Lake Tahoe’s New ‘Trail’ Reveals a Surprising Underwater History

Today, Lake Tahoe is among California’s most iconic tourist destinations. Hikers know the area well for its breathtaking trails with panoramic views of Emerald Bay. However, the area’s real glory days of tourism occurred in the early- to mid-1900s, a time of boom and bust for many lakefront resorts. The state is encouraging visitors to explore the lake and Emerald Bay State Park from a surprising new angle: underwater.

This month, California debuted its first-ever underwater maritime heritage cultural trail. The Emerald Bay Maritime Heritage Trail is a series of marine exhibits designed to lead divers and snorkelers through the lake’s early- to mid-20th-century history. According to California State Parks, the trail encompasses “the largest, most diverse group of sunken small craft known to exist in its original location, in the nation.”

Four individual sites will feature interpretive panels viewable only to those adventurous enough to jump in the water. Two barges make up the largest of the four sites. Some of Tahoe’s original lumber companies used the ships to ferry cars and transport wood in the summer months. The other two sites were originally part of the Emerald Bay Resort, one of the lake’s most iconic vacation destinations during the ‘20s and ‘30s. The Florence M is the oldest and largest vessel in the resort’s fleet and the most historic in the trail’s collection. The 27-foot wooden launch was only discovered in 2014 at a depth of nearly 60 feet. Thanks to the lake’s frigid year-round water temperatures, the 100-year-old craft is remarkably well preserved with traces of the original paint still intact.

underwater lake tahoe
Mylana Haydu, Indiana State University, Center for Underwater Science

The luxury resorts of Lake Tahoe’s Golden Age relied on a steady stream of boats, barges, and launches to ferry passengers, cars, and cargo around the lake. By the mid-20th century, however, most had outlived their usefulness. They were subsequently scuttled (sunk) in the 1950s and, until now, lost to time and the elements. The new heritage trail seeks to reclaim these historical relics as a way to educate visitors about the lake’s past.

Visitors interested in exploring the Emerald Bay Maritime Heritage Trail can find waterproof informational cards at the park’s official visitor center and some area dive shops. Free digital versions are also available on the websites for California State Parks and the Sierra Parks Foundation.

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