Located in Emerald Bay State Park, Vikingsholm – Lake Tahoe’s castle – is a gorgeous historic mansion constructed in the 1920s. It’s modeled after Scandinavian architecture and the original owner and her architect traveled throughout the region drawing inspiration from homes and castles there before beginning the building process. Nowadays, visitors to Vikingsholm Castle can take a guided tour inside or just enjoy the scenery surrounding the beautiful building.
Getting to Vikingsholm
Emerald Bay State Park is in the southwestern corner of Lake Tahoe and can be reached by car, boat, bike (strenuous ride), or by hiking. There is a small parking lot at the trailhead that will take you to Vikingsholm that requires a fee. If the lot is full – as it often is during the summer – there is limited parking available along certain parts of the main road. Just look out for tow away zone signs and make sure you’re clear of the road.
Check opening dates and hours at the official website for Vikingsholm Castle.
Hiking the Vikingsholm trail
The road and parking lot are located high above Emerald Bay, and getting down to water level where you’ll find the castle requires taking a walk down the Vikingsholm Trail. This mile-long gravel pathway was originally the driveway for the mansion, but it’s not open to private vehicles these days. The trail descends steadily downwards through a series of long switchbacks. Before you leave the parking lot, there are signs warning that the climb back uphill can be strenuous and recommending that anyone with medical conditions not attempt the hike. You’re also warned that there are no rides out if you’re struggling. The Emerald Bay State Park website does have a note about making arrangements for handicapped visitors, so there may be other options for visiting.
The trail was as easy to follow as it gets, so you’d really have to try to get lost along the way. As you wind your way down to lake level, you’ll be treated to peeks of the bright blue water popping out between the pine trees. The way down was definitely easier, but I’m in my early 30s and mostly out of shape and even coming from the very flat Midwest I didn’t find that the trail was too much of a struggle for me to get up. I stopped once on the climb up and sat on a large tree stump overlooking the bay to enjoy the view while I drank some water. If you take it slowly and give yourself breaks when needed, I think it’s doable, but you have to make your own choice.
You’ll definitely want to bring appropriate footwear to hike the Vikingsholm Trail. I passed a group making the walk in flip flops (presumably for some Emerald Bay beach fun) and they were discussing how much they regretted that choice.
Vikingsholm Castle tours
Guided tours inside the mansion are offered during the summer season every 30 minutes from 9-4pm. You can purchase your tickets from the small visitor center just past the mansion at the end of the trail. Credit cards are accepted there, and a selection of souvenirs, ice cream bars, and bottled drinks are also available for purchase. I enjoyed snacking on a strawberry ice cream bar along the shore while I waited for my tour to start.
Our group met at the large doors facing the lake and got an introduction to the house’s history. This is actually the back door, though you’d never guess that with its ornate carvings.
Inside the living room, our guide showed us some of the period furniture the original owner, Lora Knight, had acquired on her travels through the Scandinavian countries as well as the architectural details that were copied from real castles in Europe. Some of the pieces that she liked the most weren’t for sale, so she had detailed sketches made of them and her woodcarver recreated them down to the last detail for her home.
We also got a peek inside the dining room. Evidently her guests were all required to attend dinner in formal attire. After meals, she would frequently have the whole party driven up to the main road and then they’d all walk down what’s now the Vikingsholm trail – ladies still in their heels – for exercise. I’d have broken an ankle or two making that walk in heels.
My biggest disappointment was that the library/reading room in the turret part of the building was only visible through a doorway at the far end of the living room.
After showing us around the first floor, our guide took us out the front door into the entrance courtyard. Here we learned a bit more about how summers were spent here (she wintered in southern California). I loved the grass-covered roofs of the out buildings, which are still irrigated by the original sprinkler system installed during the original construction.
The outer courtyard was also where the staff stayed, and several of the doors were open so you could peek into the kitchen and their quarters. Current staff members do live in some of the rooms, so be respectful of the ones that are marked as off-limits.
After finishing her spiel about the history of the house, our guide let us back inside to explore the upper floor on our own. The hallways are somewhat narrow here, so I’m assuming it’s done this way to spread out the foot traffic so everyone can see. While we were outside, she had told us what each of the rooms was used for so we knew what we were looking at.
I don’t know about you, but I’d have been all over this guest room in the turret. Mrs. Knight also had a screened in sleeping porch on the third level that she used to get fresh air at night and that sounds absolutely heavenly even though we didn’t get to see it on the tour.
As we were free to explore the second level at our own pace, everyone milled around in smaller groups and eventually filtered out through the covered portico that marked the entrance to the courtyard.
Kayak to Fannette Island
One of the places mentioned on the tour is Mrs. Knight’s tea house on Fannette Island. The tea house is not included in your tour, but you can grab an Emerald Bay kayak rental from Kayak Tahoe just a short walk from the house. You can rent single or tandem kayaks or stand up paddle boards to head out into the bay. The rental staff can give you more tips for where the best place to land on the island is.
It should take you 10-15 minutes to paddle across to the island where you can beach your kayak and hike up to the tea house. I think the views of the surrounding slopes are the real treat here. There are no services on Fannette Island, so you’ll have to pack out any garbage you might generate.
Once you’re done exploring the island, you can return to the Vikingsholm beach or explore some more in your kayak.
Other things to do near Vikingsholm
There is a small beach area right in front of the castle. The roped off swimming area has some shallow area for splashing, but it does drop off pretty quickly so keep kids close to shore if they’re not good swimmers. I swam out to the rope and could see straight to the bottom thanks to Tahoe’s famously clear water. Swimming here will be most pleasant late in the summer when the water is at its warmest. The water was absolutely perfect in late August and was a great way to cool off before starting the hike back up the Vikingsholm Trail.
You’ll also see signs for the Eagle Falls trailhead. This short hike involves a little bit of elevation gain but it takes you to a decent sized waterfall that’s part of the series of cascades you may have driven past when parking. This trail does not lead to the very top of the waterfall though – if you want to get up to see the top of Eagle Falls, you’ll need to hike back up the Vikingsholm trail.
Check out these other Lake Tahoe posts:
- Ten Best South Lake Tahoe Restaurants
- Hiking Your Way to a Spectacular View of Lake Tahoe
- How I Skied for Free at Lake Tahoe
- Squaw Valley for Beginners
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