Keep Oakland Beautiful Point Of Interest: Lake Merritt.

Keep Oakland Beautiful Points of Interest remind us of how interesting and beautiful Oakland is and why we should care about protecting it. Please click on the photos to enlarge and clarify them.


Located just east of downtown Oakland and west of the Oakland Hills, Lake Merritt is one of Oakland’s jewels. Previously known as Lake Peralta, Lake Merritt is not technically a ‘lake’ – it’s actually called a ‘tidal lagoon’ since it’s connected by a channel to the Oakland Estuary and San Francisco Bay.

The ‘lake’ has not always been beautiful. As Oakland grew in the mid-19th century, the lake was treated as a sewer. Former Mayor Dr. Samuel Merritt, who owned land on the lake’s shore, proposed and funded a dam between the estuary and the bay to control the flow of water, allowing the lake level to rise and its water to become less saline. Other Oakland projects dealt with the sewage issue. Over time, the quality of the lake’s water improved.

Because the lake was still surrounded by wetlands, it was home to flocks of migrating birds that moved up and down the Pacific coast. To stop hunters from firing their guns so close to the growing city, Dr. Merritt proposed establishing the lake as a wildlife reserve. In 1870, the California legislature voted to found the Lake Merritt Nature Reserve, thus creating the first wildlife refuge in the United States.

Despite its status as a wildlife refuge, mansions began to spring up around the lake. However, in the first decade of the 20th century, these mansions were torn down. Today, only the ornate Camron-Stanford House (1418 Lakeside Drive) remains. For further details about this historic Victorian home, please refer to the blog, Keep Oakland Beautiful Point Of Interest: Camron-Stanford House, posted on August 7, 2014.

In 1925, the famed ‘Necklace of Lights’ was strung around the three-plus mile circumference of Lake Merritt, with strands of over 4,000 white lights draped around the lake on 126 lampposts (Note: Unbelievably, two years ago, thieves stole 40,000 feet of copper wire used in the Necklace of Lights. At a cost of $45,000 to $60,000, the replacement of the missing light sections is occurring, segment by segment).


As urban sprawl continued to encroach upon Lake Merritt during the first half of the 1900s, a lot of the area immediately around the lake was converted to parkland, pathways, and roads. The wetlands that used to ring the lake disappeared.

Throughout the latter part of the 20th century and into the 21st, Oakland’s population increased and more and more buildings crowded around the lakeside. As a consequence, more and more trash and pollution entered the lake, directly through the city’s storm drains. To combat this, a nonprofit organization and numerous volunteer groups frequently remove trash from the lake.

In 2013, an effort commenced to restore the channel and marshland connecting Lake Merritt to the Oakland Estuary. This reclamation project is already delivering dividends as the Lake Merritt ecosystem continues to improve. River otters have even been seen coming up the channel and entering the lake.

Today, Lake Merritt is a favorite walking and jogging spot for Oaklanders. Ringing the lake is the Lake Merritt Rowing Club, Lake Merritt Sailboat House, Lake Merritt Boating Center, Lake Chalet Seafood Bar & Grill, Children’s Fairyland, Lakeside Park Garden Center, The Gardens at Lake Merritt, GSBF Bonsai Garden at Lake Merritt, and other adjacent activities. You might even glimpse a Venetian gondola (Gondola Servizio) being slowly poled across the lake while the gondolier serenades his passengers in Italian. And the views of Oakland and the Oakland Hills from various points around the lake are fantastic.


Given its location along the Pacific flyway, a major migration route for birds, the lake is frequented by white and brown pelicans, Canada geese, greater and lesser scaup, cormorants, herons, egrets, and many other species of birds. The Rotary Nature Center, near the north end of the lake (600 Bellevue Ave), is a good place to observe and learn about the local wildlife. When the Center is open, naturalists are available to answer questions.

Lake Merritt is an Oakland gem and we need to continue to work together to polish it and keep it beautiful.

Keeping Oakland Beautiful is everybody’s business.

We encourage you to share your thoughts in the reply section. We welcome the dialogue and learning of others’ perspectives.

No comments yet.

Leave a Reply