When the urban cacophony of Oakland, California, gets to be too much, Lake Merritt is where locals come to unwind, picnic, cycle, go for a walk or a run, or just watch the sunset over the downtown skyline. Surprisingly, the lakeshore has nooks and crannies that even locals don’t know everything about. You can discover them almost entirely for free on a sunny afternoon walk all of the way or just partway around the lake’s perimeter.
The first secret is that Lake Merritt isn’t even really a lake. It’s a tidal lagoon, shaped either like a heart (that’s an imaginative stretch) or like the head of a rabbit (a little easier to see). Originally, this was an arm of San Francisco Bay where indigenous Ohlone tribespeople who fished and gathered. Now a bird sanctuary, the lake is the USA’s oldest wildlife refuge, dating from 1870. The lake is also on the National Register of Historic Places, and the necklace of lights that encircles it at night was first lit in the 1920s.
What’s the best time to go? It’s about 3.4 miles all the way around the lake, depending on whether you stick to the shoreline path or take any shortcuts on the street-level sidewalks. If you plan on making most of the stops in this itinerary, save at least a half day for this walk and aim to finish up around sunset.
How do I get there? The lake is walkable from three different BART stations (Lake Merritt, 12th St./City Center and 19th St.) and accessible via several AC Transit bus lines. Street parking is time-limited and usually metered. There is a pay parking lot in Lakeside Park, on the north shore; it’s open from 7:30 a.m. to dusk daily, charging $2 for two hours or $10 all day on weekdays, and a $5 flat fee on weekends. For more Transportation details see Oakland and Around (in the yellow bar).
Distance: 1.1 miles
Start your walking tour off Grand Ave. in Lakeside Park, where you’ll find most of the lake’s best-loved attractions. Young kids will go bananas at the Children’s Fairyland, whose brightly colored sign is just uphill from the intersection with Park View Terrace. Walk south through the park toward the lakeshore past the enclosed Gardens at Lake Merritt (free admission, open 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily). Downhill and right on the water, the Lake Merritt Boating Center (open daily, except weekends only Nov.-Feb., with hours that vary seasonally) rents rowboats, pedal boats, kayaks, canoes, and sailboats when the weather cooperates.
Continuing north along the lakeshore, you’ll pass the painted totem pole outside the Rotary Nature Center (open 10 a.m. to 4:30 or 5 p.m. daily), a quick educational stop for kids. Excellent bird-watching opportunities await outside the center as you continue alongside the lake east to the romantic pergola and colonnade, where you should stop to drink in some of the best views anywhere around the lake.
Tip: If it’s Saturday morning or early afternoon, detour two blocks north to the Grand Lake Farmers Market. Otherwise, if you’re hungry or thirsty, just walk north up Grand Ave. or Lakeshore Ave., both streets lined with restaurants, cafes, and coffee shops. On Lakeshore Ave., Arizmendi Bakery is my favorite place to grab a snack or a half or whole pizza to take back to the lakeshore for a picnic.
Distance: 1.3 miles
The quieter eastern shore of Lake Merritt has no tourist attractions, so this is where many locals who live in the neighborhood come to hang out and picnic. It’s a scenic, leisurely walk south beside Lakeshore Ave., either on the sidewalk or the lakefront path. As you duck out from underneath the pergola, veer toward the sidewalk and walk a half block south past Boden Way. Look left across the street at the Cleveland Cascade, a historic triple-decker stairway that connects Lakeshore Ave. with Merritt Ave. in the Cleveland Heights neighborhood. Though the 1926 water feature isn’t operational, the stairs are planted with greenery.
Back on the curvy lakeside walking path, walk south past a defunct, but grand-looking boat dock, where a wooden sandwich board suggests making a one-block detour to Portal restaurant and beer garden. Winding farther south, you’ll reach a pedestrian bridge over the channel, where you can sometimes spy on wooing couples being rowed by gondoliers.
That building straight ahead in the distance is the glittering white Superior Court of California, Alameda County, a few blocks beyond which you might be able to spot the 1906 Tribune Tower, topped by a 1923 clock tower with neon signage. On the west side of the bridge, a bohemian crowd sprawls on the grass in Peralta Park, next to the petite lakeshore amphitheater.
Distance: 1 mile
Also less busy than the north shore, Lake Merritt’s western shore is another beautiful stretch to walk. As you start heading north again, look uphill to the left at the Camron-Stanford House, a Victorian home that’s open for tours on Sunday afternoons. Ahead is the Lake Chalet restaurant and bar, which has a dynamite happy hour. It’s next to the dock where Gondola Servizio cruises depart (book ahead).
Outside the Lake Chalet, climb up the stairs etched with inspirational words to the sidewalk, then look across the street at the bas-relief panels on the exterior of the grand Oakland Scottish Rite Center, which dates from the 1920s and mixes Italian Renaissance and Spanish Moorish architectural influences. Head back to the lakeshore and follow it north. As you approach the corner of Harrison St. and Grand Ave., where this walking tour began, gaze at the modernist steel-and-glass Cathedral of Christ the Light.