California’s first underwater trail in Emerald Bay

Divers install one of the new interpretive panels | Courtesy California State Park

California State Parks and the Sierra State Parks Foundation have unveiled California’s First Maritime Heritage Underwater Trail located in Lake Tahoe’s Emerald Bay.

Starting Oct. 1, 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, according to a press release from California State Parks.

On Sept. 28, state park dive team members will broadcast an underwater tour with live video and audio at 2 p.m. on the Facebook page for California State Parks and the Sierra State Parks Foundation.

Scuba and snorkel diving visitors will be able to explore an underwater trail with historic features at several sites along the shoreline of Emerald Bay State Park. 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 of three additional sites highlighted in this underwater trail until now.

Download the:
Interpretive Panels
Dive Cards
Map of Emerald Bay dive sites

Underwater interpretive panels have been placed at four dive sites in Emerald Bay. Waterproof interpretive cards created for divers will be available at the park’s visitor centers, local dive shops and parks.ca.gov. These panels and interpretive cards were made possible by the Sierra State Parks Foundation.

These boats were scuttled when they outlived their usefulness, but 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.

The Barge Dive Site, located off the southeastern shore of the bay, was initially established in 1998. The site consists of two barges, built of massive Ponderosa pine timbers, sitting at a depth between 10 to 40 feet deep. The barges were owned and operated by the lumber companies, who used them to haul cordwood part of the year and then employed them as car ferries during the summer months. Since the barges had no means of propulsion, they were either towed or pushed by steamers. The southernmost barge, lying parallel to shore, represents the more complete of the two and measures more than 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 land was acquired by the State in the 1950s and the buildings were removed to make way for the campground.

The resort once existed on what is now Boat Camp, the lake’s only boat-in campground on the north shore of the bay. Compared with Tahoe’s luxury hotels, the Emerald Bay Resort was a simple family resort with 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 a popular element to the experience.

Divers photographs one of the wooden barges. | Mylana Haydu, Indiana State University, Center for Underwater Science

Just offshore of Boat Camp is a collection of small vessels that were sunk at their moorings, 30 to 60 feet below the surface. The cold Tahoe water helps to preserve these boats, some of which are more than 100 years old. The collection includes a metal kayak, day sailor and launch along with wooden fishing boats, rowboats and motorboats. Along with 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.

The Sierra State Parks Foundation has invested $27,832 toward the completion of the Emerald Bay Maritime Heritage Trail since 2016. The Foundation contracted for the production of underwater interpretive signs for use at the sunken boat and barge locations at Emerald Bay State Park, including the production of a dive card about these sites. The Foundation funded the design and fabrication of the underwater blocks and associated interpretive panels and underwrote the costs of the dive team to research this project and position the interpretive panels. | parks.ca.gov, sierrastateparks.org