One of Lake Tahoe’s most iconic vistas is Emerald Bay. The lake’s only island, Fannette Island, rises 150 feet above the chilly blue water. While over the years, millions of visitors have laid eyes upon this rocky promontory, actually setting foot there can be a challenge. For those with a sense of adventure, the experience is well-worth the effort.
In geologic terms, Emerald Bay is a relative newcomer to Lake Tahoe. While the lake was created by tectonic block-faulting over the course of millions of years, Emerald Bay was carved out by a glacier during the last ice age. Remnants of the debris carried by the ice flow can be seen underwater in the shallow mouth of the bay. Fannette Island is a granite outcrop that resisted the glacial forces.
Explorer John Fremont first “discovered” Lake Tahoe in 1844. It’s vast timber resources helped build up the gold and silver mines of California and Nevada. But for most people, it remained an inaccessible place of mystery, only to be read about or viewed in paintings. With the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, the basin was now within reach of the east coast. Soon thereafter, it became the playground of the well-to-do.
One of those wealthy visitors was Lora Josephine Knight. In 1928 she purchased land at Emerald Bay, including Fannette Island. In one year’s time, two-hundred craftsmen built the famed Vikingsholm Castle, modeled after centuries-old structures in Scandinavia. At that time she also had a teahouse built on the island. Her butler would often row her and her guests to the teahouse for pleasant afternoon outings. After Lora passed away, the California State Parks Department purchased the land in 1953, preserving Vikingsholm, and opening it up to the public. The Teahouse hasn’t fared as well, suffering vandalism in the 1960’s. But the four walls of the structure remain standing and continue to provide visitors with a one-of-a-kind viewing experience.
The only problem is getting there. Although Fannette Island is deceptively close to the beaches of Emerald Bay, swimming there is prohibited. The cold water of Lake Tahoe can overcome unprepared swimmers, and the significant amount of boat traffic makes swimming too dangerous. So, the island is only accessible by boat. Many visitors access Fannette via motorized watercraft, but for the more adventurous, paddling a boat or kayak makes for a great day trip.
Paddleboards and kayaks are available to rent at Vikingsholm Park, however the only way to get Vikingsholm is on foot. The mile-long trek descends 500 feet from the highway. And what goes down, must go back up. Unless you’re up for a challenging hike, at 6,200 feet of elevation, you might consider an alternate starting point.
Fortunately, there are two beaches fairly close to Emerald Bay that provide a pleasant embarkation point for some kayaking. The closest, Baldwin Beach, is just over 3 miles away over water. Lester Beach is another great spot. At nearly 4 miles away, this route will take you by the Rubicon Point Lighthouse.
Upon arriving at Fannette Island, a short dash up the granite rocks will take you to the Teahouse. This provides a great vantage point to watch the boats go by, have a snack and even perhaps a spot of tea, if you’ve brought some.
Of course, you don’t need to visit Fannette Island to enjoy its beauty. It is easily visible from the highway. As Tahoe’s most famous scenic destination, parking can be a challenge during peak times. Another fun way to see the island is onboard one of the lake’s many tour-boats. However, you choose to get there, a visit to Fannette Island will make a memorable experience.
For more information, visit: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=1158
There is so much to say, to read and write about the discovery of gold in California, and how it affected the course of history of the United States and the West, but sometimes it is just better to see it for yourself. Fortunately for us, that is easy to do. Coloma, California is just a pleasant drive away.
If you grew up in the west, the story is familiar: James Marshall discovered gold while working in the American River. Word soon got out, and people from the world over flocked to the California foothills in search of the yellow metal. It turns out that gold would be found for hundreds of miles all along the western Sierras. Mining camps and towns sprang up anywhere paydirt could be found. Each of these colorful communities has it own unique attractions. But Coloma is the origin-story of the California Gold Rush.
Prior to the discovery of gold, California was a sparsely populated land, rich in agricultural, ranching and timber opportunities. It was timber which first brought settlers to Coloma. James Marshall, in partnership with John Sutter, erected a mill on the site, to provide lumber for the burgeoning territory.
The Marshall Gold Discovery Park preserves this historic site and provides a glimpse into what life was like for these early residents.
In true California style, the town comes to life during the Summer, as actors re-enacting the roles of the early pioneers. There is even a working blacksmith shop. The forges are still fired up, these days to create ornamental items, available for purchase at the gift shop.
Many of the historic buildings are still standing, along with several relics of mining life.
Even though John Marshall discovered the gold, he never really struck it rich. He did however have some success establishing one of the state’s first wineries in the area. This tradition has been revived, as many small wineries have been operating in the vicinity since the 1980’s. Coloma is now a great place to begin a wine-tasting adventure.
For a more active adventure there is the American River. The section of the river is famous for its whitewater rapids. There are several tour operators based in the nearby community of Lotus. There are also miles of trails open for hiking, mountain biking and horseback riding.
If you are looking for a great day trip, Coloma is a great place to visit. Be warned though, it will take several days to fully appreciate all that the area has to offer!
For more information, visit: https://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=484
Knights Ferry, California
Tucked away in the rolling foothills of Stanislaus County is the scenic community of Knights Ferry. Here, visitors can be treated to some early Gold Rush history, relaxing strolls and possibly a heart-pounding adventure.
Dr. William Knight first entered California in 1844 as a member of the John Fremont expedition. When gold was discovered near Coloma in 1848, it was soon apparent that hoards of travelers would be arriving in the state in search of fortune and adventure. Dr. Knight established a ferry service to shuttle passengers and supplies across the Stanislaus River. Shortly thereafter he was killed in a gunfight, but the success of the ferry service continued on. A toll bridge was built in 1852, only to be washed away a decade later. A covered bridge was built in 1863, which still stands today. At 330 feet long, this structure is the longest covered bridge west of the Mississippi River.
Knights Ferry also became an important center for commerce and industry. A flour mill was built in 1854, later to be converted into one of the state’s first hydroelectric plants. The remnants of the mill are still standing.
Visitors today can visit this sprawling historic site as part of the Knights Ferry Recreation Area, run by the Army Corps of Engineers. This park preserves the bridge and other historic buildings as well as providing ample space to enjoy the Stanislaus River. This section of the river provides some nice swimming areas, and serves as a departure point for whitewater rafting adventures.
If aquatic adventures aren’t your cup-of-tea, a pleasant stroll through town might be in order. There are a handful of restaurants, such as The River’s Edge and The 50’s Roadhouse to satisfy your appetite. The Knight’s Ferry Creamery is a good place to cool off with some freshly made ice cream. The Knights Ferry General Store first opened in 1852, and has been in continuous operation since, making it California’s oldest running store.
In the Fall, Knights Ferry is a great place to witness the annual migration of salmon as they return to spawn. Regardless of what draws you to Knights Ferry, after one visit, you’ll likely want to return as well.
For more information, visit: https://knightsferry.com