Kirkwood History

Kirkwood’s Beginnings…

In the late 1960s, Bud Klein, financier and ski enthusiast, arrived in the Kirkwood Valley and spent several years surveying the land he hoped would become the ski area now nestled in National Forest and Wilderness.  After careful planning with any of the areas overseeing agencies, permission was granted to proceed with the development of what is now known as Kirkwood Mountain Resort. While many plans took longer than initially predicted, or were modified over the years, the vision originally articulated by Bud Klein remains true and is still the driving force in the valley today.

Kirkwood History

Kirkwood’s mountains, valleys, lakes and rivers hold a special place in the history of our country, having afforded many solace, shelter and opportunity through its abundant natural resources and unique location in the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

Some of the earliest travelers to the Kirkwood area were the Washoe, a tribe whose history spans nearly 9,000 years in the area.  The Washoe people lived a seasonal and nomadic life.  In the spring and summer months here the Washoe would hunt, fish, and collect medicinal plants, roots, and berries for the winter season.  There are several places along the ridge tops where evidence of Kirkwood’s early past can be found in lithic scatter areas.  These are areas where cultural remains such as crude stone tools, spear heads and arrow head points can be found.

Like the Washoe before them, explorers, trappers, and the early gold-seeking emigrants of the 1800s would find the barren mountaintops and ridges as the easiest of passable routs through the mountains during the snow months.  These high altitude routes were favored for travel because their exposure to the wind would scour away the deep, impassable snow pack.

One of the earliest documentations of travel nit his area by European descendents can be found in the memoirs of Jedediah Strong Smith who is believed to have passed through this area as early as 1826.  Kit Carson also explored near here on his many trapping and scouting trips as early as 1838.

Captain John C. Fremont led his exploration party, which included Kit Carson as a scout, through the Sierra in January and February of 1844 in search of a passable route to Sutter’s Fort in the California gold country. Following n old Native American trade trail, Fremont’s party including 67 horses and mules first sighted Lake Tahoe on February 14, 1844 from the top of what is believed to be the nearby 10,067 foot Red Lake Peak.

Word of Fremont’s successful passage through the Sierra spread, and by the summer of 1848, a battalion of Mormon soldiers attempted the same route in reverse, back to Salt Lake City from Sacramento. The soldiers cleared and charted Captain Fremont’s route, making it accessible for their wagons. This trail became heavily traveled during the late 1840s and 1850s, and has had many names including the Carson Emigrant Road, Amador Grade and the Carson Canyon Route.  Today this popular route is widely known as the Mormon Emigrant Trail.

The Mormon Emigrant Trail passes through the Kirkwood mountain area, winding up over the saddle just south of Thimble Peak, following approximately the same route as Kirkwood’s Sunrise Chair #4.  To this day, rust marks from the iron wagon wheels can be seen on the granite rocks along the route.  Some scars on the trees made from the ropes and pulleys used to haul the heavy wagons up over the rugged terrain still remain.  The trail continues around Emigrant Lake, located just south of Kirkwood’s Iron Horse Chair #3, and then easterly along the south side of Caples Lake and up and over Carson Pass. 

Regular mail delivery was established in the 1850s but was stopped during the winter months when deep snow closed the roads.  In 1856, a Norwegian emigrant, Jon Torsteinson-Rue, nicknamed “Snowshoe Thompson”, took on the mail delivery job.

Snowshoe became legendary as the only communication link over the Sierra during that time.  He delivered the mail two to four times a month, for 20 years, and routinely passed through the Kirkwood area until 1876.

Snowshoe learned to ski in the Telemark region of Norway, and skiing on 10-foot long homemade oak skis, he made the two-day trek to Sacramento and the return three-day trip back to Genoa, Nevada via the Mormon Emigrant Trail.

Soon there became a greater need for a quick mail delivery system,  and the Pony Express Company was born in January of 1860.  A pony relay system of 120 stations was established across the west.  For five weeks the Pony Express trail ran through Kirkwood before it was re-routed over the Kingsbury Grade to shorten the distance from Virginia City to Sacramento by 15 miles.

Newer and faster routes connecting emerging cities and towns resulted in fewer travelers taking the old Mormon Immigrant Trail.  Over the next 100 years, the Kirkwood area would host mostly sheepherders and fishermen, few staying for very long.

In the late 1960s, Bud Klein, financier and ski enthusiast, arrived in the Kirkwood Valley and spent several years surveying the land he hoped would become the ski area now nestled in National Forest and Wilderness.  After careful planning with any of the areas overseeing agencies, permission was granted to proceed with the development of what is now known as Kirkwood Mountain Resort. While many plans took longer than initially predicted, or were modified over the years, the vision originally articulated by Bud Klein remains true and is still the driving force in the valley today.