San Francisco – Everyday Insider! (TM) Trip 17

I am sharing San Francisco’s famous 49 Mile Drive with you, dear reader, as it contains many unusual choices which tourists are not usually aware of. These are great places to meet local people. Lake Merced is one of those places!

Nestled among the City’s hills, Lake Merced’s fresh waters offer boating and trout fishing within the city limits of San Francisco!

Lake Merced is the City’s only freshwater lake and it is located in the southwest corner of San Francisco. It is now surrounded by three golf courses: (the private Olympic Club and San Francisco Golf Club, and the public Harding Park Golf Club where you can picnic, at the entrance). Its shore incorporates upscale residential areas like the 1940’s high-rise Park Merced complex, Lowell High School (the intellectual “magnet” school), San Francisco State University, Fort Funston** and the cliffs and beach of the Pacific Ocean.

The area will be busy for the week in 2011 when the US Open Golf Championship will be hosted at the Olympic Club.

Unfortunately, the peacefulness around Lake Merced is also sometimes shattered by the S.F.P.D. shooting range, as well as a skeet shooting club; inexplicably, the city’s National Guard armory is also in the area.

More in keeping, the lake is the home lake of Pacific Rowing Club, which is a competitive rowing program for San Francisco high school students.


Once it was home to the Ohlone band of California Native Americans. When the Spanish came, the lake and surrounding land  was “owned” by Francisco De Haro, first Alcalde of Yerba Buena, as part of the Galindo ranch.

The Spring Valley Water Company bought the water rights for the Lake in 1868, and the surrounding watershed in successive years.  By purchasing all local supply, the company created a monopoly on San Francisco’s water; as with any monopoly of a vital resource, it needed to be broken. 

But, it was not until 1908, when the city approved construction of O’Shaughnessy Dam creating the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in the Sierra Nevada mountain range, that the city gained municipal control. San Francisco’s water exclusively still comes from the pristine waters of Hetch Hetchy, coming hundreds of miles across Central California.

Prior to the construction of the high Sierra dam, Lake Merced was to serve as the city’s main reservoir, with plans to expand the lake into land that is now the San Francisco State University.

Instead, no large reservoir was made, so today the students and community are able to use Lake Merced and its 4.2 mile flat running trail for recreation. You can too!

People walk, jog ***, roller-blade, watch birds, picnic, rent a boat and fish for trout and bass from the shore.

There’s also exercise stations at points around the lake with pull-ups bars (working your biceps, lats, upper back, forearms, shoulders), dip bars (mainly triceps and a little chest), benches for doing leg lifts (lower abdominals), monkey bars (biceps, shoulders, etc.). All these stations give you a complete body workout if you know what you are doing.

Often times the lake is shrouded in mist or fog for part of the day, so it is a refreshing, calm spot to just hang out in, especially in summer.

The lake is fed by an underground spring, and at one time it did have an outlet to the ocean which is part of the lake system at the San Francisco Zoo and former Fleischhacker Pool, next door.

The salt level in Lake Merced was always fluctuating, and therefore some species of fish which inhabit the lake are both salt and freshwater adapted.

Unfortunately, due to over-use of the lake’s water and aquifer by the 3 surrounding golf-courses, from 1980 – mid 1990s, the lake’s water level had been shrinking, endangering the historic role of Lake Merced to support a healthy ecosystem.

Finally, at the eleventh hour, municipal and community groups stepped in to monitor and manage the lake’s resources better, and in the past decade, water levels are returning enough to help the lake be healthier.

The future is hopeful for Lake Merced, as the same group which brought back Mono Lake in Yosemite’s high Sierra is now involved with saving Lake Merced.

The Mono Lake case also set a new legal precedent for protecting the public trust. Progress has been made at Lake Merced thanks to Cal Trout’s clout. Draining of the water table (aquifer) has been reduced by 75% and the gathered storm water will now be partially diverted into the lakes.

How to get there:

This is way out on the edge of the city, so a Muni Bus ride from downtown on the M-line (which goes to Stonestown Shopping Center*), or the L-line (which goes to the Zoo, near Sloat Boulevard) can take a while.

If you’re driving, parking is easy inside Harding Park, and there is some limited parking directly off of Skyline Boulevard, at the entry paths to Fort Funston**.You can find Lake Merced on the other side of the Fort Funston cliffs (so be prepared for a climb). Harding Park Golf Course separates the north and south sections of the Lake. You can enter via Skyline Boulevard or via public transportation down to San Francisco State University (near Stonestown).

Lake Merced
1 Harding Road, San Francisco, CA 94132

Nearby recommended restaurants (within 1 mile) include: Bangkok House Thai Cuisine, Just Won Ton, Marco Polo.

* Stonestown Galleria Shopping Center is off of 19th Avenue, east of Lake Merced, with transportation links to SF Stae University.

** Fort Funston is a remote, windy, oceanside playground for off-leash dogs and hang gliders, along with WW1 and WW2 batteries. It became a National Park in 1963. Personally, I’m not interested. But it served to help protect the West Coast of the US, if you are a history buff. For much easier access to the beach, head for Ocean Beach off the Great Highway.

*** joggers need to know that unless they go early in the morning, some parts of the trail are close to the street, so there is vehicle exhaust. Other places to consider for a long jog are: Golden Gate Park, the Presidio, Chrissy Field or on the wet sand along Ocean Beach off the Great Highway, north of Sloat Blvd. down to Cliff House and back.

See more in the 49 Mile Scenic Drive series!

San Francisco Archive

©2010 mystic at Travel Vacation Review

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