History & Natural History – Emerald Bay State Park

Read below to learn the history of Emerald Bay before it became a California State Park, including the Washoe Tribe’s relationship with the land and how glaciers helped form Lake Tahoe’s most prominent features. 

The First People of Tahoe

The Washoe (aboriginal Wašiw) are the original inhabitants of the Lake Tahoe Basin and all the lands surrounding it. The Washoe revere Da-ow-aga (Lake Tahoe) as the center of the Washoe world – a land that is imbued with spiritual significance and full of life-giving qualities. Primarily nomadic, the Washoe Tribe traveled based on seasonal weather and resources. Their hunting and gathering traditions are rooted in the belief that every living organism is sentient and deserving of respect. The Washoe Tribe is especially noted for their superb basket weaving that became a widely acknowledged craft in the late 19th century.

Fun Fact: Vikingsholm Castle’s founder, Ms. Lora Knight, traded with the Washoe Tribe for their baskets!

A small collection of the Washoe Tribe's Intricate Baskets.

Note the similarly-shaped and more elaborately decorated Washoe cooking/feasting bowl at rear left. Photo source and © ”Antique Native American Basketry of Western North America”, by John Kania and Alan Blaugrund, Coiled and Twined, LLC, 2014, pp. 164.

The Maritime Heritage of Emerald Bay

Lake Tahoe’s Maritime Heritage represents the culture of recreation from the late 1800s to the early 20th century. Considered to be the Golden Age of waterborne transport and recreational watercraft, fleets set sail in pursuit of Tahoe’s beauty. One of the most popular destinations was Emerald Bay! Steam vessels, barges, and small boats would transport people to popular tourist attractions like the Emerald Bay Resort, built in 1881.

During the resort’s peak (1920s – 1930s), steam vessels would ferry visitors around the bay and out into the larger body of Lake Tahoe. Although people typically traveled by steamship, the resort also provided visitors with small watercraft for personal use. Many vessels like the Emerald Bay Barges were used during the construction of Vikingsholm (1928 – 1929) and the “Tea House” on what is now Fannette Island.

Fun Fact: It required more than 200 highly-skilled workmen to build this 38-room home in just one year!

Once Emerald Bay became a State Park in 1953, the Emerald Bay Resort was demolished – leaving many of the watercraft and barges to become sunken artifacts at the bottom of the bay. Remarkably, the cold waters of the lake have contributed to the preservation of these shipwrecks and served as the inspiration for California’s first Maritime Underwater Trail in 2018. Scuba divers and snorkeling enthusiasts can explore several historic features and even interpretive sites below the waters of Emerald Bay.

Did you know you can dive and find these sunken artifacts with The Foundation’s waterproof dive cards?

Natural History

Glaciers have had a profound influence on the formation of Lake Tahoe – the largest and deepest, and certainly one of the most scenic bodies of water in the Sierra Nevada. Emerald Bay is a premier CA State Park that showcases two distinguishable features that cannot be found anywhere else in Tahoe!

Emerald Bay’s dramatic appearance owes its origins to the scouring action of glaciers that existed during the Pleistocene Epoch (11,500 to 1,800,000 years ago). At this time, a series of glaciers were moving towards the lake by whittling away peaks, pulverizing rock, and carving out the oval depression that became Emerald Bay. They brought with them masses of debris and sediment that were then deposited into the lake once segments of the glaciers had melted. When the remaining glaciers retreated, they left a large lateral moraine that formed the southeast side of the bay, and a recessional moraine that formed “the mouth” of the bay.

The recessional moraine is where a narrow opening connects the bay to the lake. This is a special feature because it is Lake Tahoe’s only inlet – an indentation of a shoreline that leads to an enclosed body of water. Another distinctive feature of Emerald Bay is the granite outcropping that rises 150 feet above the crystalline water. This upthrust of granite refused to be dragged along by retreating glaciers. Thus, becoming Emerald Bay’s centerpiece and the only island to be found in all of Lake Tahoe. This sole island is known today as Fannette Island.

Emerald Bay’s rich history of mountain-building and glacier sculpting processes has produced two prominent features that are a wonder to behold. Its surrounding beauty of ascending peaks, projecting ridges, and miles of dense conifer forests create Lake Tahoe’s quintessential landscapes. From the one-of-a-kind to the hallmark features, Emerald Bay continues to be one of the most photographed sites in the world.

What You Can Do At Emerald Bay State Park Today

Explore one of Tahoe’s most iconic State Parks by foot, boat, or flipper!

Schedule a tour of Vikingsholm to learn more about the hand-built and exquisitely detailed replica of a Scandinavian castle (800 A.D.). The visionary of this Scandinavian-inspired home, Ms. Lora Knight, chose to build Vikingsholm in Emerald Bay because it reminded her of the fjords that she visited on her frequent trips to that region.

Image of Vikingsholm in Emerald Bay State Park

Hike the Emerald Point Trail, Eagle Falls Vista Point Loop, or Cascade Falls Trail to access one of Lake Tahoe’s most striking, three-tiered waterfalls. You will find a panorama view of Emerald Bay, Fannette Island, Lake Tahoe, and the distant Nevada shore. Alternatively, hiking the Vikingsholm Trail will place you at the base of Emerald Bay. Hikers can also walk the rugged lakeshore to D.L. Bliss along the Rubicon Trail that leads to nearby Desolation Wilderness.

The Sierra State Parks Foundation partners with Action Water Sports and Cruise Tahoe to offer one-of-a-kind tour packages to the historic Vikingsholm Castle by boat! Cruise the crystal-clear waters of Lake Tahoe and experience the awe-inspiring beauty of Emerald Bay State Park. 

Experience California’s first Maritime Heritage Underwater Trail. Scuba and snorkel diver visitors can explore the history behind the country’s largest and most diverse collection of scuttled (sunken) watercraft in their original location. The four dive sites located at the bottom of Emerald Bay range in depth from 10 to 60 feet. Download a map of the dive sites here.