Underwater Heritage Trail at Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay

California State Parks and the Sierra State Parks Foundation Debut California’s First Maritime Heritage Underwater Trail at Emerald Bay

Emerald Bay Scuba Diver
Divers documenting a sunken wooden barges. Photo by Mylana Haydu, Indiana State University, Center for Underwater Science.

Starting October 1, 2018 the public will be able to experience California’s first maritime heritage underwater trail devoted to showcasing Lake Tahoe’s historic recreational watercraft and barges, that now rest below the surface of Emerald Bay.

Scuba and snorkel diving visitors will be able to explore an underwater “trail” of historic features at several sites along the shoreline of Emerald Bay State Park, Lake Tahoe. Currently, divers have access to the Historic Barge Dive Site established by California State Parks in 1998. The department has never publicly released the location and information about three additional sites highlighted in this underwater trail until now.

At the four dive sites in Emerald Bay there are underwater interpretative panels. Waterproof interpretive cards for divers will also be available at the park’s visitor centers, local dive shops, and on the Sierra State Parks Foundation’s website.

About Emerald Bay Maritime Heritage Trail

Emerald Bay, situated on the western side of Lake Tahoe, is and has been an American tourist destination for well over 150 years. Translucent blue-green water surrounded by vertical cliffs, green conifers, and granite boulders creates the quintessential Tahoe experience and one that has drawn people to the bay specifically for recreation since the 1860s.

Steamer at Emerald Bay
Steamer ferrying Model A on barge. Photo courtesy of University of Nevada Special Collections.

The Emerald Bay Maritime Heritage (underwater) Trail celebrates the history of Emerald Bay and Lake Tahoe’s culture of recreation by way of shipwrecks. The bay is the final resting place of several recreational boats, launches and barges used on the lake during the early 20th century. This was the heyday of the Emerald Bay Resort (1920s and 1930s) and also the construction of the Scandinavian “castle,” Vikingsholm (1929).

When they outlived their usefulness these boats would have probably been purposely sunk. While they now serve as reminders of the golden age of recreation in Tahoe. This collection is the largest, most diverse group of sunken small watercraft of its kind, in their original location, known to exist in the nation.

Barge Dive Site

The Barge Dive Site was initially established in 1998. It is located off the southeastern shore of the bay. The site consists of two barges sitting at a depth between 10 to 40 feet deep. Lumber companies owned and operated the barges. They used them to haul cordwood part of the year and then employed them as car ferries during the summer months. The southernmost barge, lying parallel to shore, represents the more complete of the two and measures over 100 feet long. This site is accessible to both snorkel and scuba diving park visitors.

The remaining dive sites (Passenger Launch – Florence M, Wooden Fishing Boat and Hard Chine Skiff) on the trail are associated with the Emerald Bay Resort. The resort was one of the longest continuously operating resorts of this type in the area. The State acquired the land in the 1950s. They removed the buildings to make way for the campground.

Wooden Boat at Emerald Bay
Wooden fishing boat with live bait compartment between the two thwart seats. Photograph by Sheli O. Smith, Ph.D.,PAST Foundation.

Boat Camp

The resort once existed on what is now Boat Camp, the lake’s only boat-in campground. Compared with Tahoe’s luxury hotels, the Emerald Bay Resort was a simple family resort. It had a hotel, cottages, tent pads, dance pavilion, and all necessary infrastructure including several piers where steamers could dock to unload passengers and supplies. The resort offered several forms of recreation. But the small recreational boats were certainly a popular element to the experience.

Just offshore of Boat Camp is a collection of small vessels were likely sunk at their moorings. They are 30 to 60 feet below the surface. The cold Tahoe water helps to preserve these boats, as a result some of them are over 100 years old. The collection includes a metal kayak, day sailor, and launch along with wooden fishing boats, rowboats, and motorboats. In addition to the two large barges, the Emerald Bay Maritime Heritage Trail includes two fishing boats and a 27-foot long launch. The launch likely represents the oldest boat in the collection. She was built in 1915 at the Stephens Brothers boatyard in Stockton. Proprietor of the Emerald Bay Resort purchased the boat, Florence M, and brought it to the lake in 1926 to provide day excursions for resort guests.

To learn more about the dive sites, click here to view the new interpretive panels. For more information on Emerald Bay, and some ideas for things to do there (for those of you who don’t want to go underwater) take a look at the State Park Website.


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