This past Labor Day weekend, we took a quick, fairly last minute trip to Lake Tahoe for two full days of outdoor adventures and hiking. We opted to come back Sunday post hiking to give us all one full day at home to relax before getting back to school and work.
The first day of our Tahoe weekend getaway included hiking the upper Eagle Falls trail, riding the Heavenly Gondola to the mountaintop, and enjoying a fabulous dinner at Riva Grill. Now with a good night’s sleep under our belts we were off to hike down to the historic Vikingsholm Castle on the shores of Emerald Bay.
Like we did with the Eagle Falls hike, we got up super early in the morning to hit the local grocery store for sandwiches, fresh fruit, chips, cookies, and drinks for another yummy picnic in the Tahoe National Forest — and to get to the small Vikingsholm parking lot before it filled up!
The Vikingsholm Trail starts at a stone observation area high above Emerald Bay. There are plenty of places to enjoy a picnic, relax, and take in the stunning views of the sparkling blue-green waters of Emerald Bay, serene Lake Tahoe, and Fannette Island. We spent quite a bit of time here as the kids love to climb all over the large boulders and granite rock formations.
The trail is a wide, mostly paved, two mile, round trip hike, descending and ascending roughly 450 feet in elevation. It starts just past the parking lot and is very steep. Every so often there are benches to sit and rest. We didn’t need the benches on the hike down to Vikingsholm Castle, but stopped fairly often to check out several smaller waterfalls along the side of the trail.
The hike uphill to the parking lot was a completely different experience. We used every single bench on the hike back to rest. Going down is fast, so fast that you don’t think much of the hike back up until you have to do it — and let me tell you, ascending 450 feet in elevation to the observation area (6,300 feet elevation) in just one steep mile is tough, even for those in good shape!
Emerald Bay State Park
Emerald Bay State Park was designated a National Natural Landmark in 1969 for its brilliant panorama of glacier carved granite. Then in 1994, it was designated an underwater state park and is the resting place for many boats, launches, and barges used in the lake before the turn of the century and in the construction of Vikingsholm.
We reached the shoreline of Emerald Bay well before the tours of Vikingsholm Castle began for the day, so we decided to explore the area and go play on the beach.
On our upper Eagle Falls hike, we discovered that Eagle Falls had dried up in the California drought, which meant there wasn’t much to see at the bottom of the 170 foot lower Eagle Falls. We were bummed, but it meant we could hike through the waterfall bed, over rocks, and around driftwood and fallen trees, finding all sorts of interesting treasures.
On the beach we found the beginnings of a fort made out of giant driftwood pieces.
Carter was in heaven and took off running the minute he saw with Natalie not far behind him. Clearly we were going to spend a lot of time playing in the fort. We easily spent over an hour just dragging over more driftwood to beef up the fort and make it bigger. It was so fun to just play and relax and build — and to do it in such an exquisite location with views of Lake Tahoe, Fannette Island, and the mountains around us.
Eventually it started to get hot and we knew it was time to figure out the Vikingsholm tour details so we could check out the inside of the authentic Scandinavian Castle replica. Pulling the kids away from the driftwood fort wasn’t easy though!
Historic Vikingsholm and Fannette Island
We paid for the Vikingsholm Castle guided tour at the small visitor center and gift shop, then headed over to the front of the Castle to wait for the tour. We got there only a few minutes early and there were already a lot of people waiting. They do limit the tour size, so be sure to be there early if you don’t have time to wait for the next tour.
We’ve toured a lot of historic buildings and the inside of Vikingsholm was impressive and way better than we thought it would be. The docent leading the tour was entertaining, informative, and answered all of the questions from the group. She also didn’t rush us through the house or the courtyard, letting us explore the rooms and look around at our own pace — which was very helpful with the kids.
Vikingsholm, considered to be one of the finest examples of Scandinavian architecture existing in the United States, was one of the first ever summer homes on the shores of Lake Tahoe.
Here are just a few facts about Vikingsholm:
- In 1928, Mrs. Lora Knight purchased the property for Vikingsholm — 239 acres at the head of Emerald Bay — from William Henry Armstrong for $250,000.
- In the spring of 1929, more than 200 highly skilled workmen were bought to Emerald Bay and housed in temporary barracks on the property. They worked diligently throughout the summer and by the end of the season the house was completed.
- The exterior Vikingsholm architecture includes round granite boulders embedded in mortar, massive hand hewn timbers, carvings around the doors, carvings extending along roof ridges with dragon heads crossing at the roof peaks, and a sod roof seeded with wildflowers.
- The interior of the house features delicate paintings on ceilings and walls, Nordic fireplaces located throughout the home, and two intricately carved “dragon” beams hanging from the ceiling in the living room.
- Many antiques were purchased for the home in Scandinavian countries and shipped to Tahoe. Items she loved in museums in Norway and Sweden that were not available for purchase were reproduced to exact detail, down to the aging of the wood and the duplication of scratches on the originals.
- A caretaker and his family lived on the property all year. Yardmen were hired locally each season to care for the grounds. The rest of the staff was brought from Mrs. Knight’s winter home in Santa Barbara and consisted of her private secretary, personal maid, cook, assistant cook, pantry maid, serving maid, upstairs maid, chauffeur, assistant chauffeur, and laundry women.
Located in the center of Emerald Bay, Fannette Island is the only island in Lake Tahoe. The island, made mostly of granite with sparse timber, rises 150 feet above the water and features a stone structure at the very top that looks like a miniature castle. The 16×16 foot structure with a small fireplace in the corner, is actually the tea house Mrs. Knight had built during the construction of Vikingsholm.
When we finished the tour, we found a secluded, shady spot under the trees to enjoy our picnic lunch and take a break before gearing up for our hike back up Vikingsholm Trail to the parking lot. No one was excited about the one mile hike uphill in the blazing hot afternoon sun. Thankfully we had a lot of water, took a lot of breaks, and didn’t rush it. I was seriously never so happy to finally see the parking lot!
Tips For Hiking To And Visiting Vikingsholm
- Bring lots of water and snacks or a picnic lunch. There is nowhere to purchase food or water once you reach the bottom of the hike.
- Wear comfortable tennis shoes or hiking shoes. The trail is mostly paved, but it is very steep — and keep in mind that the hike back to the car is a one mile hike, all uphill, rising 450 feet.
- The Vikingsholm parking lot is about 9 miles north of South Lake Tahoe on Highway 89 and it isn’t very big! Get there early for a better chance of snagging a parking space, and bring cash to pay for parking.
- You can tour historic Vikingsholm Castle seven days a week throughout the summer. Tours are about 30 minutes long and begin every hour on the half hour. Bring cash though as the tour costs roughly $10/person.
- Only 30 people are allowed on each Vikingsholm Castle tour, so if you’re there on a very crowded day or holiday weekend like we were, be sure to pay attention to the time and be at the castle doors early.
- If hiking in the summer or on a warm day, consider wearing your bathing suits under your clothes. We were so ridiculously hot and wished we had our suits on to play in the water at Emerald Bay beach.
- Dogs are not allowed on any trails or roads into Emerald Bay, nor on the beach.
Someday I’d love to rent kayaks, head out to the island, and hike to the top to check out the remains of the Tea House. I’d also love to try an alternate hike to Vikingsholm along the Rubicon Trail that begins at D.L. Bliss State Park, also on the West shore of Lake Tahoe.
What About You?
Have you hiked down to historic Vikingsholm in Emerald Bay? Did you visit by Boat tour? Were you lucky enough to visit when Eagle Falls had water? What did you think of the home and the beach?
I’d love to hear from you!