Photo: Mylana Haydu, Indiana State University, Center for Underwater Science
By Ryan Hoffman
Few places have been viewed more than Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay. The iconic inlet is one of the most visited areas of Big Blue — by boat, vehicle or bike — and one of the most photographed locations in the United States.
Now, thanks to California State Parks and the Sierra State Parks Foundation, the public has an opportunity to view an area of the bay seen by far fewer people: scenes of maritime history beneath the surface.
The Emerald Bay Maritime Heritage Trail officially opened Monday, Oct. 1, just days after a boat filled with park officials, foundation members, project leads and members of the media traveled to stops on Tahoe’s newest trail.
The underwater trail is the first of its kind in California and features five different boats located at four different dive points in Emerald Bay, which is home to more than a dozen sunken vessels that scientists are aware of.
By exploring the trail, divers can see a “fabulous record” of Tahoe’s recreational maritime culture that emerged in the late 19th century, remarked John Foster, a retired underwater archaeologist with California State Parks.
Foster was a central figure in the team that led to the maritime trail’s establishment. He was with California State Parks when all of Emerald Bay — that is, below Lake Tahoe’s surface — was named a state park in 1994.
California State Parks officials prepare to dive below Tahoe's surface to provide a video tour of a sunken barge. Photo: Ryan Hoffman / Tahoe Daily Tribune
While there are underwater parks elsewhere in the U.S. Emerald Bay’s beauty above and below the water puts it in a class of its own.
“For a park to be able to go from land and you’re able to see all the sites on land and you just keep going right down underwater and they’re there too, it’s a remarkable piece,” said Sheli Smith, chief academic officer for the PAST Foundation and a maritime archeologist who helped start the underwater archeological work in Emerald Bay. “Not only is it one of the wonders of the world in terms visually, but it’s one of the wonders of the world in terms of archaeologically, too.”
Divers can explore two sunken barges in one location — the original dive site established in the ‘90s. The opening of the trail signified the disclosure of three additional sites previously withheld from the public.
Courtesy / California State Parks
The barges, which rest 10-40 feet below and are visible from the surface, are perhaps the most impressive vessels on the trail, according to Charles Beeker, director of underwater science at Indiana University who helped discover many of the sunken ships in the bay.
“What’s most exciting on the trail are the large ponderosa pine barges …” he said. “These were probably used in the building of Vikingsholm, we think, and were also used before the highway was built in 1926 to cross the mouth of Emerald Bay.”
Near the barges on the south shore of Emerald Bay is a hard chine skiff, a fishing boat measuring 15 feet in length. It rests on the floor about 60 feet below the surface.
Viewers watch as a submersible provides live video of divers exploring a sunken barge. Photo: Ryan Hoffman / Tahoe Daily Tribune
On the north shore near the mouth of the bay sits a wooden fishing boat. The boat features a built-in live well, a feature used to keep bait alive that was unique to recreational vessels intended for use on calmer waters, according to California State Parks. The boat is 35 feet below the surface.
Closer toward Fannette Island on the bay’s north shore is a 27-foot wooden launch, essentially a covered boat, that was part of the fleet at the old Emerald Bay Resort. The boat, according to California State Parks, was powered by a 20-horsepower engine and had electric lights on board. It was built in 1915 and discovered in 2014 50-60 feet below the surface.
Taken as a whole, the trail presents a variety of vessels from a bygone era.
A dive instructor swims along side a submersible. Photo: Ryan Hoffman / Tahoe Daily Tribune
“It’s really quite special to see these because they’re really the maritime landscape that we don’t see on land anymore — it’s all underwater,” Beeker said.
The trail represents the result of a great deal of work and collaboration.
“There’s been a lot of partners involved, a lot of outside experts, and it’s all coming together today in sharing this information that we’ve gained with the public,” Foster said. “So opening this trail is a very important step.”
As for visitation expectations, it is safe to say the maritime trail wont see as many visitors as Emerald Bay as a whole, or its attractions such as Vikingsholm and Fannette Island. While a few of the vessels are accessible to snorkelers, the rest require scuba gear, which requires appropriate training at altitude.
Additionally, there are no plans at the moment to mark the sites above water. Instead divers can access exact coordinates on a series of waterproof cards available at the park’s visitor center, local dive shops and online. Underwater plaques have been placed at the dive sites thanks to a donation from the Sierra State Parks Foundation.
Divers can access exact coordinates for dive sites on a series of waterproof cards available at the park’s visitor center, local dive shops and online. Photo: Ryan Hoffman / Tahoe Daily Tribune
While the underwater trail likely won’t see as much traffic as the trails on land in the bay, the establishment of the Emerald Bay Maritime Heritage Trail affirms California State Parks’ dedication to preserving its most amazing destinations.
“To recognize that the state is protecting these sites for future generations to me was really important ... I came here as a young kid,” Beeker said, “and a lot of other people have, and I’d like to think that my grandkids will come here some day and these sites will still be here.”
The mouth of Emerald Bay viewed from the south shore. Photo: Ryan Hoffman / Provided