Let's get the big question out of the way first, Lora Knight's Scandinavian castle on the lake is not accessible. You will not be able to get your wheelchair into the house. Still, it's a worthwhile visit when you're in the Tahoe area.
Rangers, docents, and volunteers aren't fully aware of what is and is not accessible. We made arrangements for, and were even charged full price, for a tour only to find out at the door of the house that Tim would not be able to go inside (you need to be able to navigate 2 or 3 stairs to get into the living room where the main part of the guided tour takes place).
Luckily, we were refunded our ticket price and, while Letty got the full tour, Tim and I were able to pick around the edges and see a few things like the garage and a few staff quarters. More on that later.
Vikingsholm is a Scandinavian style castle built on the shore of Lake Tahoe at the foot of the stunning Emerald Bay. It was built in 1928 by Lora Knight and has 38 rooms with every amenity you could think of just before the depression hit.
Offshore is Tahoe's only island, where Mrs. Knight also built a teahouse on the peak.
Normally, you would park in the small parking lot on highway 89 and hike the steep but paved road a bit over a mile down the the edge of the lake where the house sits. If you have a power chair in good condition with fully charged batteries, you should be able to do it.
However, if you call the D.L. Bliss State Park visitor's center ahead of time at (530) 525-7232 you can book a slot to actually drive down to the castle...as long as you have a handicapped license plate or placard. Up to 2 vehicles can go down, escorted by park docents, at 1:00pm each day and return at 3:00pm.
This is what we did.
We were told to be at the visitor's center by 12:30pm. We're leaving Amador County...near Lodi, California...at 9:00am to give us plenty of time. The west shore of Lake Tahoe is 2 hours east of Sacramento, 4 from San Francisco, and about 90 minutes from Reno. Our drive should take just over 2 hours so this should give us plenty of time and we can get a bite of breakfast and take a bathroom break along the way.
There are three routes from the west, Interstate 80 and highway 50 both go from Sacramento but we like to take the more scenic and less crowded highway 88, also known as Carson Pass.
In April, we came through here and the snow was ten feet high on each side of the road. Now, in July, the snow's all gone but the grass is green and there's an abundance of wildflowers.
While it might be tough for cars to climb that almost nine thousand foot pass, we're fine and soon we're arriving in the city of South Lake Tahoe. We make a quick stop for a bit at McDonalds before continuing on to the D.L. Bliss State Park visitor's center.
It's just after noon. I pay my $10 parking fee and then we wait for our guides. At 12:30, Cheryl and Bob arrive, volunteers for the state park. They'll lead the way, unlock the gates, and guide us down the road to the handicapped parking spot at Vikingsholm next to the maintenance shed.
There is supposed to be one more party showing up and we have to wait until just before 1:00pm before leaving. Staff at the park know that no one is to be on the access road going up at that time to reserved the road for ADA visitors to make the transit down on the one-lane road.
The other party never shows up so it's just us and our volunteers. We follow the Subaru to an unmarked spot on the side of the road. Bob gets out, unlocks the gate, and we follow through. Bob locks the gate behind us and away we go.
It's a very narrow road, just enough for our van to squeeze by at times. Someone didn't get the memo because soon we're stopped by a truck coming up the hill. Bob gets out and navigates the offender to a small patch on the side of the road to give us just enough room to pass.
A few minutes later, we're at the bottom and parked. Bob and Cheryl give us a head's up as to where the visitor's center, bathrooms, and ticket office are. They tell us to meet them back here a few minutes before 3pm to make the trip back up and then they leave us.
A paved road leads behind the main house to the visitor's center on the other side. It's not accessible so Tim waits on the porch while I go in to buy tickets. I ask if there is a concession for wheelchair users and am told they go in through the exit but we are still charged full price.
We have five minutes until the tour starts. We go in the exit and wait in the circular driveway of the house for a tour guide to come and meet us. What I don't see is a ramp of any kind, although the step to the door of the house is only two inches high, leading to a one inch threshold to get through the door. Not perfect but doable in Tim's chair.
The guide comes out with a binder full of photographs of the house for Tim to look at.
"Can't he go in the house?" I ask him.
"No, there's a few steps down into the living room where the main portion of the tour takes place," he answers. "One of you can go on the tour and then I'll take the other one while he waits out here."
"We were lead to believe that he would at least be able to see the bottom floor of the house. They did charge us full price for his tour and now we find he can't go in."
There...there's that look when you bring up a big accessible issue with someone who doesn't have a clue.
"They did?" he answers, surprised. "They should have known he couldn't get in, I'll make sure you get a refund."
(They did refund two tour admissions, which cost $15 each.)
So, to recap, The website says to call the number above to make ADA arrangements to go to the castle. The visitor's center tells us we can buy tickets for the accessible tour when we get there. The visitor's center sells us tickets, telling us that wheelchairs just need to go in the exit, the guide tells us it's not possible (but chair users can look at pictures), and now...when we only have 90 minutes to spend here...I have to go back to the visitor's center to waste some more precious time to get my money back.
And people wonder why people with special needs get so frustrated with the world at large sometimes...
Letty goes on the tour while Tim and I wait in the driveway. We're all alone so we start wandering around.
We are able to see this nice 1936 Dodge, used by Mrs. Knight's personal secretary, in the garage.
There are a couple of servant bedrooms near the exit that Tim can see, and he can just get a tiny glimpse of the kitchen through an open door that us up a couple of steps.
I get him into the foyer where he can see this unique clock.
From there, he can peek into the living room and into the dining room.
Letty takes my place and I take a quick swing upstairs to see the bedrooms.
The guide brings the tour group out to the driveway and explains that the house was built here because the surrounding area looks like Norway.
Seeing the large, rocky cliffs behind the house, it's hard to argue that point.
After the tour, we take a walk along the beach. The sand is hard enough and packed enough that Tim can roll his chair along without problems.
I take off my shoes and get my feet wet in the cold, clear lake.
We hike around a little on the trails through the forest, looking for birds, chipmunks, and butterflies.
There's a boat pier where I walk out and check out the small island off shore. The pier is not in a good enough condition for wheelchairs to access but it would not take a lot to fix that.
While the accessibility of the tour was a disappointment...along with the general lack of accessible knowledge among the staff...the area is stunningly beautiful and worth the trip just to spend some time on this tucked away and hard-to-get-to beach on Lake Tahoe.
Back at the van, we have a little snacknic while we wait for our guides. They soon show up, offer deep apologies for the access ("I could have sworn they had a portable ramp for the bottom floor," Bob told us), and we shared some of our home-grown plums with them.
Back up (and, yes, another truck was coming down during the reserved ADA time on the road, causing another delay), we head back over to Hope Valley.
This is one of California's most beautiful spots at the junction of highways 88 and 89, where the Carson River forms up for its journey to Nevada.
Not far from here is the Kirkwood Inn, built as a remote waystation up in the mountains for weary travelers heading over Carson Pass in 1864.
In the room where Showshoe Thompson was a regular, we eat a delicious meal of smoked brisket and chicken poblano soup.
The county line bisects the building so, this bar where Thompson sat, is in Alpine County and the table a few feet away where we sat in the dining area is in Amador County.
Back in our home county, we finish up and head down the hill.
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