Emerald Bay State Park: The Complete Guide

View of Emerald Bay, Emerald Bay State park, Lake Tahoe, California

Suzie Dundas

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Emerald Bay State Park

Address
138 Emerald Bay Rd, South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150, USA
Phone +1 530-541-3030

If you’ve ever seen a photo of Lake Tahoe, it was likely one of Emerald Bay, the most stunning location on the lake. Emerald Bay State Park, which includes Emerald Bay as well as the land surrounding it, is a popular recreation area. It’s home to Lake Tahoe’s only island, as well as a soft, sandy beach and a historical home.

Located on the California side of Lake Tahoe, this slice of land was privately owned by a wealthy family until 1945, at which point the land and the residence on it (known as Vikingsholm), were sold to a local philanthropist. That buyer later sold the land to the state for half its value. Emerald Bay then became a designated California state park in 1953.

Today, the park boasts family-friendly hikes, kayak and paddleboard excursions, a historical castle, and photo ops galore, making it a can’t-miss stop on any Tahoe vacation.

Things to Do

There's no shortage of fun at Emerald Bay State Park on Lake Tahoe.

Take a walk to the end of the Eagle Falls parking lot and you’ll see the trailhead for Eagle Falls. A steep, but short, 15-minute hike takes you to an exposed, rocky area with fantastic views of Emerald Bay. If you head to the left, just past the trailhead, and walk for about 10 minutes, you’ll end up at the photogenic Eagle Falls and its wooden footbridge. In late summer when the water is shallow, the area under the footbridge becomes an unofficial swimming hole.

You can also head down the 1-mile path from the Vikingsholm trailhead and you’ll end up at Emerald Bay’s Beach. Pack a picnic and hang for the day, swim in the water, or take a cruise on a kayak or paddleboard (both of which can be rented beachside). Year-round, you’ll find indoor bathrooms, outdoor showers, and first-come, first-served picnic and grill facilities. The beaches are sandy and soft and the water is shallow and warm, making it a great family destination.

Kayak and paddleboard rentals are available at the beach on a first-come, first-served, and cash-only, basis from Memorial Day to Labor Day. You can rent kayaks and paddleboards by the hour or day, and you can also book a guided tour from a private concessioner. Get there early and be sure to bring your ID.

Continue past the beach area and you’ll reach Vikingsholm, a private home-turned-museum next to the lake. Take a guided tour for a small fee between Memorial Day and Labor Day. The tour will allow you to access the inside of the castle, an area reserved only for that purpose. Or, check out the small gift store, snack shop, and visitor center on your own. Drinking water is available here only during the summer months.

Best Hikes & Trails

The hikes within Emerald Bay State Park are short and sweet, with only a few exceptions. For longer excursions, start here and venture out of the park to Tahoe’s remote Desolation Wilderness, a popular camping and backpacking site.

  • Vikingsholm Trail: This heavily trafficked 1.7-mile trail takes you from the stone observation area above Emerald Bay on Lake Tahoe to the Vikingsholm castle. This moderate trail is a mix of dirt and a paved road that descends 400 feet from the parking lot to the castle. Be prepared to hike back up before you venture down.
  • Emerald Point Trail: Another down-hike, the Emerald Point trail is a 4.4-mile out-and-back that takes you along the lakeside. The best views are at the beginning from the top, but points along the trail are equally stunning. The trail tends to be busy until the Vikingsholm turnoff, but expect fewer people from thereon.
  • Eagles Lake to Fontanillis Lake Loop: One of the only long hikes that originate in the park, this 10-mile loop goes past three lakes, including the pristine Fontanillis Lake. It's a difficult all-day hike that gains 2,460 feet in elevation and takes you up Maggie's Peak, but it's clearly marked and rewarding. Pack plenty of water!

Kayaking and Paddleboarding

Leave the crowds on the beach at Emerald Bay and take to the water on a kayak or SUP. With just a few strokes of your paddle, you'll gain a different point of view from that of the shoreside visitors. Start out early before the wind picks up for a paddle out to Fannette Island, Lake Tahoe's only island. Check the weather before you go, as the paddle back could be very challenging on a windy day. You can also play it safe and stay along the shore, nesting in private picnicking spots along the way, and then returning to the beach once you're done.

Where to Camp

Emerald Bay State Park offers two options for camping, one traditional campground, and one boat-in camping area. Neither campground can successfully accommodate the size of an RV and hookups are not available in this park.

  • Eagle Point Campground: Eagle Point Campground (both the upper and lower loops) offers several tent sites that can accommodate one to two vehicles or a camper van. Each site is nestled among the trees and comes equipped with a fire ring and picnic table. Bathrooms are available on-site and all dogs must be on a leash. Reservations are recommended.
  • Emerald Bay Boat Camp: At Emerald Bay Boat Camp, camping takes place on land in one of 22 lakefront tent sites. Buoys and a dock are available for mooring boats, kayaks, and paddleboards; restrooms and water are offered on-site; dogs are permitted in the campground area only. Boat campers with reservations can launch their non-motorized vessels at D.L. Bliss State Park and can park their vehicle overnight in the Balancing Rock overflow parking lot.

Where to Stay Nearby

If you prefer not to camp, the closest hotels to Emerald Bay State Park are located on the California side of the lake in the city of South Lake Tahoe (about 15 minutes away.)

  • Hotel Azure: This contemporary mountain retreat delivers the best of both the mountains and the lake. Nestled in the pine trees, this dog-friendly hotel offers single queen rooms, king great rooms, double queen rooms, and two-bedroom suites. The hotel has an on-site bowling alley, fitness center, and outdoor pool.
  • Beach Retreat & Lodge at Tahoe: Are you at the beach, or in the mountains? It's hard to tell at this South Lake Tahoe beach hotel, complete with a beachfront tiki bar. It offers single king and double queen rooms, and you can choose a lake view or beachfront option. The hotel has two restaurants and a tiki bar, all serving locally sourced food. For guests, there's an outdoor pool, outdoor firepits, beach shade tents, and games galore.
  • Postmark Hotel and Spa Suites: This hotel is inspired by a classic alpine mountain inn. In fact, some of their cozy rooms come complete with fireplaces and a luxurious soaking tub. Bike rentals and board games are available on-site and the hotel sits just steps from the water's edge.

How to Get There

Emerald Bay State Park is technically in South Lake Tahoe, but it's an easy drive from the north shore, provided the roads are open. From the north shore, take Highway 89 south until your reach the park. From South Lake Tahoe, take Highway 89 north. There are several places to park: the Eagle Falls parking lot, the Vikingsholm parking lot, or along the side of the road (allowed only from May to November). The two lots charge a small fee, with higher rates in the summer, and road parking is free. All three parking options fill up quickly, especially on summer weekends.

Accessibility

The steep terrain in the park limits access to some attractions, still the park provides a shuttle service to escort people with disabilities to the Vikingsholm area. Contact the park service ahead of time to check availability. Eagle Point Campground offers accessible restrooms on each loop. The south side of the Vikingsholm Trail has a 0.3-mile accessible pathway, and the path from Vikingsholm to the visitor center is also wheelchair accessible. The Overlook Trail is an accessible 0.18-mile out-and-back, with two sections that have a 9 to 10 percent grade.

Tips for Your Visit

  • Most people visit Emerald Bay in the spring, summer, and fall (May through October are the best months), as the steep terrain and beach accesses are best enjoyed void of snow.
  • The bathroom facilities at the beach and at Eagle Falls are open year-round, though the portable bathrooms at the top of the Vikingsholm parking lot may be locked or removed in the winter. 
  • Even if you’re just going to the beach at Emerald Bay, wear sturdy walking shoes, as the walk down to the shore (and then back up) loses and gains about 400 feet of elevation.
  • The road south of Emerald Bay is winding with steep drop-offs. So, while it’s a lovely drive without snow, it can be slippery and avalanche-prone in the winter. As such, the road is closed rather frequently from November to April during snowstorms, blocking access to South Lake Tahoe.
  • If Highway 89 is open during the winter, you can visit the park, but the lots are unplowed and the hiking trails, as well as the trail down to the beach, are unmaintained. You’ll almost certainly need snowshoes.
  • Outside of the summer months, parking at Vikingsholm or Eagle Falls is self-pay. You’ll need to fill out a small form and insert your cash parking fee into the collection box.
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Emerald Bay State Park: The Complete Guide