I was a little concerned that my wife, who is a beginner, and son, who is good but not very confident in his skills on more advanced runs, would be able to enjoy a resort that is known for its steep, challenging terrain. What I found was a mountain that literally had runs for every skill level. Kirkwood is made up of essentially two main areas and a ďbacksideĒ of the mountain.
The Timber Creek area is where the ski school is and consists of basically shorter green and blue runs. The blues, off Chair 7, are actually very low intermediate and great for those just learning. While theyíre not very long theyíre definitely much better than a lot of the beginner type areas you find in other resorts. They also have some fun natural gullies in this area that my younger son just loved. They have a beginner park in this area that had some fun jumps and boxes to progress on. Some of the best and most challenging terrain is just above the Timber Creek area in the Sentinel and Palisades Bowles; however, for some reason they donít have a lift to access it. You actually have to take Chair 6 and traverse over in order to take advantage of this area. While Iím sure the locals, especially skiers, love this aspect it made it difficult to get to and unfortunately something I didnít have time to try out due to having to spend most of my time with my oldest son and/or wife. My assumption is with Vail taking over they will have a chair to access this terrain sooner than later. A friend of mine, that joined us on the trip, made it over there for a single run and said it was some of the best terrain he had seen. Once youíre ready to head over to the main lodge itís an easy ride over from Chair 7. Getting back from the main lodge is somewhat of a pain and requires you to maintain speed on Home Run off Chair 5.
Mountain Village is essentially the main area of the mountain and is where a majority of your time will be spent. From here you can access everything from intermediate to double black diamond runs. I spent a lot of time with my wife and son on Chair 5. It goes up to about mid mountain and consists of some nice intermediate groomed runs and some bigger park features. Off to Skiers left of Chair 5, next to Lower Zachary, is a nice gully run. You can also access The Drain from 5 but you have to traverse over quite a bit. It was worth it as no one is over there and it has some of the taller/steeper walls that I found. Chair 11 was our next stop. 11 also goes up mid mountain but consists of mostly easier advanced runs and one of my favorite runs, Snowsnake Gully. Snowsnake is really fun and, in my mind, what snowboarding is all about. Basically just a long banked gully/run that you can surf/carve the entire way. Once youíre ready for some of the steeper terrain you can hit chairs 6 and 10. Chair 10 leads to the infamous, double black, Wall run. In all honesty, there is no way this run is a double black and itís not even the steepest terrain of the two lifts. Chair 6, in my mind was more advanced because of the length of the steeper runs. The wall is basically a 10 foot icy steep section that once youíre past it you can pretty much bomb down the run to a very flat section below. Donít get me wrong, it was fun and I think if you traverse over to the Wagon Wheel Bowl itís probably worthy of its double black designation. Anyway, I took my son down the Wall, he hated it and I never made it back up 10 for the rest of the trip. We made him do it because he bought a sweatshirt with the expertís only skull and crossbones on the back so we felt it was only fair he had to earn it. We did Chair 6 a couple times and as I mentioned runs such as Olympic or Look Out Janek were what I considered to be much steeper and much more challenging mostly due to the sheer length of the runs compared to the wall. There is very little difference in pitch from top to bottom so you really couldnít just bomb down these runs compared to 10. As mentioned before 6 is really a gateway to a lot of different challenging terrain; unfortunately, I wasnít able to take much advantage of itÖI did however get stuck on the lift for over 30 minutes in some pretty fierce wind, more on that later.
The backside of Kirkwood is both really fun and really irritating. To get to the backside you have to take a couple lifts, Chair 1 which is basically all flat beginner runs and should be avoided, and Chair 2 that has some fun wide open intermediate runs that you can do a couple laps on before you get bored. Chair 2 was my wifeís favorite area but again, sheís pretty new to snowboarding and likes the somewhat short mellow runs there. I liked it as well because you could hit Juniper and do some easy tree runs. From the top of 2 you can ski down towards Chair 4 and the backside of Kirkwood. The ride down to 4 is pretty simple but can be a nightmare for less experienced riders as evidenced by my wife. She wanted to kill me after that. Honestly, Iíll get into it later but unless youíre a pretty decent boarder/skier just stay away from the backside for the mere fact that the last portion of runs back to 4 are pretty flat and you have to maintain speed. For most itís really simple but I saw a lot of skating in those areas. I had a love/hate relationship with Chair 4. The lift itself is pretty long and ridiculously slow. Once you got to the top you fell back in love. 4 offers some really fun intermediate to advanced terrain and is wide open so you can go just about anywhere. The top, especially when hitting the groomed intermediate runs or heading toward the wave is a sheet of ice so be careful. I typically headed skiers left down Hully Gully and then cut across towards Cold Shoulder or Larrys Lip. From there you could find some untracked snow towards chair 4 albeit it not for very long. You could also take a T bar towards Covered Wagon and Fawn Ridge for some really fun glades. Like I said, 4 is a blast but that slow lift and flat section, especially when youíre with a less experienced rider, can be taxing. When heading back to the main lodge, make sure you head skiers right from the top of 2 towards Whiskey Slide. The run isnít much to talk about but if you head straight down 2 youíre likely to get caught in some very flat areas. Whiskey slide isnít much better but you can take the ďadvancedĒ portion of the run at the end which is short but kind of fun especially if you traverse to the right and get lucky with some untracked snow.
As you can see my experience at Kirkwood was more about hanging with family and having fun then it was about hitting the most challenging terrain and exploring the mountain. Iím sure some of the locals or people familiar with Kirkwood are thinking I didnít even hit a quarter of what Kirkwood has to offerÖI know, trust meÖI know. This trip wasnít about that but I canít wait until I can get back and experience those things. With that said, I had a blast. Kirkwood is one of the most fun trips I have had snowboarding and I go to Whistler and Mammoth pretty regularly. The terrain, even the marked trails off the easier lifts is just so suited to what I think snowboarding is all about. The gullies are something I really havenít found at other resorts and were so fun considering my surfing background. Kirkwood is all about natural terrain so the parks were just okay, which was fine with me as I donít waste much time in there unless Iím at the local resorts that donít have much more to offer.
We got pretty lucky. After what seemed like weeks of no snow and well above temperatures, we arrived to around a foot of new snow and it snowed a few inches here and there the entire time. Kirkwood also had a nice deep base from some good December and early January storms so coverage was really good all around. As with any resort, if youíre not up bright and early youíre not getting untracked snow so I wasnít expecting much. You could find some stashes here and there but Iíve heard people flock to Kirkwood after decent storms and this appeared to be the case.
Iím only adding this because we had an unfortunate experience with one of the lifts, Chair 6, breaking down and leaving us stranded for over 30 minutes very close to the top and pretty windy conditions. Letís just say it wasnít a lot of fun being in that situation with my son. Long story short they had a mechanical issue and ended up shutting the lift down for about an hour after they finally got us off. When we finally got off the lift an employee wrote something on our pass and told us to go to the ticket office. The resort offered us a free voucher for our troubles. I was honestly surprised, itís one of those things you think they should do but never actually offer. Looking back it wasnít that big of a deal and didnít really impact the day so getting a free lift ticket was way above and beyond what I would have expected. I actually turned down the voucher as I had no use for itÖjust offering it was enough to tell me they cared about their customers.
My family and I loved it. Definitely consider Kirkwood for a nice family vacation or a trip to challenge yourself with some good friends. The mountain offers something for everyone and the people there are great. I canít wait to go back.