Lake Merritt

The Crown Jewel of Oakland

Lake Merritt is the epicenter of Oakland. Affectionately referred to as the city’s “crown jewel,” the Lake is to Oakland what Central Park is to New York, and the National Mall is to Washington DC. It is Oakland’s aesthetic and spiritual heart—a place where residents from all corners of the city come together. Walk around the lake on a warm weekend afternoon and you will “get” what this city is all about.

The Lake was originally a tidal lagoon. In 1868, Mayor Samuel Merritt had a dam built at one end, separating the lagoon from the Oakland Estuary and San Francisco Bay. Two years later, the lake was designated the first official wildlife refuge in the United States. In the 1890s and early 1900s, the wetlands were dredged and the lake took its current form. Inspired by the City Beautiful movement, Oakland leaders created Lakeside Park on the northern Adams Point side of the lake, and created a perimeter greenway along the shoreline. Ornate homes and apartment buildings were built along Lakeshore Avenue on the east side and Lakeside Drive on the west.

The lake itself covers 140 acres, and is 8 to 10 feet deep in most places. During the last few decades, Oakland residents have invested hundreds of millions of dollars to clean the lake, restore its landscaping, and create a more welcoming environment for pedestrians. The 3.2-mile perimeter trail around the lake has never been more popular. It offers panoramic vistas of the city and the hills, great people watching, and plenty of places to soak up the sun and learn about local flora and fauna. In the evening, the historic “Necklace of Lights” illuminates the edges of the lake, creating a sophisticated urban streetscape.

While the major draw at Lake Merritt is the shoreline promenade, Lakeside Park offers experiences for persons of all ages. It includes a vintage theme park called Children’s Fairyland, a boathouse (now under renovation), a botanical garden, and the Rotary Nature Center and bird-watching area. The park also includes a scenic pergola, an fountain, a historic bandstand, an earthen maze, and numerous lawns and seating areas. Bellevue Drive is the main road through the park, with access from Grand Avenue.

The perimeter of the lake includes some of Oakland’s best known attractions, along with some hidden gems. The northwest end of the lake abuts Uptown Oakland. The iconic Kaiser Center, a 28-story tower known for its massive curved façade, is a hallmark of mid-century design. The building’s five-story parking garage features one of the largest rooftop gardens in the country. Its 3.5 acres of lawns, ponds, and pathways are open to the public and a great place for a brown bag lunch or morning coffee. Adjacent to the Kaiser Center is the Cathedral of Christ the Light, Oakland’s ultra-modern Roman Catholic Cathedral. Step inside and prepare to be inspired.

Further south on Lakeside Drive, a number of prominent buildings face the lake. These include several local historic landmark apartment towers, the Scottish Rite Temple, the Alameda County Courthouse, and the Camron-Stanford House, built in 1876. At the “south” end of the lake, the historic Henry J. Kaiser Convention Center, built in 1914, is a beaux arts masterpiece. The renowned Oakland Museum is just adjacent.

But most of all, come to the Lake to walk. Depending on your pace, it takes about an hour to do the loop, and it will be the best hour you spend in Oakland (outside the conference, of course).

How to get to Lake Merritt:

  • On foot or bicycle: Head east along 14th Street. It is an easy 10 minute walk to the “base” of the Lake from the Marriott. If you choose to jog or run, the perimeter trail is almost entirely paved and level for your pleasure.

Lake Merritt skyline

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Pergola and Colonnade

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Cathedral of Christ the Light

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Camron-Stanford House

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Lake Chalet

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bird sanctuary

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Guide by Don Bradley and Barry Miller

Photos by Jackie Yang

Demographics

  • Nearly 2,000 Canada geese during the peak migratory month of July
  • Up to 200 cormorants (seasonal)
  • Over 300 mallard ducks (seasonal)
  • Over 100 snowy egrets (seasonal)
  • 30 species of fish, including an elusive stingray
  • The “Oak-ness Monster,” a mysterious sea creature rumored to inhabit the murky waters
  • Source: 2002 Lake Merritt Bird Survey

Highlights

  • Walk the paved perimeter trail and enjoy picturesque views of Oakland.
  • Visit Children’s Fairyland, a 10-acre theme park for the under 10 crowd.  Walt Disney visited here before designing Disneyland, which opened in 1955.
  • The 1925 Necklace of Lights is a superb sight to see 3,400 bulbs burn bright at night. The lights were turned off for “blackout” during World War II and not illuminated again until 1987.
  • Find the secret escalators to the Kaiser Roof Garden.
  • Visit the ultra modern crypt beneath the steel and glass Cathedral of Christ the Light.
  • Ascend the 1923 Cleveland Cascade staircase on Lakeshore Avenue (an excellent workout!).
  • See the Gardens at Lake Merritt, a 7-acre collection of themed gardens.
  • View the 1929 art deco Bellevue-Staten building and the ornate Victorian Camron-Stanford House, both National Register landmarks.
  • Enjoy a cocktail or dinner at the Lake Chalet, a remodeled boathouse and dock.

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