Historic Rubicon Point Lighthouse

Rubicon Lighthouse. | Mark McLaughlin

The hike from D.L. Bliss State Park to Emerald Bay and back ranks as one of the most exceptional walks in all of Tahoe. It is about 6 miles round trip to the vistas of Emerald Bay, perfect for a family outing or a casual afternoon sojourn. This well-maintained trail is rated beginner level ability but offers expert-only views.

BUCKET LIST #31

Keep your eyes peeled for osprey and bald eagles diving for fish. Check out their large nests perched on dead tree snags towering above the forest canopy. Just off the rugged shoreline, the water is more than 1,000 feet deep. Depending on weather, the park is open from late May until September.

Read more about Duane Leroy Bliss and Tahoe Tavern. Click on History under the Explore Tahoe menu.

Explore the hike to Emerald Bay. Click on Hiking under the Out & About menu.

In 1929, descendants of the Duane Leroy Bliss family donated 744 acres of this scenic landscape to California, thus creating D.L. Bliss State Park. A timber baron, Bliss profited from the mass harvest of Tahoe’s old-growth forest to supply mining operations on the Comstock in western Nevada. In the 1890s, the former logger developed a case of environmental awareness and joined an effort to protect the Tahoe Basin by establishing a Lake Tahoe Forest Reserve.

The controversial plan was fiercely opposed by residents of El Dorado County where commercial development would be prohibited. However, on April 13, 1899, President William McKinley set aside 136,335 acres in the southwest part of the basin. Included in the preserve is what is now Desolation Wilderness, one of the most popular and heavily visited wilderness areas in the country.

Ever the capitalist, at the turn of the century Bliss initiated modern tourism at Big Blue. He launched a luxury passenger steamship named the “S.S. Tahoe,” built the Tahoe Tavern for wealthy tourists near Tahoe City and constructed a charming narrow-gauge railroad along the Truckee River to connect Tahoe City with Truckee. It represented Lake Tahoe’s coming of age as a destination resort.

Rubicon Point Lighthouse Trail begins near Calawee Cove Beach and heads south. Take the short diversionary walk to an abandoned lighthouse built in the early 20th Century. Cut-granite steps lead to the small wooden pedestal that housed the lamp — it was restored and stabilized in 2001. Don’t expect a traditional lighthouse: this one looks more like an outhouse but it has an interesting backstory.

Starting in 1910, a navigation safety organization called Lake Tahoe Protective Association began submitting annual requests to the U. S. Congress for harbor buoys and lighthouses on Lake Tahoe. There were few electric lights illuminating the Tahoe shoreline in those days and boating traffic had increased dramatically in the early 1900s. Tahoe’s maritime interests supported the installation of navigation aids on the expansive lake busy with tourist passenger steamers and nautical vessels.

Calawee Cove Beach. | Mark McLaughlin

In 1916, Congress approved the installation of navigational lamps at Lake Tahoe and the Rubicon Lighthouse was built that year by the U.S. Coast Guard. An acetylene gas light with a 5-second flasher was mounted on top of a 7-foot wooden support 200 feet above the lake at Rubicon Point. Skippers could get their bearings at night with the new navigation light. To keep the lantern lit, a 300-pound tank of acetylene gas was delivered daily to Emerald Bay by the “S.S. Tahoe” and then hauled up the trail by mule or wagon. This maintenance was especially challenging during winter months. The cost and labor led to decommissioning the Rubicon Lighthouse in 1921; it was relocated about 5 miles north at Sugar Pine Point.

The 1921 Annual Report of the Commissioner of Lighthouses reported that the lantern at Sugar Pine was mounted on a similar pyramidal wooden tower where it remained operational for decades. By 1980, the wooden tower had been replaced with steel rigging. Later a modern navigation aid was installed along the shoreline. It can be seen along one of the nature trails at Ed’ Zberg Sugar Pine State Park.

Despite claims to the contrary, the Rubicon Point navigation beacon does not hold the record for highest elevation lighthouse in the world, North America or even the United States. All three of those accolades belong to Colorado’s Frisco Bay lighthouse, perched at 9,017 feet above sea level at Dillon Reservoir in the Rocky Mountains, nearly 2,000 feet higher than Lake Tahoe. However, it’s possible that the original Rubicon Point Lighthouse was the loftiest navigation lantern when it was installed. The Sugar Pine Point State Park beacon is not the only one on Lake Tahoe. There is an operational lighthouse at the late George Whittell’s Thunderbird Lodge on Tahoe’s East Shore.