Enveloped by pines, firs, and cedars, Emerald Bay State Park is a scenic spot with stunning vistas and set in peaceful setting. In our opinion, Emerald Bay is Lake Tahoe’s crown jewel.
The glittering shades of blues and greens here, alongside Lake Tahoe’s mirror like surface which reflects cloud covered azure skies during the day, but a sky sprinkled with stars at night, is something special.
In this guide, we give you everything you need to know about Emerald Bay. It’s everything we’ve learnt from staying here. From the best things to do, beaches, campgrounds, hiking trails to try, waterfalls you have to see, the best boat cruises, and even where the most photogenic spots are!
This is one of our favorite places in the world, and now we want to share it with you.
The ultimate insider’s guide to Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe
A short drive from South Lake Tahoe via Highway 89 takes you to this exquisite natural beauty. Emerald Bay is the only inlet on Lake Tahoe and is home to the lake’s only island, Fannette Island.
Emerald Bay State Park is home to many fascinating landmarks making it a popular tourist destination. But first, here are what we believe are the top ten things to do at Emerald Bay.
The ten best things to do at Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe
If you are planning a trip to Emerald Bay, then here are some spots you must visit and things you can do that will make your visit even more magical.
1. Visit Vikingsholm Castle
One of the first summer homes built at Lake Tahoe, Vikingsholm is a blend of nature and design with the result being a stunning piece of architecture.
The land that this castle was built on was bought by Mrs. Lora Josephine Knight in 1928, when she commissioned her nephew by marriage, Lennart Palme, a Swedish architect, to design her a summer home inspired by her travels in Scandinavia. Vikingsholm, completed in 1929, was the result.
An exceptional example of Scandinavian architecture in the United States, Vikingsholm can be reached by taking a one-mile hike from the parking lot on Highway 89 or by boat. It’s open daily from June to September for tours conducted by the Sierra State Parks Foundation.
This gorgeous castle even made it into our previous article looking at the best castles in California. It’s a spectacular place and the tour is well worth it.
2. Enjoy Emerald Bay Beach
A visit to Emerald Bay is not complete without going to Emerald Bay Beach!
Enjoy a refreshing splash off the pier and then dry off under the summer sun while working on your tan with a book in hand.
You can even try some of the available water sports activities here, such as kayaking and paddleboarding. Take in the mesmerizing panoramic views that encloses the beach. Bliss.
We have more information on this beach further down this guide.
3. Visit Fannette Island
Lake Tahoe’s only island continues Mrs. Knight’s legacy, as the rustic stone structure on top of Fannette island is where the Vikingsholm Castle owner entertained guests with tea parties. The miniature castle she built on the island was aptly named the “Tea House’.
Fannette Island sits right in the middle of Emerald Bay and is a small collection of rocks and a handful of trees that emerge from the glistening waters. What’s amazing about this island is that when standing on it you get a spectacular all-round view of the bay.
Unfortunately vandalism over the years has led to just a stone shell remaining of what was a beautiful mini summer castle. But it’s still worth visiting.
Hop on a kayak and paddle your way to this miniscule isle. It’s well worth it for the views, as well as the chance to visit the ruins of Mrs. Knight’s mini castle.
4. Trek to Inspiration Point
Standing 600 feet above Lake Tahoe is Inspiration Point – a perfect spot that overlooks Emerald Bay in all its entirety, and where you can even see Fannette Island and Vikingsholm.
This is a great place for a photo op. Here’s your chance to capture breathtaking views of Emerald Bay that you can reminisce about when you get home.
5. Go hiking!
Emerald Bay State Park has a variety of hiking trails to choose from so feel free to pick one that piques your fancy and fits in with your travel plans.
These hiking trails, walking trails, and forest trails come with hand-curated trail maps and driving directions as well as detailed reviews and photos from hikers, campers, and nature lovers that allow you to explore the full experience.
We give you some of our favorite hikes a little further down in this article.
6. Take a scenic cruise
The best way to experience Lake Tahoe is to take a boat cruise and tour around the water, taking in the scenery.
These cruises give you 360-degree views and a chance to relax as the wind brushes past. But do make sure you choose a boat cruise that is right for you. We share our favourite boat cruise companies further down this article too.
7. Rent a boat
For a more personal experience at Emerald Bay you can rent a boat for the day and spend your time indulging in nature.
Complete a boat ride around the bay and visit pretty Fannette Island, then make sure you drop anchor along the shore, grab a beer and relax as the waves provide a lulling rhythm as they gently crash on Emerald Bay’s pristine shoreline.
If you are feeling adventurous, venture out further into Lake Tahoe and do a few rounds of this massive lake as well.
8. Kayak or Paddleboard
One of the best and most fun activities at Lake Tahoe, and a great way to savor Emerald Bay up close, is to rent a kayak or stand-up paddle board. You can rent kayaks and paddleboards at Baldwin Beach or Emerald Bay Beach.
Renting from Emerald Bay Beach is probably the quickest way to hit the water, but heading over to Baldwin Beach would be worth your time as it gives you a more scenic route to Emerald Bay.
9. Visit the many waterfalls here
Waterfalls are another must-see attraction surrounding Emerald Bay.
The roaring waters are hidden within the state park, but these stunning waterfalls are worth the hike to find them. In a section below we share with you our top five waterfalls that you have to visit here.
Incredible waterfalls cascading over shelves of ancient stone and granite at monstrous speeds. And all within an adrenaline pumping hiking opportunity. Sign us up!
10. Sleep under the stars
Emerald Bay State Park is home to some amazing campgrounds, and staying here and enjoying a night under the stars is probably our favorite thing to do at Emerald Bay!
With over a 100 campgrounds to choose from, you’re spoilt for choice when it comes to finding a campground in Emerald Bay and beautiful Lake Tahoe.
These campsites can accommodate tents, trailers and smalls RVs (up to 18 feet).
Camping at Emerald Bay State Park gives you the opportunity to try out a myriad of fun activities too, such as bird watching, canoeing, sightseeing, fishing, hiking, mountain biking, picnicking, stargazing and much more.
There’s basic amenities available at some campgrounds, but make sure you reserve in advance as they are popular.
Next, we share our favorite Emerald Bay campgrounds!
Our favorite campgrounds at Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe
Camping here gives you the ideal opportunity to be really enjoy nature and get the best possible experience of Emerald Bay.
Here are our favorite campgrounds around Emerald Bay:
1. Eagle Point Campground
This is one of the more popular campgrounds in Emerald Bay State Park, and can accommodate one or two vehicles with around eight people per pitch. See a map of the campground here.
Tucked away in the trees and complete with a fire ring and picnic table, bathrooms are available on-site. A total of 97 pitches can be found at this campground, but reservations must be made in advance. You can reserve a pitch here.
The largest and only standard campground in this state park, Eagle Point takes pride of place amongst many small hiking trails. Many of those take you into the forest and lead to private beaches, secluded viewpoints, and even the pretty Rubicon Trail – more on that later.
2. Boat In Campground
Found on the north side of Emerald Bay, this campsite is accessible via land or boat. With 22 pitches this campground is smaller and more rustic compared to the larger Eagle Point. However it’s possible to get lakeside pitches. See the campground map here.
It only has the bare necessities here, but while it may lack amenities it has a very private and secluded feel. Reservations must be made in advance. This is our favorite campground for stargazing.
3. Bayview Campground
Complete with 12 pitches, this campground is super small and operates on a first-come, first-served basis, and can be found on the other side of Highway 89.
It’s a primitive campground with no online reservations possible. But from here you get incredible views of Emerald Bay and access to some of the best hiking trails in the area.
The best hikes at Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe
If you are looking for the best hiking trails in Emerald Bay, check out our favorite hikes that are perfect for adventurous souls.
1. Eagle Falls and Eagle Lake Hike
This is the most popular hike in the area. Starting at the Eagle Falls picnic area, this roughly two mile hike takes you to Eagle Lake and then pass the pretty Eagle Falls via a steel footbridge.
Permits are required for this hike, but there’s a self-registration station at the trailhead. You can see a map of the trail here.
2. Vikingsholm Hike
An easy 1.7 mile hike, this wide and well-maintained trail is relatively steep but achievable.
Starting from the parking area near Vikingsholm, it takes you all the way to the castle and a picnic area. It then takes you to a lovely observation area with wonderful views. Make sure to stop and take a few pictures while you catch your breath. See the trail here.
3. Rubicon Trail
This stunning 16 mile trail that takes you along the western shoreline of Lake Tahoe, giving you some of the best views in the region.
Going south from Rubicon Point, pass through Emerald Point and then head over to Vikingsholm. Wrap up the hike with a refreshing dip at Emerald Bay Beach. See the trail map here.
4. Eagles Lake to Fontanillis Lake Loop
Another one of the longer hikes at Emerald Bay State Park is this 10 mile loop that goes past three lakes – Dick’s Lake, Velma Lake, and Fontanillis Lake.
While it is a difficult path and may take the entire day, you will rise to 2,460 feet in elevation as you climb up Maggie’s Peak – talk about a ‘top of the world’ experience! See the map here.
5. Bayview Hiking Trail
Starting from Bayview Campground, this is another one of the parks more difficult hikes where an uphill climb will get your leg muscles working while enjoying splendid views across Emerald Bay and out into Lake Tahoe.
You do get a chance to catch a quick and energizing respite at Granite Lake before heading up Maggie’s Peak where you can see Desolation Wilderness, Lake Tahoe and Eagle Lake. See the trail here.
6. Cascade Falls Hiking Trail
Staring from the Emerald Bay State Park parking area, this moderate hike takes you to Cascade Creek Falls in about 40 minutes.
While the hiking trail will have you navigating small boulders and some large rocks, it does give some of the most scenic views of the area, and is one of our favorite hikes to enjoy a picnic en route.
The trail will end at Cascade Falls and a rippling creek where you can cool off by dipping your feet in the water. See the map here.
The five best waterfalls at Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe
Adding to the scenic beauty surrounding Emerald Bay are some stunning waterfalls that are hidden away in the trees and rocks of this state park.
In our opinion these waterfalls are some of the best and most tranquil places to enjoy a packed lunch or picnic. There’s nothing better than a well-deserved lunch while watching a roaring waterfall and dipping your feet in the clear fresh water.
Here are our five favorite waterfalls in and around Emerald Bay!
1. Cascade Creek Falls
A stunning trail meandering through vibrant wildflowers and lush ferns takes you to Cascade Creek Falls.
At an impressive 200 feet and surrounded by wildflowers, ferns, cedar and cottonwood, you can find small wading pools near the falls that are great for kids to take a dip in. An exceptional Emerald Bay waterfall.
2. Glen Alpine Falls
This cascade is 80 feet of pure gushing water which falls through layered rocks from a snow-fed stream above Fallen Leaf Lake, before joining a flowing river below.
This wide and large waterfall is easily accessible without a strenuous hike. Complete with an overlook point where you can watch the water flow, or for those adventure souls, some like to parkour down the many rocks. Although we don’t advise that!
3. Horsetail Falls
This magnificent waterfall at a staggering 800 feet is the largest waterfall in the Tahoe area. It’s fed by the melting glaciers of Desolation Wilderness and flows through Pyramid Creek.
While this is a harder to reach waterfall, it’s worth every effort to get here and gaze at this sheer cliff of crashing water.
4. Fontanillis Lake Falls
Visiting Fontanillis Lake Falls is best left to more experienced hikers, as this hike will likely take a day.
A 150 feet waterfall that drops from Fontanillis Lake to Upper Velma Lake is your reward. The view from the top can’t be put into words as it gives you a striking view of the whole of Emerald Bay and Lake Tahoe.
5. Eagle Falls
Separated into Upper and Lower Eagle Falls, these brilliant waterfalls come with a scenic view of Emerald Bay.
The trek up to Upper Eagle Falls is a great hike and will bring you face-to-face with a mesmerising 25 feet waterfall that cascades through the rocks and tree line.
The Lower Eagle Falls is made up of two equally beautiful falls of 60 and 90 feet complete with a cozy picnic area so you can have a well deserved lunch and beer!
Beaches at Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe
A day at Emerald Bay is not complete without a visit to Emerald Bay Beach. This National Natural Landmark provides an open view of the bay with the pretty Fannette Island right in the middle.
From Emerald Bay Beach you can rent a boat and cruise around the bay and visit Fannette Island and Tea House.
For swimming enthusiasts, you have the chance to jump off the pier on Emerald Bay Beach. You can also try the large shallow area with a sandy beach near Eagle Creek which is great for swimming too.
Kayaking, canoeing, paddleboarding and jet skiing are some of the many water sports that you can add to your itinerary to spice up your Emerald Bay Beach experience.
The Boat In Campground also has its own pristine beach that campers can enjoy when visiting, from splashing around on a hot summer’s day to fishing from the pier under the shade of the nearby forest.
Emerald Bay Beach is also an ideal spot for a day-trip picnic as it has indoor bathrooms, outdoor showers, and first-come, first-served picnic and grill facilities. Grab one of the available picnic tables, spread a sheet close to shore, and get picnicking!
While there make sure you do tour of Vikingsholm Castle.
Our top ten Beaches at Lake Tahoe
Other than Emerald Bay Beach, which is a must visit, the below ten beaches are in our opinion the best that can be found around Lake Tahoe.
- Sand Harbor Beach (North Shore)
- Lester Beach (West Shore)
- Baldwin Beach (South Lake Tahoe)
- Kiva Beach (South Lake Tahoe)
- Secret Cove (Glenbrook)
- Pope Beach (South Lake Tahoe)
- Hidden Beach (North Lake Tahoe)
- Kings Beach (North Lake Tahoe)
- Commons Beach (Tahoe City)
- Zephyr Cove Beach (West Shore)
Exploring Emerald Bay Underwater State Park
If Emerald Bay didn’t have enough fun things to do and see, it also has a mystical underwater state park.
The Emerald Bay Underwater State Park was designated in 1994 and is the final resting place of boats and barges that were used on the lake and bay in the past. Many of those date back to the start of the 20th century.
Most of these sunken relics are from Emerald Bay Resort and the construction of Vikingsholm.
Emerald Bay Resort was a simple family resort on the North shore of Emerald Bay, with a hotel, cottages, tent pads, dance pavilion, and all necessary structures including piers where steamers could dock to unload passengers and supplies. The Boat In Campground is where it used to stand.
If you dive around this area will discover an assortment of old artifacts that were used by the resort when it was functioning. Telephone batteries, old tires, sinks, toilets, an old pier, a diving platform, at least five dories and two launches are some of the items that you will come across. There’s even rumors that a Ford Model A can be found in the murky depths!
For scuba divers, Emerald Bay Maritime Heritage Trail is a must. This underwater trail is dedicated to Lake Tahoe’s historic recreational watercraft and barges, which now rest below the surface of Emerald Bay.
Most of the boats found at the bottom are likely to have been purposely sunk when they were no longer useful. These artifacts now serve as a reminder of Emerald Bay’s 150-year old history as one of America’s popular tourist destination.
The best boat cruises at Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe
No trip is complete without an exclusive boat tour of this historic American travel destination. Here is a list of cruises that you can book that will take you on a fantastic tour of Lake Tahoe.
1. Safari Rose
Sailing out of Tahoe Keys Marina, this 80 foot motor yacht includes a heated salon with luxurious couches and fireplace.
The sun deck, dining/entertaining area and a full bar on the boat will have you partying on the waters of Emerald Bay!
2. Tahoe Bleu Wave
This 70-foot million dollar yacht has travelled the world and now takes you on tours around Lake Tahoe with a lunch cruise at Emerald Bay.
3. Tahoe Thunder
Get ready for a thundering boat ride powered by the engines of the 33-foot Tahoe Thunder! Tahoe’s fastest speedboat revs up and takes you into Emerald Bay on a cruise to remember.
4. M.S. Dixie II
The largest boat that tours Lake Tahoe, this 520 Mississippi paddlewheel offers day and sunset dinner cruises and starts at Zephyr Cove Marina. It concludes with a tour into Emerald Bay.
Best spots for photography at Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe
- Eagle Falls gives you a spectacular overhead view of both Lake Tahoe and Emerald Bay.
- Emerald Bay Beach has a wonderful panoramic view of the bay with Fannette Island right in the middle.
- Inspiration Point is the perfect place to capture the sunrise over Emerald Bay as it peaks over the mountain tops.
- Fannette Island will give you a perfectly symmetrical view of the mouth of the bay and also a sweeping view of Emerald Bay Beach with the state park and the mountains in the background.