The Wonders of Oakland’s Lake Merritt

By Marta Yamamoto, Special to the Planet
Tuesday January 15, 2008

Snowy egrets and coal-black cormorants roosting in trees—in Oakland? Hansel and Gretel along with the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe, brought to life with a Magic Key—in Oakland? A Daimyo Oak Bonsai, in cultivation since Abraham Lincoln’s term as President—in Oakland? Venetian gondolas gliding across sparkling waters under fairy lights—in Oakland? Discover these wonders and more, in Oakland’s Lakeside Park at Lake Merritt. 

Lake Merritt is man-made, a combo of fresh and salt water. Covering 155 acres, it’s a delightful focal point smack in the middle of urban Oakland. Thanks go to Dr. Samuel Merritt who donated dammed tidal water from the headwaters of Indian Slough for its creation. As part of well-maintained Lakeside Park, it’s a welcome oasis of green with expansive lawns and shade-giving trees, offering a host of possibilities to add fun to any day of the week. 

After a long absence, I rediscovered Lake Merritt on a crisp, brilliantly sunny Saturday morning. The park and most of its inhabitants were in a mellow mood. It wasn’t too early for enthusiasts cruising the level, paved 3.4-mile path around the lake. A mixed bag of joggers, walkers and cyclists passed across my field of vision. All ages, solo, in pairs and small groups, chatting, attached to cell phone or iPod, attired in the latest techno fitness garb, comfortable sweats or everyday wear, they circled the perimeter, not even pausing to partake of appealing lake-view benches. 

Being on a fact-finding mission, I set out to investigate the activities on hand and was drawn to the least mellow area of the park, the Wildlife Refuge. A cacophony of bird conversations filled the air—shrills, cries, honks and coos—a just representation of the wealth of bird life inhabiting two islands and the lakeside refuge. A population surge of Canada geese, not satisfied with only one settlement area, roamed everywhere in the park. More selective avians restricted themselves to occupying island tree-side perches. Fan-like white plumage marked nestled egrets while cormorants masquerading as black-clad sentinels staked out the highest branches. 

A National Historic Landmark and the nation’s oldest wildlife refuge, the mixture of tributary fresh water and tidal salt water provides seasonal and permanent homes to birds, fish and invertebrates. Much of this wildlife is well represented inside the Rotary Science Center, aiming to bring people and nature together learning about estuary ecology. The faces of three school-age boys didn’t move far from the glass fronting a buzzing beehive on the day of my visit. I was more interested in the wall-length display of bird life and a case full of skulls within this rustic, but informative center. 

Outside, young children focused their interest on the pint-size playground, all bright colors, wood and molded plastic, atop a sand base perfect for digging and building. Turquoise slide, purple bars, yellow rings and lavender fire pole like delicious candies waiting to be sampled. What birds? 

My next stop was the Boating Center, where aquatic choices for multiple visits lay in wait. Whether you fancy sailing an El Toro, windsurfing, kayaking, paddling a canoe, rowing a boat or exercising your feet with a paddleboat, this would be the right place. And the next time you need to impress that special someone, what could be more romantic than a moonlight gondola ride? Who needs Italy? 

In the Demonstration Gardens I was greeted with a placard announcing composting classes and another signifying this as a Bay Friendly Garden. Appearing as a work-in-progress, there was plenty here to please the eye and tingle those green thumbs. Well-defined paths wander among mature growth and newly planted beds. Among the eclectic combinations thrive fuchsias, cacti, lilies, herbs and palms. In the raised vegetable beds of artichoke, Swiss chard and arugula, I was cheered by the profusion of sweet peas in reds, pinks and violets, as well as bright yellow marigolds. 

A peaceful haven surrounds the koi pond where the soothing sounds of cascading water, orange bird-of-paradise, blue agapanthus, and an orange Torii Gate dedicated to the memory of Frank Ogawa abide. A mallard couple almost hidden on the banks agreed. 

the banks agreed. 

Within the grounds of the Lakeside Garden Center, behind a traditional wood fence capped in steel-gray is located another tranquil refuge, the Bonsai Garden. Over 100 bonsai and suiseki of amazing quality and beauty are lovingly displayed on raised wood platforms in the setting of a simple Japanese garden. Coast live oak, Monterey cypress, Chinese quince, shrunken in an Alice-in-Wonderland world yet perfect in form and detail, rest among a dry riverbed and stone ornaments. Along with the gift to Lincoln’s Ambassador to China, I admired a trident maple, identical to a park-side shade tree, yet only three feet tall. 

Saturday morning was too early to see action at the Lawn Bowling Greens, but the rectangles of neatly trimmed lawn bordered by benches appeared poised for future matches. At the Edoff Memorial Bandstand music was a faint memory, perhaps still heard by the gentleman practicing tai chi. Even without a concert, this 1923 multi-columned platform topped with a red tiled roof trimmed in coppery patina is a handsome sight. 

Ahead a stream of strollers and wide-eyed toddlers all seemed to be heading in one direction, the music of the calliope, a Pied Piper drawing them forth. I caught up with them at the Shoe, the one with so many children, and the entrance of Children’s Fairyland, around since 1950. What child could resist a magic kingdom where beloved stories and imagination come to life, where gentle farm animals await their attention, where adults are not admitted unless accompanied by children? 

Saturday morning was not too early for action here. The line was long; birthday party guests were arriving in pastel dresses and white Mary Janes and the child-sized Ferris wheel’s enclosed cages were slowly rotating. Though paint colors may have faded, the magic remains. 

In 1925, 126 lampposts with 3,400 bulbs lit up the circumference of Lake Merritt for the first time. Any visit is incomplete without following this Necklace of Lights. Glancing from the blue expanse toward buildings fronting the lake, one notes the presence of Oakland’s past through its architecture: bas-reliefs and carved moldings on stately stucco and brick, brimming flower boxes reflecting the park’s natural setting, a curved edifice with aqua tinted glass carrying the water skyward, high rise businesses with faceless windows and smooth lines. 

From park settings to open expanses, the circle of lights leads you. Sample the benches, sit and take in aqua depths, great cityscapes, joyous fountains, feasting Canada geese and fellow outdoor enthusiasts. Egrets, cormorants, gondolas, bonsai, Cinderella, fairy lights. In Oakland? Yes, making Lake Merritt much more than the sum of its parts.  




Lakeside Park/Lake Merritt:  

Lakeside Drive, Oakland. 


Rotary Science Center 

600 Bellevue Ave. 238 3738 


Lake Merritt Boating Center 

568 Bellevue Ave. 238 2196 


Lakeside Demonstration Gardens 

666 Bellevue Ave. 238 2197. 


Bonsai Garden 

666 Bellevue Ave. 763-8409. 


Lawn Bowling Greens 

660 Bellevue Ave. 625 9937. 


Children’s Fairyland 

699 Bellevue Ave, 452 2259.  




Photograph by Marta Yamamoto. 

Oakland’s Lake Merritt is home to many different kinds of birds.