Exploring the Nordic Nirvana of Kirkwood

Heading toward Kirkwood, you reach a land with nary a sign of civilization. It’s the best of the Sierra — snow-capped peaks rising high above wide mountain valleys. The road leads through Hope Valley and over Carson Pass, before skirting the shore of Caples Lake, all places that are certain to elicit a series of oohs and aahs from those lucky enough to gaze upon them. And that is just the drive to get there; it gets even better when you put on your skis.

Greg Von Doersten, Kirkwood Mountain Resort.

I headed to Kirkwood Cross Country early on a late March morning, stoked to ski on a day when the sky was a deep, dark blue and the snow was a blinding white. I made it to the Schneider trailhead, one of three trail systems that make up Kirkwood’s cross-country facilities, at just a bit after 9. I was the first person in the parking lot. My skiing goal for the day was simple: do the long climb, which is what skiing at Schneider is all about, on the firm spring crust, stopping frequently to take pictures while gasping for breath. Then, by the time I was headed back on the descent, the trails would soften up just enough to reach the Goldilocks state — not too firm, but not too soft, not too fast, but not too sticky — just right.

“… you reach a land with nary a sign of civilization. It’s the best of the Sierra — snow-capped peaks rising high above wide mountain valleys.”

From the trailhead, the Juniper Trail starts uphill right away, quickly bringing you to the Outpost Trail, your route for most of the rest of the climb. Taking a gander at the high lava formations and open slopes above you to the north is certainly worthwhile, but once you get above the trees, you can’t resist stopping and looking to the south, to find what is perhaps the most jaw-dropping, spectacular view you will see on a cross-country ski trail around Tahoe. It’s a panoramic view including Elephant’s Back, Round Top, the Kirkwood downhill runs and resort, Carson Pass and Spur and the frozen and snowed-over Caples Lake.

Eventually, you pass a warming hut and ski by the Schneider Cow Camp barn where you meet the Sierra Vista Trail. It’s a lovely loop that leads to Last Round Up, a mostly treeless bowl that feels so remote and pristine that you just want to hang out and take pictures instead of ski.

A little pice of heaven all to yourself. | Tim Hauserman

All told, I skied for about 2 hours on fresh-groomed trails and never saw another person until just before arriving back at the trailhead. These trails bring skiers to a true piece of heaven and were an amazing highlight of my winter. And, yes, the trails did soften up just in time for the rapid descent.

Kirkwood Cross Country Ski Area has about 70 kilometers of trails in three separate trail systems. The main lodge is located on the Tahoe side of the entrance to the Kirkwood Resort. From here you can take The High Trail to the High Trail Extension, which brings you to 360-degree views amongst the ancient junipers. Or take the Caples Trail to the Beaver Pond Trail, which winds along a creek. The Agony and Ecstasy Trails provide a challenging connection between the Lodge Trails and the Schneider Trails. Guess which one goes up and which one goes down?

Beginners or those who want to warm up their skills might enjoy the Dog and Pony and Meadow Trails, which are mostly level loops through the middle of the Kirkwood Valley.

The cross-country ski area has a mellow, laid back atmosphere, next door to the classic rustic Kirkwood Inn, a restaurant and bar that is a favorite hangout for locals and tourists alike.