxtaposed with the cold air whipping my face as I fly down runs, reminding me that I’m alive. I also love the simplicity of a ski day. It is therapeutic in that you only have to focus on one thing: skiing. 
 
Hot chocolate breaks, what trail to take next—these are the big decisions of the day.
 
At Kirkwood, I was wowed by the variety of scenery, from wide-open views of the Sierras to the narrow evergreen trails. I have to admit, I had to frequently stop to take photos! And this variety thoroughly entertained an intermediate like me.
 
I could see new trails at every run or repeat a few that I particularly loved. As you can see from my photos during my first day of skiing at Kirkwood, I had a smile on my face the whole time.

So much snow—what Kirkwood is known for

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The snow, unsurprisingly, did not disappoint. We had a dumping the night before, which is par for the course for Kirkwood, which had 600 inches for the season by the time I had arrived in March.
 
Average annual snowfall is in the 400-inch range, which is still some of the most snowfall in the region.
 
Kirkwood is uniquely positioned between two mountain passes, Carson Pass and The Spur, infamous for trapping in a storm. This location, along with the proximity to the natural canyon that carries storms from the Monterey Bay to the Sierra Nevada Mountains, gives way to some of the most snowfall in the Lake Tahoe Basin.
 
Needless to say, we had our pick of untouched trails. These types of conditions will make everyone feel like they are skiing a step up in their abilities.
 
I surely did!
 
Local figurehead Kevin “Coop” Cooper was my guide, leading me down pristine routes, weaving through tree-lined trails and breathtaking scenery. I’m pretty sure he knew every tree, rock, and turn on the mountain, which is saying a lot as there are 2,300 acres. There are so many ways to tackle the mountain, you truly can make it your own.
 
We had a blast playing in the powder off the Solitude chair and in Timber Creek. There were few crowds, making lift lines almost non-existent and trails wide open. Whatever you are craving that day is up for grabs and you can have it basically all to yourself.
 

Extreme downhill adventures

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While I enjoyed the heaps of powder, sweeping views, and long groomed trails, there are more challenging aspects, if you are ready for it. Kirkwood is the mountain of legends, known for its expert terrain, including some of the steepest terrain in the country.
 
For the glory, head to The Wall.
 
I’d seen photos of this fabled run—20-foot cliffs, super steep chutes, and gullies—all in one run. The Wall is not for the faint of heart.
 
For me, the skull and crossbones sign would make me think twice, but for others, it only increases the stoke levels of this double black diamond run.
 
The Wall is also visible from the village so be ready to put on a show. I’ve heard that conquering The Wall is a bucket list accomplishment for the serious skier and it is well deserved.
 
Though The Wall has actually been rated by CNN as one of the best ski runs in the country, there are more than enough other challenging drops and technical runs all over Kirkwood. Moguls, trees, rock features, wide open faces—choose your own adventure on Kirkwood!
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After a morning of maneuvering through some serious powder, we took a break for lunch at the ski-in, ski-out The Wall Bar.
 
A healthy kale and quinoa salad was placed down before me—Kirkwood really does have anything you crave, even if it wasn’t typical ski food. The atmosphere of the lodge was buzzing with excited locals and tourists alike; spirits are as high as elevations here.
 
I can see how Kirkwood hooks you.
 
It makes you feel like you are at your own private ski heaven, where you can find anything you want, without any hassle.
 
Though my time at Kirkwood was winding down, I realized that there were still so many more adventures to be had! Coop regaled me with all the other active things to do and see, both on the mountain and off.
 
Below I highlight some adventures that give me many good reasons to return.

Cross-country adventures & Snowshoe adventures

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Strap on cross-country skis to explore Kirkwood’s nature from a new perspective. You can choose from 80 kilometers of groomed trails and make sure it is a clear day for some killer mountain views.
 
With three interconnected trail systems, you can find the right route for your endurance level.
 
Be prepared: Some of these trails are challenging!
 
Also note that certain trails allow dogs so bring your furball with you for a day of outdoor adventure.
 
Throughout the season during the full moon, guided snowshoe treks are offered, allowing adventurers to experience Kirkwood’s trails by night. Enjoy the peaceful moonlight glinting off the snow as you explore through the trees, sipping hot chocolate along the way.

Historic adventures

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Though a modern ski area, Kirkwood has a surprisingly longstanding history. As the home of the Washoe tribes and a trade route for trappers, gold seekers, and explorers, this popular route gave way to the Kirkwood Inn & Saloon built in 1864 by Zachary Kirkwood.
 
True to its rustic heritage, this log cabin landmark still operates today, serving lunch and dinner to hungry folks who pass on Highway 88.
 
Local legends say that the saloon operated a bar on wheels, moving across county lines to get past Prohibition laws. A more recent legend raves about their burgers, fish tacos, and “Zak fries”.
 
No matter what adventure you choose, Kirkwood’s biggest achievement is letting its natural landscape and great outdoors take center stage. I can see why locals want to keep the mountain a secret and why those who try out Kirkwood get addicted, coming back year after year.
 
I know I’ll be back, and next time, I plan to take on Kirkwood from a little higher.

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