10 Unmissable Things To Do In Emerald Bay State Park



Photo of Emerald Bay State Park in Lake Tahoe at sunrise with colorful clouds one of the best things to do in California

Emerald Bay State Park is one of the most popular places for hiking, photography and sightseeing in Lake Tahoe. And we think the best things to do include exploring Vikingsholm, hiking Eagle Falls Trail, relaxing on the beach, swimming in the bay and watching a stunning sunrise. After exploring all corners of Lake Tahoe ourselves, we can confidently say that Emerald Bay is the one place you can’t miss.

In this guide we walk you through 10 fun activities and attractions for your trip to Emerald Bay State Park in Lake Tahoe, based on our experiences.

Our Emerald Bay Experience

Hikers stood on a rock in front of a lake in Emerald Bay State Park in Lake Tahoe on a cloudy day
Here we are at Eagle Lake early on a cool morning after watching sunrise

We spent 5 nights exploring South Lake Tahoe, North Lake Tahoe and Tahoe City in November 2021. And because we’re hikers and travel photographers, Emerald Bay State Park was the top box waiting to be ticked on our bucket list.

Our highlights from the area include watching two completely contrasting sunrises, hiking to Eagle Lake, walking down to the shores of Lake Tahoe to see Vikingsholm and watching a moon-rise over the bay. Read more about us.

1. Hiking

Hiker sat on a wall looking out over a bay on a cloudy day
Kristen in hiking gear ready to walk down to Vikingsholm

The best way to explore Emerald Bay State Park is by lacing up your hiking shoes and hitting the trails. In fact, the only way to reach the bay is by walking a relatively steep one-mile trail with 400 feet elevation loss down to Vikingsholm from Emerald Bay State Park Lookout parking lot on highway 89.

Our walk down to the bay was fun, but we preferred hiking to Eagle Lake from Eagle Falls Trailhead. We highly recommend you hike to Eagle Lake because it’s an enjoyable trail, you can swim in the lake and you’ll be rewarded with awesome elevated views looking back over the bay.

Top hikes:

2. Photography

Colorful clouds in the sky reflecting off Emerald Bay at sunrise
Beautiful sunrise the bay with vibrant cloud colors reflecting in the water

Lake Tahoe is overflowing with photo opportunities, but we think Emerald Bay State Park is the most beautiful area overall. It’s the place you should prioritize whether you’re a professional seeking the best sunrises or you’re just getting started with photography. There’s plenty of places to take photos around the park, but the best spots are wherever you can get clear views overlooking the bay.

We set painfully early alarms two days in a row so we could watch two very different sunrises. The first had thick layers of clouds which illuminated spectacularly with vibrant pinks, reds and oranges. And the second was completely clear of clouds, so we had a gorgeous deep blue color above the bay.

Top photo spots:

READ: Best Lake Tahoe sunrise and sunset photo spots

3. Water Activities

Wooden pier leading out into a bay on a cloudy day
Jumping off this pier is popular in summer

If you visit Lake Tahoe in the warmer summer months you simply can’t miss the chance to swim in its clear waters. And it’s not just swimming, you can rent kayaks, relax on the beach and jump off a wooden pier into the bay.

You’ll find the beach and water activities near Vikingsholm once you’ve walked down from the parking lot on highway 89. We visited Lake Tahoe in November so taking a dip in the bay wasn’t a option for us!

Top water activities:

  • Swim in the shallow areas
  • Kayak to Fannette Island
  • Paddle-board around the bay
  • Snorkel or even scuba dive (see #7)
  • Rent a boat and pilot it to the bay

4. Fannette Island

Sign on a beach stating not to swim to the distant island
Warning sign not to swim out to Fannette Island due to cold water

Fannette Island is a granite rock rising 150 feet out from the bay, and it’s incredibly unique because it’s Lake Tahoe’s only island. This single stubborn rock refused to budge as the glaciers carved out the landscape thousands of years ago.

Although it appears small when you’re driving along highway 89, you’ll see that Fannette Island is actually quite large when you step onto the granite rock. You can kayak or paddle-board to the island, and you’ll find an old tea house which was used to serve tea to the owners of Vikingsholm back in the late 1920’s.

5. Emerald Bay Cruises

Cruise boat on a lake docked at a pontoon
M.S. Dixie II Lake Tahoe cruise

Taking a champagne sunset cruise of Emerald Bay could be the perfect solution if you don’t really like the idea of walking down a steep road to reach the bay near Vikingsholm. Or maybe you just want to see it all from a different perspective?

Well, there’s lots of sightseeing cruises operating in Lake Tahoe, and they all offer a variety of narrated tours with daytime or sunset sails. It’s important to know the cruises are very popular and they sell out quickly, so you should book in advance to avoid disappointment.

Sightseeing cruise options:

6. Vikingsholm

Stone castle Vikingsholm in a forest on the shores of Lake Tahoe
The very distinctive Vikingsholm on shores of Lake Tahoe

Vikingsholm is a Scandinavian-style castle nestled among tall trees on the shores of Emerald Bay State Park. The building was completed in 1929 as a holiday home for Lora Knight who purchased the land, which included Fannette Island.

This fine example of Scandinavian architecture is among the most famous structures in all of Lake Tahoe, so you should definitely add it to your itinerary. The area is open year round, but you can only take a tour of Vikingsholm in the summer months. And you can only buy tour tickets on site.

Ticket information:

  • Open – 7 days a week mid-June to mid-September
  • Hours – 11:00am to 4:00pm
  • Cost – $18 adults | $15 students, military, seniors | Free 5 and under

7. Maritime Heritage Trail

Island in a body of water with trees in the foreground
There are several sunken boats at the bottom of the bay

Did you know that you can scuba dive a designated underwater trail in Emerald Bay? As long as you have appropriate training and experience, you’re permitted to scuba dive or snorkel dive to various underwater sites featuring interpretive panels along what’s known as The Maritime Heritage Trail.

You’ll follow a trail to discover watercraft and barges that now reside on the bed of the bay. And dive sites are on both sides of the bay, so it’s quite an extensive undertaking. This is definitely one of the most unique things to do Emerald Bay State Park, so don’t miss out if you’re a scuba diver!

8. DL Bliss State Park

Wooden building at the entrance to a California State Park
The visitor center at DL Bliss State Park

DL Bliss State Park directly borders Emerald Bay State Park to the north and the two are connected by a shoreline hugging hike called the Rubicon Trail. Or you can drive to DL Bliss if you’d prefer not to hike, but it’ll cost you $10 to park.

The best things to do in DL Bliss include photographing the Balancing Rock, relaxing on Lester Beach and hiking to Rubicon Point Light, which has the second highest elevation of any lighthouse in America. Dogs aren’t allowed in Emerald Bay State Park, but they’re welcome in developed areas of D.L. Bliss State Park, so it could be a good place to visit if you’re traveling with your pets.

9. Rubicon Trail OHV

Hiking trail with information board leading into forest
Hiking the Rubicon trail is very different to the OHV trail with the same name

The Rubicon Trail is a 22-mile OHV route running from Wentworth Springs Campground to Lake Tahoe. We didn’t know until someone told us in South Lake Tahoe that the OHV Rubicon Trail is the most popular 4×4 trail in the entire US. Then it clicked, that’s where the Jeep Rubicon gets its name from!

So, if you own a high clearance 4WD vehicle or you want to rent a Jeep Rubicon to drive the best known off roading route in America, this is your chance. Although the route isn’t technically in Emerald Bay State Park, it’s set back in the mountains very close to the bay.

Note: We rented a Rubicon to drive Sedona’s best Jeep trails in 2021 and it was one of the most fun things we’ve done in the states, so we highly recommend giving this a go when you’re in Lake Tahoe.

10. Camping

Sign at the beginning of a hike showing distance
Trail information for the hike down to Vikingsholm

Camping around the bay is incredibly popular, and for good reason! There’s definitely worse places to wake up and unzip a tent at sunrise. The beauty of camping is having instant access to the top attractions, hikes and photo spots in the bay. Plus, you can avoid the steep prices at hotels in South Lake Tahoe.

The 2 campgrounds in Emerald Bay State Park are called Eagle Point and Boat In. There’s lots of important and ever-changing information about camping here so we recommend taking a look at the California department of parks and recreation for updates. Remember, black bears are very common around Lake Tahoe, so it’s crucial you store all food and drinks in lockers by day and night.

Special: We’ve teamed up with The Dyrt to offer our readers an exclusive 30 day free trial with The Dyrt Pro. It allows you to receive text alerts when fully booked campgrounds get cancellations, so you can snag in-demand spots at the most popular campgrounds.

Attractions Map

Click or touch the map to activate. Zoom in and out, move around the area and find the locations of all attractions listed in this guide.

Map key:

  • Purple – Parking
  • Red – Hikes
  • Blue – Water activities
  • Orange – Attractions

Getting To Emerald Bay State Park

Two trees lit up by headlamps at night with the moon and a lake behind
One of our favorite places in Lake Tahoe for photography

Emerald Bay is located on the southwest side of Lake Tahoe. It’s just 12 miles from the popular resort city of South Lake Tahoe and you can reach it in around 25 minutes. The roads are narrow, winding and heavy with traffic so pay extra attention to what’s going on around you.

Driving distances and times:

  • South Lake Tahoe, CA – 12 miles (25 minutes)
  • Tahoe City, CA – 27 miles (50 minutes)
  • Incline Village, NV – 39 miles (1 hour 10 minutes)
  • Carson City, NV – 40 miles (1 hour 5 minutes)
  • Reno, NV – 74 miles (1 hour 30 minutes)
  • San Francisco, CA – 196 miles (3 hours 35 minutes)

Where To Park

Logo for the California state park agency on a stone wall
California State Parks logo on a wall

The best place to park for visiting Emerald Bay State Park is the roadside parking lot on highway 89 at Desolation Wilderness near Eagle Falls Trailhead. Use this exact location on Google Maps and set directions from your location around Lake Tahoe.

We parked at this lot all three times we visited the bay and it worked perfectly because we could walk to Eagle Falls Trailhead and connect with the road leading down to Vikingsholm. It’s important to know that parking is very challenging during busy periods in summer, so we recommend arriving early in the morning.

Best Time To Visit Emerald Bay State Park

Moonlight over Emerald Bay State Park in Lake Tahoe at night
Full moon lighting up the bay at night

Spring and fall are the two best seasons of the year to visit Emerald Bay State Park if you want to benefit from fewer crowds, easier parking and cheaper hotel rooms. But summer is the best time for swimming, relaxing on the beach and hiking if you don’t mind putting up with the crowds or inflated hotel prices.

We visited Lake Tahoe in November so our trip had various pros and cons. On the plus side we had Eagle Falls Trail and the entire Vikingsolm area to ourselves, hotels were extremely affordable and we never had any issues with parking. But on the negative side, it was cold in the mornings and evenings when we were taking sunrise and sunset photos, and we couldn’t swim in the lake.

The Morgan Conclusion

Emerald Bay State Park is one of the most beautiful places you can visit in Lake Tahoe. And we think hiking Eagle Falls Trail, watching a sunrise over the bay and walking around the Vikingsholm beach area are the activities you should prioritize.

But because it’s renowned for being so picturesque, you can rest assured that it’ll be busy if you visit in the warmer months. Finding free parking spaces can be challenging, so arrive early to beat the crowds. Overall, we think it’s a must-visit state park that should be on every Lake Tahoe itinerary.

More From Lake Tahoe

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Want more California content? Head over to our California Travel Guides to explore national parks, popular road trips and things to do in major cities of the sunshine state.

We hope this guide to the best Emerald Bay State Park attractions helps with planning your trip to Lake Tahoe!

Please let us know if you have any questions in the comments below.

Happy Travels,

Mark and Kristen

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