A note from Mommy Frog: We have hoppin’ news! The ski resorts have reopened for the 2020-2021 ski season. Get the scoop on Epic Pass, and hop over to our post on what to expect during the Vail Resorts reopening for the latest news and information, including the new online ski reservation system to limit capacity on the mountain. Be sure to purchase lift tickets, make ski reservations and sign up for lessons in advance because everything needs to be purchased or reserved online.
Kirkwood is considered one of the South Lake Tahoe ski resorts, but it’s in a world of its own. Nestled among gorgeous mountains, Kirkwood ski resort is about 55 minutes away from Heavenly and two hours from Northstar (depending on weather and road conditions). It’s a great mountain that offers something for every level of skier and snowboarder, but it’s a little more rustic and away from the hustle and bustle of the other Lake Tahoe Family Ski Resorts. It gets bragging rights for having the most snowfall in California and low crowds. If you are looking to get away from it all, want potential for powder and aren’t needing frills, then Kirkwood is your mountain. Hop along with us to get all of the ribbeting details on this amazing ski mountain.
The Frog Family’s Guide to Kirkwood Ski Resort
Kirkwood Ski Resort Lift Tickets
Kirkwood is part of the Vail ski resorts. Of the three Vail Lake Tahoe locations (Northstar ski resort and Heavenly ski resort being the other two), Kirkwood is the least expensive of the three when it comes to lift tickets, lessons and more. Lift ticket prices vary based on the day, with holidays and peak times costing more than less-busy times. You can save money and time by purchasing an Epic Pass that includes Kirkwood and other ski resorts.
The best deal is to purchase an Epic Pass in the spring, summer and fall before the ski season begins. If you know when you want to ski, you can choose a restricted or nonrestricted Epic Passes. If you have more flexibility, the less-expensive restricted pass has some blackout dates. The restricted dates for the 2019-2020 season are:
- Nov. 29-30, 2019
- Dec. 26-31, 2019
- Jan. 18, 2020
- Feb. 15-26, 2020
The great thing about Epic Passes is that they can also be used at Northstar and Heavenly, or even several great Colorado and Utah family ski resorts, among others. You can split your days of the Epic Pass across multiple ski trips, so if you plan to ski a few times during the season, it’s definitely worth getting an Epic Pass.
If you did not buy an Epic Pass before the ski season started, the next best way to save is to purchase multi-day lift tickets more than 7 days in advance, which will save you a lot of money over buying single-day tickets at the window. If you miss that window, then purchase them online at least 3 days in advance. The most expensive way to purchase lift tickets at Kirkwood (or any ski resort) is to purchase a single day lift ticket at the window.
If you purchase a 3+ day Kirkwood lift ticket, it is valid only at Kirkwood ski resort. If you are resort hopping, a 3+ day lift ticket purchased through Northstar or Heavenly can be used at Kirkwood, but be sure to compare prices to make sure that is the best deal since Kirkwood is the less-expensive resort. If you have a ski lesson, you can usually add a lift ticket to the lesson package at a fraction of the lift ticket cost.
Hold on to any Epic Day lift tickets when you are done skiing. These lift tickets are plastic cards you keep in a pocket. Year after year, if you purchase online from any Vail-owned ski resort, you can add the lift tickets to your card by typing in your ticket number off of the card, allowing you to head directly to the lifts when you arrive without having to wait in lines to pick up the tickets! If you follow our theme park blog, you know we love skipping lines! Lift attendants have scanners that can read the cards through your pockets so you can keep it safely put away in a pocket that doesn’t hold your cellphone or credit cards. We love this green, zero-waste movement!
Kirkwood Ski Rentals
You’ll want to reserve your rentals in advance to save money, as well (are you sensing a theme here?). You can get discount ski and snowboard rentals and demos at Kirkwood through Undercover Tourist. Kirkwood pick-up locations are at the Mountain Club slope side in the Village, or at Timber Creek Lodge near beginner terrain. If you or your tadpoles are taking lessons, you can bundle the rentals with some lessons.
Kirkwood Ski Lessons
Kirkwood ski resort offers a variety of ski lessons. You’ll want to book in advance, especially if you’ll be skiing at peak and holiday times and arrive two hours early during weekends and holiday times. Beginner lessons usually meet at Timber Creek Lodge, which is the beginner area of the mountain. Early and late season lessons may meet out of Expedition: Kirkwood across from the Main Lodge.
There’s a lot to consider when deciding what kind of snowboard or ski lessons you or your tadpoles need. There are half-day and full-day group or private lessons. If someone in your group has physical or cognitive disabilities, definitely look into adaptive lessons by calling 1-800-967-7500. If you are new to skiing, take advantage of first-timer lessons. With lesson prices and lift tickets, the price is worth the value you get from learning to ski or ride properly.
Kirkwood also offers intermediate lessons, and even a variety of lessons for more advanced and expert skiers such as backcountry lessons, masters ski and snowboard programs and specialized lessons including learning to ski the steeps or even avalanche training. Do not be intimidated by Kirkwood if you are a beginner, because the more challenging terrain is nowhere near the beginner lifts. Kirkwood does offer some unique terrain for advanced skiers and provides some training to boost confidence for those areas.
Kirkwood and South Lake Tahoe Lodging Options
Where should you stay when skiing Kirkwood? Kirkwood is in a secluded location, so if you want to ski a few days at Kirkwood, you should definitely consider staying on the property. The roads to Kirkwood wind through mountains, and Kirkwood is about an hour away from South Lake Tahoe so you wouldn’t want to go back and forth multiple times, especially in bad weather. Taking a day trip from South Lake Tahoe to Kirkwood is definitely doable, but if you want to ski Kirkwood more than that, try to get lodging on-site.
Kirkwood is a quieter place than South Lake Tahoe and is almost the opposite of Heavenly, which has a gondola in town with a busy village and nearby casinos. Kirkwood is for skiing and snowboarding and getting away from it all. It all depends on what you are looking for from your ski vacation. Kirkwood Mountain Resort offers a variety of lodging choices for small to large parties. Did you know you can save on a discount hotel stay at the Kirkwood ski resort through Undercover Tourist? You can get ski-in, ski out accommodations or get a place that has a short drive. Definitely stock up on groceries and supplies before you make the drive to Kirkwood, because besides a General Store and some restaurants, there is nothing else even remotely close by.
Staying in South Lake Tahoe
If you will be skiing Heavenly and making a day trip to Kirkwood, you can find many lodging choices. South Lake Tahoe has more nightlife and family activities if you want more winter fun off of the mountain. You’ll find a range of lodging options, depending on your needs. There are motels and hotels, casino hotels (on the Nevada side), condos and house rentals. If you choose lodging near the Heavenly village, you'll be close to family entertainment, bars and restaurants.
If you are skiing Heavenly, the gondola takes you from the village up to the ski resort and Adventure Peak, where you can go tubing. The gondola is also a lesson meeting and pick-up location. You can save money by getting lodging a little further from the village and ski hill, and maybe even gain some larger accommodations with a kitchen and perhaps a free shuttle service. Lake locations have great views.
There are two major Heavenly properties — Zalanta and Lakeland Village by Heavenly. Both offer heated outdoor pools and hot tubs. Zalanta (as low as $586 a night) offers luxury condos (two to four bedrooms) with fully-stocked kitchens directly across the street from the Heavenly village gondola. Zalanta is a great location for an extended family trip or to share with another family. It is conveniently close to entertainment, shopping, skiing and casinos. Be sure to ask about GMC courtesy vehicle ride service, which can come in handy for the trek out to Kirkland.
Lakeland Village (as low as $161a night) is further (and we’re talking just a few minutes) from Heavenly mountain bases, but also has spacious rooms and condos from studios up to five bedrooms plus a loft. It is located right on the lake, so if you can get a lakefront location, definitely spring for it. Some of the smaller rooms in the lodge are closer to the road and have some traffic noise, so opt for an interior location or lake view for a more peaceful environment. It is a more affordable, family-friendly choice, but some units are on the older side. Lakeland Village is a convenient distance to drug stores and grocery stores so you can easily get food to cook meals in your full kitchen, which will help you save a lot of money. It has a private beach and dock, perfect for taking in the breathtaking views. There is a hot tub near the lake that gets even more awesome views come sunset. You can take the free shuttle to the ski resort (California Lodge or gondola) or any destination in town, but sometimes you have to wait a bit.
In terms of hotels, the Lake Tahoe Resort Hotel (as low as $141 a night) is near the gondola and village and offers free breakfast, microwaves, fridges and sinks. They have an indoor pool and hot tub. If you book early, you might be able to book the two-bedroom, two-bathroom suite. The casino locations have a more adult feel to them. The Montbleu (as low as $400 a night) has a casino and is located at the state line a few blocks from the Heavenly Gondola. It has on-site dining, an indoor pool and lake views from some rooms. The Hard Rock Hotel & Casino (as low as $65 a night) is a few blocks from the village and allows you to easily get some gambling in at night.
There many other hotel options in the area, as well. For instance, Marriott’s Timber Ridge has many activities for the little ones on-site and is next to the gondola. Same with the Grand Residences by Marriott. Keep in mind that if you stay at the Heavenly Village, you may hear noise from bars or traffic. If you choose to stay in South Lake Tahoe, you could also take a day trip to Northstar (as low as $177 a night), which is North Lake Tahoe, about an hour in the other direction.
Wherever you decide to stay, be sure to book early to get the best units and the best prices. Undercover Tourist can help you save on your family ski trip by helping you book ski hotels near Kirkwood, Heavenly and South Lake Tahoe. At the time of booking you can add equipment rentals or a rental car to get a jump on even more savings!
Kirkwood Ski Resort Arrival Tips
Will you be driving from home, taking a shuttle or flying to a nearby airport? You can fly into Reno-Tahoe International Airport or Sacramento. Reno-Tahoe now connects to Kirkwood via Highway 580 (about 80 miles). Sacramento may have more direct flights and is 112 to 120 miles from Kirkwood. Be sure to get a jump on a discount car rental — choose a 4WD vehicle for these mountain roads! If you arrive in the morning, don't froget to bring your boarding pass and ID to the ticket window. You'll get a FREE half-day lift ticket valid from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m. the same day you arrive. When traveling from the Bay Area, there are luxury busses to Kirkwood through Bay Area Ski Bus or North American Charter Ski.
If you are driving to Kirkwood, parking is free. But following a storm, parking can fill up quickly on powder days. Kirkwood is a local favorite and parking is limited. Powder hounds love that Kirkwood gets the deepest snow in Tahoe! You’ll want to arrive early during holidays and fresh snow conditions. That means you’ll probably have to plan extra driving time as well due to traffic and road conditions. If you know where your lesson meet-up is, you can aim to park close to the drop-off or meeting location.
Dining at Kirkwood Ski Resort
What we love about Kirkwood is that you can have a relaxing table-service lunch slope side at The Wall Bar & Grill for less money than a cafeteria-style meal at other ski resorts (although we’ve heard even these current prices are higher than they used to be). If you do visit a cafeteria-style ski lodge restaurant such as Monte Wolfe’s, be sure to use the free filtered water to stay hydrated and save some green.
We recommend stocking up on supplies before arriving at Kirkwood, and if you have a kitchen, you can make your own breakfast to save money and time. If you have ski-in, ski-out accommodations, you can even go home for lunch if you'd like. The General Store in Red Cliffs Lodge has a full-service deli, made-to-order sandwiches, breakfast options, salads, pastas and groceries if you need anything. If you make it to the back of the mountain, the Sunrise Grill has an outdoor BBQ and Adirondack chairs for kicking back in the sunshine. In the village, you can have your drink après ski with views of the mountain at the clear-sided K-Bar.
Kirkwood Ski Resort Terrain
We were very pleasantly surprised by the awesome terrain and snow quality of the 2,300 skiable acres of Kirkwood. And with snowfall that sometimes exceeds 600 inches per year, there is plenty of snow at Kirkwood! They measure their snowfall in feet due to the “K-Factor.” As storms roll in from the north and south, they pick up precipitation on the West Coast and funnel it through a tight canyon, up the foothills and dump on the perfectly-positioned Kirkwood. The top elevation is 9,805 feet. With 14 lifts and over 72 trails, it’s a little bit of a throwback to simpler times. Yes, there are some aging, slower lifts and it's without the bling of Heavenly and Northstar. But don’t let that deter you. This is a fun mountain with something for everybody.
Beginner runs make up 20 percent of the terrain, with 30 percent intermediate terrain, 38 percent advanced terrain and 20 percent expert terrain. The expert terrain and lifts are well-marked (and often an effort to get to), so beginners don’t accidentally find themselves where they should not be.
There are some nice bunny slopes and gentle runs to graduate to that don’t put beginners in with faster skiers. The beginner area is based out of Timber Creek with the Children’s Center and the Ski & Ride School. Home Run is the path to take to get from the middle of the mountain back to Timber Creek. For beginners, Chair 1 on the other side of the village also has some very nice green circle runs.
There is plenty of intermediate (blue square) terrain sprinkled throughout the ski resort. Some helpful locals pointed us to some great runs on the backside, and we are so glad they did. We especially loved taking Chair 1 to Chair 2. Then that allowed us to access the backside to Chairs 3 and 4. The incredible views of the surrounding snow-capped mountains and wide open trails are perfect for intermediate skiers. We were blown away by the beauty of this ski resort. It does not have the blue Lake Tahoe views of Heavenly. However, the views from Kirkwood are just as fantastic in a dramatically different way.
The very steep runs at the top have excellent snow. I had a lot of fun up there in black diamond country. From Cornice Express, you have to traverse across the top to access more runs like Sentinel and the Sentinel Bowl. But it’s worth the trek. Keep an eye out for the trails to cut right to get back to Cornice Express lift. Basically, so you can ride back up and do it again!
In terms of terrain parks, Kirkwood has two. Bandit Park under Chair 7 in the beginner area has beginner level jumps, boxes and rails. Outlaw Park off of Solitude, Chair 5 has medium, intermediate level jumps, boxes, and rails.
The ideal situation is to arrive at Kirkwood before a storm. Then, stick around for the fresh powder and leave (undoubtedly exhausted) under sunny skies and safe roads. If you can tell us how to time that perfectly, we are all ears!
What Not to Miss at Kirkwood Ski Resort
Kirkwood is a skier and snowboarder’s mountain without a lot of other activities compared to other Lake Tahoe Ski Resorts. Skiing and snowboarding are the main attractions. You can, however, rent cross-country skis or a pair of snowshoes to take out for a loop around Kirkwood Meadow. There are two trailhead facilities with parking and three interconnected trail systems. You can take lessons, join tours or attend events such as a Moonlight or Sunset Snowshoe Trek. The kid-friendly “Kiddy Kilometer” loop has life-size animal cutouts and flip-up signs to engage the tadpoles. Plus, completing your journey gives you an excuse to sip on hot chocolate in the day lodge.
February is family month at Kirkwood. You'll find family lodging deals, plus games and toys in the Adventure Family Center in Red Cliffs Lodge. If the roads are clear, take a short drive to one of the area Sno-Parks to play in the snow. You’ll need a $5 pass to park, which you can purchase online or at certain locations. Be sure to check out the Kirkwood events page before your visit, and perhaps at your place of lodging. You can learn about live music and other entertainment at Kirkwood so you don’t miss out on any fun. If you are there for the annual Banked Slalom in February (it was on Feb. 23 in 2019), you’ll be treated to a torchlight parade and fireworks. There is a beautiful torchlight parade each year on Dec. 31.
- Grab a trail map.
- Stop by the Guest Information booth in the village to find out the freshly-groomed runs and maybe even get a free snack bar.
- If the groomed runs are icy in the morning, give the sun a chance to soften them a bit.
- Arrive early.
- Stay at Kirkwood.
- Bring snacks or meals on the mountain with you to save money and time.
- Try snowshoeing or cross-country skiing.
- Take a camera for phenomenal views from ski runs and the tops of ski lifts.
- There is an electric car charging station in the village parking lot.
- Text “Hi” to Emma, a Chatbot Epic Mountain Assistant, at 77477 to ask questions about Kirkwood.
- Find free feminine products in the restrooms because sometimes emergencies happen at altitude — Kirkwood has you covered.
- Apply and reapply the sunscreen!
We hope you’ve found our insider’s guide to Kirkwood ski resort hopful. You can probably see why it ranks among the best Tahoe ski resorts. When you arrive at Kirkwood with an idea of where to go and what to expect, you can hop right to it and start having fun. Ideally you'll have a little extra green in your pocket from saving money on lodging, lift tickets, rentals and other travel expenses. I don’t know about you, but I am hoppin’ to go back to Kirkwood!