A Sierra storm, then a rainbow over Emerald Bay. (courtesy California State Parks)

Adjoining state parks D.L. Bliss and Emerald Bay protect six miles of Lake Tahoe’s shore. Rubicon Trail, a superb shoreline pathway, contours over shady slopes, linking the two parks and offering grand views of what Indians called the “Lake in the Sky.” From Rubicon Point, in D.L. Bliss State Park, you can look into the clear depths—sometimes for more than a hundred feet—into the lake.

Visit Eagle Falls in Emerald Bay State Park and savor vistas of Fannette Island and across the lake to Nevada. A highlight of D.L. Bliss is Balancing Rock, a 130-ton hunk of granite balanced, precariously it seems, between two pedestals.

A Sierra storm, then a rainbow over Emerald Bay. (courtesy California State Parks)
A Sierra storm, then a rainbow over Emerald Bay. (courtesy California State Parks)

Even if the parks themselves weren’t so splendidly scenic, they would still attract lots of visitors because they offer something in short supply around Lake Tahoe: public access to the lake.
Emerald Bay is one of Tahoe’s best beaches. Swimmers can brave the bay’s chilly waters, which warm only to the low 60s F. even in mid-summer

The lakeshore is cloaked in stands of red and white fir. Joining the stately firs are ponderosa pine, Jeffrey pine and incense cedar. “Leaf peekers” or homesick New Englanders will enjoy how autumn colors Tahoe’s aspen and maple trees.

Many visitors to Emerald Bay State Park come not to see flora’s handiwork, but Lora’s handiwork–Lora Knight, that is. In 1928, Knight commissioned Swede Lennart Palme to build her a ninth- century Norse Castle. A year later, Vikingsholm–turrets, towers and 38 rooms–was completed. Knight, a Santa Barbaran, spent summers in her authentically furnished fortress until her death in 1945.

During the summer months, guides give tours of Vikingsholm. (Tours are conducted 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., daily, every half-hour, through Labor Day, then only on the weekends for a few more weeks.

Even if you can’t schedule a Vikingsholm tour, the two-mile round trip hike on Vikingsholm Trail (a road closed to vehicle traffic) to view the curious structure is well worth the effort. Just looking at the exterior of the castle (not a single tree was disturbed when it was constructed) in its lakeside setting is impressive.

Directions: From South Lake Tahoe, drive 11 miles north on Highway 89 to the D.L. Bliss State Park entrance. If you’re coming from Tahoe City, you’ll drive sixteen miles south on 89 to the park entrance. Follow the park road 2.5 miles to its end at the parking area for Calawee Cove Beach.

To reach the trailhead for Vikingsholm from South Lake Tahoe, drive north nine miles on Highway 89 to the Vikingsholm Overlook, the Harvey West parking lot by Emerald Bay. If you’re coming from Tahoe City, drive 18 miles south on 89.

The hike: Sunbathers hit the beach while hikers choose between two paths–an upper and lower trail–looping south. Take either; they rejoin in a bit more than a 0.25-mile at the Old Lighthouse.

The short spur trail leading to the lighthouse is hardly worth the effort; the lighthouse looks more like an outhouse. Surely at one time the lighthouse must have offered quite a view of the lake, but these days conifers screen out much of the scene.

Rubicon Trail climbs gently south, soon offering much better views of Lake Tahoe. A steel cable along the most narrow and precipitous sections of trail offers the hiker something secure to hold.

Pause for a moment on the narrow path to give thanks to park namesake D.L. Bliss, a pioneering timber tycoon, railroad owner and banker. The Bliss family donated the core of the park to the state park system in 1929.

A half mile from the trailhead, you’ll arrive at some rock pinnacles. Kids will imagine that the natural stone sculptures resemble prehistoric animals and many more fanciful figures.

D.L. Bliss and Emerald Bay state parks share a shoreline and similar natural features but only Bliss boasts a world-class boulder. Balancing Rock, 130 tons of granite, balances, precariously it would seem, atop two fracturing and eroding stone pedestals. Sooner or later, the rock will roll, but in the meantime you can photograph it from a 0.5-mile interpretive trail.

For the tree-loving hiker, Rubicon Trail offers plenty of arboreal companionship. You get the Christmas spirit when you wander through stands of red and white fir. Joining the stately firs are ponderosa pine, Jeffrey pine and incense cedar. “Leaf peepers” will enjoy how autumn colors Tahoe’s aspen and maple trees.

Still, not all park flora hereabouts is a hundred feet high. Bushes growing near the forest trees include manzanita, alpine prickly currant, and ceanothus. Monkeyflower, columbine, lupine and leopard lily and many more wildflowers splash spring and summer color on the slopes.

Continue your ascent into a white fir forest. Emerging from the trees, the path begins a one-mile descent via switchbacks to the lakeshore at Bonnie Bay, a fine place to take a break.

Very soon after Bonnie Bay, the trail splits: the leftward branch meanders 0.75 mile around Emerald Point to Emerald Bay; the right branch, aptly named Bypass Trail reaches Emerald Bay in 0.25 mile.

Emerald Bay is not only beautiful to behold, it’s also an officially designated underwater state park for its natural attractions as well as 19th and 20th century artifacts resting on the bottom of the bay.

Wide Bypass Trail travels through impressive stands of large Jeffrey pine and incense cedar. After the trails rejoin, you cross the boundary from D.L. Bliss State Park into Emerald Bay State Park, and hike another 0.5 mile among pine, fir and incense cedar to the park’s Boat Camp. This camp is an ideal lakeside picnic spot.

For its last mile, Rubicon Trail sticks close to shore, crossing a couple of bridges over small creeks and springs. Hikers make only a single foray inland to climb around Parson Rock, a fine perch for photographers.