No. 31: Lake Merritt

The pergola at Lake Merritt

The pergola at the northeast corner of Lake Merritt provides one of the postcard views of Oakland.

The heart of Oakland, physically and spiritually, is Lake Merritt. If you’ve watched the humorous Youtube video “S*** Oakland Says,” you’ve noticed how much time filmmakers Kathreen Kavari and Jaevon Marshall spend talking about and hanging out by its side. The full circuit of the lake is about three miles, and you’ll know you are in great shape when you can walk it in under an hour.

Start at the pergola, at the corner of Lakeshore Avenue and El Embarcadero. You may see someone practicing tai chi or shadow boxing under its central dome or in the formal alley of polled sycamores nearby. Walk clockwise, along Lakeshore, where the path was recently repaired and landscaped with native plants.You’ll probably see long-necked cormorants and compact, black coots floating carelessly nearby.

But spare a glance, from time to time, for the elegant apartment buildings facing the lake. A few blocks past the pergola, on the side of the street facing the lake, is the Cleveland Cascade, a pleasant side trip or a chance to work on your quads by sprinting up the flights of steps. Neighbors are still restoring this water feature to its original glory, but even now, it offers a nice view of the lake and a shady spot to sit.

After you pass the surprisingly gaudy fishing pier near Lakeshore and East 18th Street, you enter a stretch where the major restoration project is still under way. The “lake” is really a tidal estuary, and the heavy equipment at East 12th Street is opening up its mouth to create a more natural flow and better conditions. The brand-new bridge and path across the channel replaced what once was the “world’s shortest freeway,” 12 lanes of pedestrian-unfriendly, uncontrolled traffic. (Update: The renovations between the 18th Street Pier and 12th Avenue are complete and make this end of the lake spectacular. are almost complete. As of Jan. 6, 2013, the sidewalk path is open and benches and landscaping are being installed. The wheelchair-accessible bridge across the estuary still hasn’t opened, however.)

Turning onto Lakeside Drive, you pass the Lake Chalet, a renovated boat house that is now downtown’s chic spot to stop for cocktails. To your left, across the street, you will see the massive and ornate Scottish Rite Temple, site of the Christmas Revels. Lakeside becomes Harrison as you pass the unusual, modern Catholic Cathedral of Christ the Light. The glass sanctuary is designed to use sunlight to paint a picture of Christ above the altar.

As you turn on Grand Avenue and enter the home stretch, you have some choices to make. If you stay on the street, you shorten your trip and pass a number of restaurants and cafes. If you keep to the shoreline path, you pass through Lakeside Park. Besides Children’s Fairyland, a delightfully non-commercial storybook park aimed at preschoolers, this area contains the Gardens at Lake Merritt Lakeside Demonstration Gardens, the Sailboat House (rentals and lessons available) and the Rotary Nature Center, one of the oldest wildlife sanctuaries in the country.

The totem pole outside the Rotary Nature Center

Totem pole outside the nature center.

You are likely to see night herons in the trees nearby, more cormorants nesting on the man-made islands offshore, and depending on the season, a variety of scaups, petrels, seagulls and ducks. If you have kids, bring some birdseed to feed the pigeons and spend some time at the Rotary Playground next door. Local artist Harkin Lucero carved the totem pole outside the nature center in the late 1990s.

The final landmark, along the shoreline path between the playground and the pergola, is an earthen labyrinth. Less mysterious than the ones in Sibley park, this one was installed as part of a public arts project in 1992.

Getting there: Although I started my walk at the pergola, various parts of Lake Merritt are accessible by car, bike, BART and bus.

Cool stuff nearby: In addition to the features mentioned in this post, there is a farmer’s market on Saturday mornings in Splash Pad Park at Grand Avenue and Lake Park Avenue, about two blocks from the pergola. The Grand Lake Theater is a classic picture palace that offers pre-movie organ concerts in the main theater on Friday and Saturday nights. Lakeshore and Grand Avenue offer a number of retail shops and restaurants.

More information: About Lakeside Park from the Oakland Parks and Recreation Department.

Accessibility note: The sidewalk on the newly renovated east side of the lake is accessible and in good repair. As construction on the 12th Avenue crossover is completed, the rest of the route should also become clear.

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4 thoughts on “No. 31: Lake Merritt

  1. Elise says:

    The Lakeside Demonstration Gardens are now known as the Gardens at Lake Merritt. This collection of gardens was named a top five public California Garden by AAA, and a best place to take a date by local CBS and Diablo Magazine.

  2. […] construction on 12th Street is finished, it should be easier to extend this walk along the lake. Future work on the channel will provide a better connection to Estuary Park and the Bay […]

  3. […] Lake Merritt entry has been updated to reflect that renovations between 18th Street and 12th Avenue are almost […]

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