My previous articles have invariably centered around hiking trails, both locally (Mt. Tamalpais, Mt. Diablo, Rancho San Antonio, etc.) and in the Lake Tahoe/Desolation Wilderness region. Sometimes however, whether because of time or transportation constraints, or perhaps just as a change of pace, it’s a unique experience to simply put on an explorer’s hat and walk around one’s neighborhood or town.
Today’s piece will be the first of a series centering on urban, or city walks. A recent Sunday afternoon found me at nearby Lake Merritt in Oakland, California. Some of the positives of urban trekking: no need for a backpack or hiking poles (although rubber tipped poles might be a help on certain steep San Francisco streets); depending on where you explore, if there are shops or cafes around, you don’t necessarily need to pack a lunch or carry water.
Urban trekking, of course, carries its own inherent risks and negatives. Traffic, noise, car exhaust, strollers, second hand smoke (both tobacco and ‘herbal’), and those dreadful smart phone zombies are the main ones that come to mind. With these, along with possible crowds, it’s important to approach city walks with a different mindset. While on a Mt. Tamalpais hike, you might not see another person for hours, around Lake Merritt, unless there’s a mass alien abduction, you will see people at every turn. If your goal is quiet meditation and contemplation, an urban hike might not be what the doctor ordered. Or it’ll at least be a challenge to your Zen-ness.
And do keep in mind that although the area around the lake is generally safe especially during the day, crime does exist. Being out alone at night is not recommended - although you can say that about many other places.
Specific to Lake Merritt, since it’s generally a loop, you can start at any point. If driving to the lake, parking can be a challenge at times, especially on the weekends. There is street parking, some metered, some not. Read the posted signs carefully or a $50 surprise will be waiting on your windshield when you return. Since there’s a lot to see and explore, this article will cover a small section along the northeast flank. Future installments will cover other sections.
If coffee is your fuel of choice, there are two good cafes near the ‘arches’ on El Embarcadero where this adventure starts. One is Café Lakeview on Lakeshore; the other is Merritt Station across the green on Grand Avenue (next to SF Fitness, formerly Gold’s Gym). First a bit of background on Lake Merritt: There is a fascinating and, at times, colorful history to the area and the lake itself, enough for a treatise. But since this column is about hiking, not history, here’s brief summary: Named for Dr. Samuel Merritt, a former Oakland mayor, the lake used to be an arm of San Francisco Bay. It was eventually dammed in the late 1860’s and turned into a lake. During less enlightened times before the damming, it was used as a sewer. In 1870 it became the first wildlife refuge in the country.
Its signature Necklace of Lights, featuring 126 decorative lampposts and more than 4,000 lights, was originally installed and lit in 1925, went dark and were removed from 1941 (World War II) until 1985, when they were reinstalled and relit. There have been various rounds of beautification, most recently in the past few years with funds from Measure DD. For more details about the history and other Lake Merritt facts, here are two good sources. 1) The official Oakland site; 2) Wikipedia.
Starting in a counter-clockwise direction from the archway on El Embarcadero (between Grand & Lakeshore), the graded dirt trail skirts the water. To the left, across the lake, you can see the beautiful Our Lady of Lourdes Church. The trail along this side of the lake ducks in and out of the shade of pine and oak trees. As Grand Avenue curves away towards downtown, the area to the right of the trail begins to feature grassy hillocks and you’ll invariably see people lounging, picnicking, studying, romancing or just napping in the sun and shade.
Dominating the view to the right, and a visible landmark from much of the lake is the stunning Bellevue-Staten Building, an Art Deco/Spanish Colonial architectural gem that towers over the surrounding buildings and landscape. It’s an apartment/condo building that sits at the far end of a knob of neighborhood (Bellevue Avenue) jutting south of Grand Ave.
For explorers intent on completing the 3.4-mile loop around the lake quickly, the most challenging part of the walk is next for there's a high density of distractions over the next half mile. To the left, in the lake are several man-made islands – nature and bird refuges – protected from boaters by a line of floating booms. On shore, there’s a protective cage for injured or at-risk birds.
There’s a playground for children on the right. Next is the Rotary Nature Center, with its handsome totem in front, and the Junior Center of Art and Science further on. Once again, on the water side of the trail is the Sailboat House/Lake Merritt Boating Center, where boats and other vessels are rented and various classes are offered.
Continuing past the boathouse, on the opposite side of Bellevue Avenue are The Gardens at Lake Merritt, where my own tour slowed down and essentially ground to a halt. The Gardens are a wonderful collection of just shy of a dozen distinct sections, spread over 7 acres, and maintained by city gardeners and a dedicated crew of volunteers. There are many choice spots to sit and enjoy the quiet, to meditate, read, bird watch, to wander the paths, or just savor the remains of your coffee. Personal favorite: the shaded benches of the Japanese Garden. A close second is the Bonsai collection where volunteer docents watch over the grounds.
Once finished in the garden, the hiker can continue around the lake or double back towards the starting point. There are dozens of restaurants and cafes nearby, notably Coach Sushi and Sidebar, both on Grand Avenue. There are more restaurants and shops on Lakeshore Avenue in the direction of the Trestle Glen neighborhood.
In the next entry of the Urban Hike series, I’ll cover the next segment of the trail leading in the direction of Harrison Street and downtown, including Children's Fairyland.