The 10 Steepest Ski Runs in California

Heavenly’s Killebrew Canyon features one of the more challenging runs in California.
Heavenly’s Killebrew Canyon features one of the more challenging runs in California. Ryan Grimm
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There is one reason why snow warriors flock to Tahoe year after year, and that’s the terrain—there’s nowhere else in the lower 48 that has as many steep routes to choose from. Another unique feature of Tahoe is the pretty heavy snow that falls here thanks to the fact that Sierra is in the maritime snow zone and the moisture content is relatively high when the area isn’t facing drought conditions like it has in recent years. This heavy snow sticks to the steep chutes and cliffs, giving this area skiable terrain that you just don’t come by in most of the rest of the country. Wide skis were pioneered by Tahoe legend Shane McConkey, and you are definitely going to want to pull out the 100 mm+ skis for most conditions here.

The chutes and steep runs in this Northern California ski mecca are like nowhere else in the country. Here are 10 of the steepest, scariest, and gnarliest rides in the Lake Tahoe area.

1. The Wall, Kirkwood

If the double black diamonds and skull and crossbones signs along the Wall don’t deter you, watching Kirkwood locals dropping 20 foot cliffs and skiing chutes in this world-renowned spot is either going to make you vomit or get really stoked. The Wall is the iconic ridgeline that Kirkwood is known for.

Kirkwood is a little bit farther away from Lake Tahoe than the majority of resorts in this region, but it stands at about 1,000 feet higher than any other Tahoe ski resort. It’s also located at the end of a box canyon, making ideally situated to accumulate more snow than any of the other resorts nearby. Despite being so close to Tahoe at Kirkwood you’ll often feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere.

Hailed as one of Mother Nature’s greatest terrain parks, The Wall features steep chutes, huge cliffs, and fun gullies, all in one run.

2. Killebrew Canyon, Heavenly

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Even locals sometimes overlook the steeper, more remote edges of this resort, which has a reputation as a great place for beginners, not those looking to crush double black diamonds. Luckily for those of us who are in the know, Killebrew Canyon features gnarly cliffs and 45 degree chutes. It requires a bit of an eastern traverse over from the top of Dipper Express lift, ensuring that all except for experts seeking the steepest runs the Heavenly has to offer usually steer clear.

3. Quail Face, Homewood

Known for its epic powder and tree skiing when many other resorts in Tahoe are tracked out, Homewood also boasts an incredible steep section with great cliff-dropping opportunities. The 900 feet of descent on Quail Face is one of the beefiest runs in Tahoe and features several steep drop offs. You’ll have to hike a bit to get to this one, but if you are addicted to the insane terrain Tahoe is known for, this experts only run is going to be well worth it.

4. McConkeys/Eagles Nest, Squaw Valley

One important word of warning about Squaw Valley is that this iconic Olympic ski destination doesn’t use the double black diamond to designate their runs. Instead, look for little lollipop shaped signs that say things like “Expert Only,” “Caution,” or “Cliffs.”

McConkeys is accessed off the KT-22 chair lift and rated at a 68-degree pitch in its steepest section. Originally referred to as Eagle’s Nest, it was renamed for the late Shane McConkey, who was one of the most influential skiers to come through Squaw Valley.

5. Chute 75, Squaw Valley, California

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Stand at the top of the cornice entrance to Chute 75, also accessed via KT-22 at Squaw, and you’ll feel your heartbeat accelerate, your palms go clammy, and your breakfast flip flopping around in your stomach. And that’s just from looking at. The top of the chute drops in at about 45 degrees and edges closer to 50 degrees if you head closer to skiers’ left. Instead of gently running out to something manageable, however, you have to navigate a narrow choke about halfway down the run.

6. Keyhole, Alpine Meadows

Standing at the top of this sharp, 55 degree drop is pretty exhilarating. The snow here is usually amazing even when the rest of the resort isn’t ideal. It’s usually soft and chalky since it’s located in a colder, drier, north facing part of the resort. This run requires a short traverse and hike from Summit Chair or from Alpine Bowl Chair to the Upper Saddle area. There are a few rocks and other obstacles on this run that will keep you on your toes, but the expert terrain and opportunity for cliff dropping at Alpine Meadows will be worth it for serious skiers and riders who don’t mind a little boot packing.

7. Captivator, Mount Rose

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When Mount Rose opened the previously closed Chutes to the public a few years back, adrenaline junkies rejoiced. With a vertical drop of 1,500 feet on the northeast side of Lake Tahoe, the snow here is some of the best in the area. This super steep bowl features 17 designated runs and nine of these are double black diamonds, but the line that reigns supreme over them all is Captivator. Not only one of the steepest runs to choose from, it’s also the longest. To access it, take the El Cap gate and at the top, angle right into the only entrance. The level, right run is rated more than 45 degrees.

8. The Plunge, Northstar

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Popular among skiers and riders who love the trees, Northstar has a lot to offer for those who know where to look. If you are on the search for steep runs at Northstar, head away from the intermediate skiing mecca that is Mid Mountain and access Sawtooth Ridge, where you’ll find several long, fun runs. The Plunge is the steepest.

9. The Palisades, Sugar Bowl

Sugar Bowl generally gets the most snow among the resorts scattered around the North Tahoe/Truckee area. It averages about 500 inches of annual snowfall, making it one of the best places in California for fresh tracks. The snow blows right into the Palisades, cushioning these severely steep chutes.

10. Oops & Poops, Kirkwood

Another spot not to miss at Kirkwood is a powder chute called Chamonix. From Chair 6, hit the rocky, 40-degree drop on skier’s left. You’ll then make a hard right through a keyhole into Oops & Poops, a steep, 10-foot-wide, and often overlooked corridor.

Originally written for Vail Resorts.

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