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Review: Kirkwood

2008-03-12 4 min read Snow Updates marco

{moszoomimglink:Cornice}Of all the resorts in the Tahoe area, Kirkwood has been consistently cited by friends as the one with the best snow. It is indeed in an odd location, about 40 minutes South of South Lake Tahoe, all by itself. The slopes face the East, which means they are shielded from the fierce West winds that bring all the powder with the winter storms.

I had not gone in the four years I had been snowboarding: I had always relied on season passes, and it seemed foolish to pay extra tickets and then go to a place so far off. Indeed, those that love Kirkwood all say that it doesn’t have anything going on outside the slopes, unlike SLT, where you don’t get bored no matter what time of the year.

I went on this last trip, in early March 2008. Snow conditions were ok in the area, 2 week old snow packed to ice and only the groomers usable. Heavenly had become boring, a series of dull chases down the mountain, the kind of stuff that makes you acutely aware of the length of the lift ride because the run down takes at most 2 minutes.

The drive from SLT was pleasant in perfect road conditions. Highways 89 and 88 are two lane roads that could easily get treacherous in snowy conditions, but that day we barely noticed we were driving. There you are, passing a little reservoir, and the road leads into a valley. Turn left and you are at Kirkwood.

Things are relaxed. There is a first stop, where you can get onto the lifts before the town center, and then the real village. We parked in the $20 day parking, since we had the money and not the time to walk our stuff. Things were easy, since the village is quite well organized. Tickets, restrooms, gloves for the one in the party that had lost them: all found in no time. Map in hand we marched to the first lift, and there we had the first surprise.

There is only one express lift in all of Kirkwood.



That stank. The express lift, Cornice, is nice, but there is so much terrain to explore, it’s a real shame they haven’t invested in the mountain.

As things are, the regular speed lifts were ok. We never had a line, and that made up for the slowness of the ride.

One of the amusing things about Kirkwood is that lifts are typically referred to by number, not name. We didn’t go on Snowkirk to Caples Crest to go down Iron Horse to reach Sunrise. Instead, we took lift 1 and 2, then down the 3 lift line to get to 4. Admittedly, once you know the system, it’s much more rational than the silly lift names they invent, anyway.

4 is the main lift on the back side, which is enormous fun. On powder days, a huge bowl is open all the way for anyone to fly down. On our day, it was a series of fun runs, going down groomers and gullys. Hully Gully, in particular, was a wonderful run on a bad snow day like this: two sets of funnels one after the other shoot you down the mountain in a challenging environment.

The bottom of 4 sports a tiny restaurant cum grill. We stayed all morning, had (terrible) lunch there, and then decided to head out the other way to the main mountain. Headed up lift 3 and down the lines of 2 and 1.

At first we tried the Wall side, which is the one adjacent to the Back. We used lift 11 (“The Reut”), which was supposed to give us a few black runs. The runs were not black at all, more blue blues. But to make up for it, we saw a wonderful feature: The Drain. Another one of those gullies, it was like a naturally formed half-pipe. What fun!

We moved over to Cornice (lift 6) and spent some time in the really black runs down there. The mountain is obviously more eroded than the other peaks in the area, and in general the runs at Kirkwood start steep and gradually get flatter. At the top of each of the Cornice runs, you better be scared! But if you can make the first third, it’s easy sailing from there on. And to make up for the adrenaline rush, there is another fun gully towards the second half of the lift line.

We briefly tried Timber Creek, but the terrain was too easy and the lift too crowded. I found out that Kirkwood opened a cross area at lift 7, too late to go, though.

All in all, I am afraid Kirkwood is now my favorite ski area in Tahoe. Beats Heavenly, whose acreage cannot belie its easy terrain; beats Squaw, with its absolute focus on skiers; and does the rest really exist?